"You all have learner's permits, right?" Donato Pinto asks his class at Sharkey's Auto School in Greenpoint. "You need them to take this class." The students nod their heads. A typical first-day spiel in driver's ed -- except Pinto's trainees aren't a bunch of pimple-faced teens intent on denting Mom and Dad's SUV. They're adults. Like the other thousands of New Yorkers each year who forget to renew their licenses, lose them after DWI convictions, neglect to transfer ones from out of state, let their insurance lapse, or get caught drag-racing, tonight's students have reverted to novice-driver status in the DMV's eyes and have been tossed back into the unpleasant and long-forgotten world of learner's permits, manuals, and three-point turns.
Ben White, creative director of the hip-hop Website Platform Network, let his California driver's license expire without swapping it for a New York one. At first the situation didn't look too bad. "I got twenty out of twenty on the learner's-permit test," White boasts. "Of course, the questions were like 'Should you drink and drive?' " Things quickly took a turn for the worse, though. "Once I learned what the process is," he moans, "it was a nightmare." Ultimately, White's mistake cost him five hours' classroom time, a $40 course fee, $41 in registration costs, and the humiliation of proving his parallel-parking skills for the first time since high school.
It's not just out-of-staters who get punished for inattention to deadlines: The DMV is notoriously bad at keeping abreast of nomadic New Yorkers' changing addresses. And once typical automobile-free city dwellers are too old to get carded, they may never glance at their license expiration dates.
State law requires that high-school-age students take their more extensive driver's-ed course at school, so students in classes like this one tend to be adults. But just as in high school, a captive audience, young or old, brings out the zealot in some people. "Who is responsible for what is happening out there, good or bad?" Pinto asks, clutching a red pointer in one hand and a wireless mouse in the other. "Drivers! And who are the drivers? We are! God made you an individual who can decide for yourself how to act!" Pinto clicks a mouse button and the video monitor to his right fills with the words what is the highway transportation system? in black type -- and a Polish translation in red.
"Do we have to pay extra for the Polish lesson?" asks a late-arriving student who's taken a peanut-gallery position in the back of the classroom. Pinto rolls his eyes and says nothing: It's no wonder that, with an outlook so heavy on personal responsibility, he takes a dim view of latecomers. He's already explained that in this heavily Polish corner of Brooklyn, his lack of Slavic skills was once a serious pedagogical impediment -- so he got a friend to translate his PowerPoint presentation.
As Pinto moves through his well-honed Roberto Benigni- esque bit, he manages to touch on physics, psychology, ethics, and sociology: "Do you consider dancing a social activity?" he asks with a flourish of the mouse. "What about baseball? Now, how about driving?"
For at least some unlucky souls, there is an alternative to all this. "I suppose," White realizes too late, "I could have just flown back to L.A. and renewed my license there."