Community Perspective: Driving on Coney Island Avenue

A community perspectives piece by Anna Rose Geary

I was 24 years old and still didn’t know how to drive.  I told myself I didn’t want to learn to drive because I knew that I would kill myself. Besides, my father’s car had been stolen five times from his parking spot across the street near the gas station and the last time the police found it, he told them to keep it.  He didn’t want it anymore. Too many dents.  So, I didn’t even have a car to practice on if, for some reason, I had to take lessons. Well, the time had come when I had to.

 I lived on a highly trafficked street, Avenue Z, in Brooklyn, NY.  Imagine living on a street named for the last letter of the alphabet!  Not very promising. In fact, a loser street.  And what street came after Avenue Z? Voorhies Avenue and then Sheepshead Bay and the ocean. Ocean Avenue, aptly named, led right to the docks and the Bay.  If you couldn’t see the docks at night or in the fog and made a wrong turn, the car could jump the sidewalk and wind up in the water. Not good for a potential driver. 

The church was a block away, the limousine rental store was downstairs, under the bedroom of my apartment, with all those cigar and cigarette smoking, cussing, middle aged, fat guys, and the funeral parlor was on the next corner.  I envisioned that if I got into a car to drive on Avenue Z, and made just one little mistake, I could wind up in the drink, get hauled out of the Bay by the police and eventually the out-sized limousine guys would drive my body to the funeral parlor, after which I would be carried into the church and my poor parents would bury me and never see me again. They would be devasted; but my mother would also be absolutely furious! 

 I was engaged to be married!  My mother had to forego getting a new furnace for our house for winter because of my wedding. She had spent a fortune at Abraham & Strauss Department Store in downtown Brooklyn on the wedding dress with the six- foot train and the veil with clouds of tulle, made with ecru Alencon lace and tiny seed pearls for which we had to wait four months because it was shipped from France; and then another fortune was spent on the wedding hall with the promised ice swans, mechanized, palpitating, heart-shaped display for the chicken liver pate’, and the gold-plated table settings. No, I couldn’t learn to drive from my second cousin Tony (who had unpaid parking tickets and some DUI’s) because I would probably make big mistakes and then die in an accident. I was in a panic.  The way I saw things, I had to learn to drive well from someone professional.   I was moving to Virginia, a place with no subways and no buses.  The end of the world! I was not staying in NYC forever and I did not want to die in a car and be buried in my virginal wedding gown!

One day, I looked in the Brooklyn yellow pages phone book and found a driving school at nearby Coney Island Avenue and Avenue U.  I knew I had to take the plunge; I booked a series of lessons with someone who was a science teacher who taught driving after school. That seemed safe enough.  I figured he had to be a fairly patient person because a teacher needs to have patience, especially with slow learners.  So, on a Friday in September, Scott B showed up at my apartment building at 4 pm, ready to start me off on a new way of life.  He was a nice-looking guy, probably in his mid- 30’s, with light brown hair and blue eyes, ready to teach me the essentials of driving.

The first thing I noticed before I got into the white Chevy Malibu was that it didn’t have a sign showing the name of the driving school.  It was unmarked. Uh oh, I got nervous. When I asked Scott why no sign, he said that we should not use a marked car.  Other drivers would steer their vehicles away from me and I wouldn’t have a TRUE experience of driving. Hmm, it made sense, so I went along with it.  The car did have double brakes though, so when I started to drive and floated toward cars parked by the curb, Scott put his brakes on.  Well, that seemed very safe. The first two lessons were uneventful.  We drove around the waterfront area and I didn’t smash into the dock, nor the cars, nor the people.  The third attempt, however, was a very different experience.

