On a recent Thursday afternoon at the corner of 86th and Park, a 2021 Honda Accord idles, knee-high with bumpers. Inside, barely, is a compact 60-year-old Guyanese woman with a touch of hasty pink lipstick wearing a Calvin Klein sweatshirt. This is Shanti Gooljar, and this is her fiefdom. Shanti (she only refers to herself by her first name, so I must too) has, over the past two decades, all but cornered the driving instruction market for the city’s teenage elite , commanding a privileged strip which stretches from Brearley and Spence on the East Side to Heschel and Columbia Prep on the west and north to Fieldston and Horace Mann. “I locked them all away,” Shanti said.
It’s an oft-honked truth that Manhattan kids are the only kids in the country who don’t learn to drive by default. The subway goes everywhere, the partner parents are too busy, and instead of a nearby Walmart parking lot to train, there is a parallel parking lot. But especially for teenagers raised by nannies and pushed for academic success by tutors, outsourcing is always an option. Shanti became the go-to prep school by accident. She had been teaching for a decade when, around 2005, she met a Trinity student. “That girl gave my phone number to the whole Trinity class,” she said. “And my phone started exploding.” In the years that followed, Shanti’s name was passed down from friend to friend. “Learning how to drive in new york is a rite of passage,” Serena Kerrigan, a Fieldston graduate turned social media personality, tells me. “But only if you use Shanti.”
Shanti owns the Empire State Driving School, where she employs a handful of other instructors, but she is the one many students demand. Sometimes it’s their prominent parents who call, sometimes the parents’ assistants and sometimes the nannies, but most of the time the kids reach out to arrange two-hour lessons (Shanti doesn’t believe in less) for $200 each. Hiring him means being in the know and paying for the best, even if his rates aren’t much higher than those of his competitors. “I am Shanti! ” she tells me. “I could make $200 an hour. But I wouldn’t do that. I don’t want to be greedy. (As a shrewd self-promoter, she insisted that ESDS’s number appear in this article, and here it is: 212-706-1078.)
Shanti seems to know everyone who is anyone but can’t drive yet, and she doesn’t mind a bit of gossip. “Do you know Hamish Bowles? she asks as soon as I slide into her driver’s seat. “Do you know that he wrote an article about me in vogue magazine? I have the article. (It’s in the trunk, and it’s from 2013.)
But to really know Shanti, I had to learn from Shanti. I too grew up in Manhattan and was able to use the lesson. Once we’re on the road, Shanti kicks off her shoes and asks me to drive to a Dunkin’ on 122nd Street for her afternoon coffee. She has eagle eyes in her own rearview mirror, ready with her own brake and unflinching with her salty wisdom. Yellow lights should be passed if possible or you risk a rear end. The turns should be rolled in gracefully – you never know who’s crossing against the light, staring into their phone.
But a drive with Shanti is not only an education in the rules of the road; it is an immersion in the interconnected streams of the elite. As she’s happy to tell you, various descendants of the Chetrit and Ashkenazy (real estate developer families), Katie Couric, Jerry Seinfeld, David Remnick, Lorne Michaels, and Rupert Murdoch and Wendi Deng passed through her car on the way. to (and in some cases upon return to) adjacent Ivy and Ivy Colleges. Charley, niece of Kenneth Cole, is the one who got Shanti on TikTok (@shantiontheroad) and filmed his first video; Kerrigan commented, “Girls who get it, get it.” Shanti’s fleece jacket, a gift from a happy parent, is embroidered with the NBC News logo. “Do you know the Zuckers? He was CNN,” she said. “His son, Andrew” – a Shanti alum – “went to Harvard. I got a lot of stuff from CNN…” She pauses dramatically. “Oh my God. In fact, I’m teaching one of the kids now. I forgot everything about him. I have an active Zucker right now!
Shanti lives, as she has since immigrating to the United States at age 11, in the Bronx. She graduated from (public) school there and met her husband, Vinny, there and they raised two sons (who have since made their way to Connecticut and Florida). Meanwhile, his clients disappear for the Bahamas during spring break and out of the country for Christmas. “Always in a different country,” she says. “I know when the season is good and when the season is bad, where they go and what they do. I’m used to it, you know.
We outfit Frederick Douglass, then drive through Harlem, a route she often takes her students on. Some are surprised. “Shanti, where are we? was asked recently, she reports. “I’m like, ‘This is how the other half lives. She had never seen anything like it. Isn’t that something? Stopped at a traffic light, she instantly goes from commentary to instruction. “Come up, baby. Get on, get on,” she says. “Stop. Get off? Turn. Turn again. Now gas. Then we go and she’s happy. “That’s my female dog!
His undiluted persona works for his students. “They think I’m a teenager like them,” Shanti says. “That’s why they like to be with me.” She declines invitations to hang out or go to the Hamptons, but she chats with them, learning about romances and rivalries (Fieldston and Columbia Prep are apparently natural enemies). They tell him things they would never tell their mother. “If these walls could talk in this car, oh my God,” she tells me. “You know who gets high and who doesn’t and who’s bisexual and who isn’t, who pays money to get into Harvard, and stuff like that.” She helped arrange prom setups and dates. She also lends an ear: “The number of times I cried to this woman about things that had nothing to do with driving lol,” someone commented on their TikTok.
But Shanti is not only a confidante and a confessor; by the way, it offers a quiet competitive advantage, the kind of thing rich people love to buy. “All these driving schools, they can’t put their feet in my shoes,” she said. (She’s not wearing shoes when she tells me that, for what it’s worth.) “The DMV people in the Bronx love Shanti.” I ask him to clarify. “It’s good when you know the reviewers and they like you,” she says. “And when they know the kind of customers you bring. I get great respect from the reviewer. I’ve been doing this for 30 years. And I’ve made such a name for myself that I don’t advertise; my clients advertise me. She tells me that only two of her students this year have failed their practical exams.
The past few days have been difficult for Shanti. Vinny, her husband of 41 years, died suddenly in August; a laminated photo of him is slipped into the car’s sun visor. “My husband treasured the ground I walked on,” she says. “He loved me so much. He was going to buy me a red Mustang and take me to Hawaii. And that motherfucker died on me. five lessons a day for ten hours of driving. “There’s nothing to do at home,” she says. “It’s so sad when I come home.” After all, it’s Vinny who taught him to drive 40 years ago. “But I didn’t drive for a long time,” she says, “until he bought me a nice red Buick Skylark. Boy, do you I fucked up this car. I express some surprise at this admission from a driving instructor, and Shanti stares at me: “Matt, you’re going to have an accident. You’re going to hit me. your fucking car for no reason.
We retreated to 86th and Park; two hours have passed. She jumped out of the car and fished out her dog-eared, ramshackle copy of vogue with Bowles’ article. “In the end, he never passed his driving test,” she says. (Bowles confirms he still doesn’t have a license.) She doesn’t say the same, but I suspect Shanti doesn’t like this free ending. “Matt,” she said, “when are we hitting the road again?” Then she heads to Park, toward Spence, where a student awaits whose financial father, Lincoln Center director emeritus and NYU Langone trustee, flipped Snapple for more than $1 billion in the ’90s.