When Scott showed up at 4 pm, he was very friendly and talkative.  To make conversation, he asked me why I had waited so long to learn to drive.  I told him my father’s car had been stolen five times and that we were always in-between cars and my dad couldn’t let me borrow his car when he did have one because he needed it to get to work.   I was moving to Virginia and there were no subways nor buses so I had to learn now.  He looked horrified!  No subways, no buses!  Why are you going there in the first place?  I was engaged, I told him, as he could plainly see the diamond on my fourth finger, and that’s where the job was.  “You’ll regret it,” he said, shaking his head thoughtfully.  “So far away from New York—no Broadway shows, no theater, no opera, no concerts, no museums! There will be nothing to do!”  By the time we got through all of that, we were on Coney Island Avenue.

Coney Island Avenue is enormous!  It goes for miles with four to six lanes of traffic and always has a fleet of NYC buses tooling up and down, as well as cars and taxis inches apart from each other.  Horns are blaring constantly and there is always shouting in the street. (People don’t just talk in New York.  They shout and yell, because they want to be heard over the street racket.)  Stores on both sides of the Avenue sell everything from clothes, to hardware equipment, to kosher and non-kosher foods, to flowers and to cars.  There are used and new car dealerships everywhere, and people are always double and triple parked, trying out cars. 

By this time, we were in the 4:30 PM rush hour traffic and Scott told me to pull into the lane behind the bus.  Very cautiously, I put the left signal on and slid into the lane where he directed me.  There was a long line of people waiting at the up-coming bus stop so I needed to keep moving.  I put the signal on again and Scott told me to check the rear-view mirror to see when I could move.  This was the first lesson on the rear-view mirror!  OMG, I couldn’t take my eyes off the road.  My eyes felt frozen straight ahead.  He repeated louder that I needed to check the mirror and then move over.  By this time the horns were blasting and my whole body froze.  I couldn’t move my arms to turn the wheel!  The whole street seemed to erupt into a series of raucous horns.  Cars stopped around me. Windows rolled down and mean looking faces yelled, “Move! Move!”   Then Scott muttered: “That’s it!” He tore open the door and jumped out, right there in the middle of Coney Island Avenue and, throwing his arms up in the air, yelled at the top of his voice: “She’s learning how to drive, People! Give her a chance!”  And emitting from all the cars came a river of expletives, most starting with the letter F.  

Scott jumped back into the car and calmly said, “Let’s go! Move.” I tremulously breathed: “What about the rearview mirror?”  

“I’m the mirror now,” he gruffly answered, “and I’m TELLING YOU TO MOVE!”

  I unfroze and hit the gas.

“Oh Scott, what just happened back there?” I cried. I was shaking as though I had the DT’s. 

“Don’t worry, kid,” he said.  “That’s part of learning to drive in NYC.  You have to handle the crowds. Just honk and yell back and you’ll be fine.”

  We slowly made our way to Avenue Z and Ocean Avenue, ten city blocks that seemed to go on for an eternity. I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to learn to drive anymore.  Maybe my future husband could drive me everywhere we needed to go in Virginia. That option seemed so much better.

When we finally reached my apartment building, I timidly asked Scott why he was a driving teacher. He looked me straight in the eye and said one word: “Furniture.”  

“What? What is he talking about?” I wondered.  I didn’t want to intrude in his personal affairs, but I had to ask what he meant. 

 “My wife wants new furniture.  We got married five years ago and she said she’s tired of hand-me -down furniture.”  Emotionally raising his voice and shaking his head, he continued. “I just know my mother-in-law put her up to it!  Where am I going to get money for a whole apartment of new furniture on a teacher’s salary? I can’t hold up a bank!   So, here I am, teaching you and others to drive.  You are IT – my new furniture!”

He winked, popped a cigarette between his lips, stuck his arm out the Malibu window, laughed and waved good-bye.   “OK, kid, see you Friday at 4 PM.  Side-view mirrors next time.  Coney Island Avenue!”

Anna Rose Geary is a retired teacher of social studies and a reading specialist for Staunton City Schools.  She has lived in Harrisonburg since 1971, but is originally from Brooklyn, NY. 

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