The Town Car 500
Livery-cab drivers are racing for a dwindling number of calls, and a lone teenage dispatcher is referee of the road.
New York | February 22, 2009
FROM HIS PERCH INSIDE a Park Slope storefront, a teenager directs the movements of some 100 men in 100 cars. Leaning into a two-way radio, he speaks with the speed of an auctioneer: Jay and Water. Union Market—Sixth Avenue and Union. Stratford and Ditmas. Hotel Le Bleu. The closer it gets to rush hour, the faster he talks; outside, on the streets of Brooklyn, a swarm of drivers struggles to keep up. One hand on the steering wheel, the other on the radio, they hit their mikes the moment they hear an address they’re near. The first driver to respond has the best shot at getting the job, but there are no guarantees: Ultimately, it’s the teenager who decides.
His friends know him as Milton Mendoza, but at work he goes by Manny or, more often, 328. (Everyone is identified by a number in this business.) Some co-workers also call him “Oso”—Spanish for bear—because he’s tall and round. Of the 222 livery-cab bases in Brooklyn, Manny works for one of the busiest: Arecibo, on Fifth Avenue. Five days a week, he sits inside a tiny, fluorescent-lit room equipped with a two-way radio, three computers, and fourteen phone lines. Seated beside him are two operators who answer every call with the same six words: Arecibo. Where are you? Five minutes. Street maps cover the walls, each dotted with strategically placed stickers: $16 to Bushwick, $22 to Cypress Hill, $23 to Seagate.
Though Manny is only 18 years old, he wields an unusual amount of power. “I’m the dispatcher,” he says. “I’m the one who gives out money, because the calls are money.” On any given night, he finds himself caught in the middle of a hundred hungry drivers, each determined to ensure that no other driver gets more work. Until recently, Arecibo received about 14,000 calls a week, but that was before the economy plunged, before livery cabs came to seem like a luxury. Now, with fewer calls coming in, the drivers are hungrier than ever.
Recession or not, rush hour at Arecibo is always a frantic scene. At 6 p.m. on a Wednesday not long ago, five phone lines ring nonstop; every few seconds, another address pops up on Manny’s screen. He zeroes in on the newest one, slams down the pedal beneath his desk, pivots toward the radio: Washington Fulton and Gates. No response. Washington Fulton and Gates. There’s no need to explain; all the drivers know that he means Washington Avenue, between Fulton Street and Gates Avenue, in Clinton Hill.
The box next to his computer flashes a driver’s number, 282. Manny gives him the call: 282 with two. 282 with two. In livery-cab speak, “with two” means the driver hit his mike after the dispatcher said the address twice—and now he has five minutes to get there.
Soon another driver comes on the radio to ask if 282’s time has run out. Manny checks when the job was assigned—6:08—and the time on his computer’s clock: 6:14. He turns on the mike: 499 Washington. Time is gone. For all the drivers in the area, these are magic words; once “time is gone,” anybody can zoom over and get the customer.
Driver 282 jumps on the radio: “I took the call at nine minutes after, man. C’mon.”
“I’m not going to fight, 282,” Manny says. “If you have the wrong time, it’s not my fault, 282. Five minutes is gone. That’s it.”
“It was 6:09! 6:09!”
In fact, it has been five minutes and three seconds since 282 claimed the call. Another driver beats him to the address and takes the customer. Somebody is helping you, 282. Manny never uses the word “steal” on the radio lest he inflame tensions; instead he uses the standard euphemism. Somebody is helping you, 282.
“Yeah, ’cause you helped him,” 282 says.
Manny cuts off the conversation with his usual response: “One more word and see you later.” Everyone knows what “see you later” means: a two-hour suspension.
Flare-ups between drivers and dispatchers have always been part of the job, but the ailing economy is ratcheting up the tensions. It’s one thing to argue about an airport pickup—which can bring in $40 or $50—quite another thing to duke it out over every local call, every $7 job. But the pressure doesn’t seem to bother Manny. “Once I’m inside,” he says, “I don’t have no friends.”
LIVERY-CAB COMPANIES have long dotted the landscape of upper Manhattan and the outer boroughs, where yellow cabs are hard to come by. And in some neighborhoods they have become the new bodegas, visible on every other block. From his chair inside Arecibo’s dispatch room, Manny can look out a Plexiglas window and see a steady parade of Town Cars and Crown Vics and Grand Marquises rolling down Fifth Avenue, each with a decal on its back window advertising a different company. Within a mile of Arecibo, there are at least eleven other livery-cab bases.
Arecibo is owned by two former livery-cab drivers from Ecuador, and almost all of the 200 drivers who work for the company are immigrants, too, mainly from Ecuador, but also from Mexico, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Yemen, Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Dubai. Manny’s father is from Ecuador and his mother from Guatemala, but he was born in Brooklyn, which makes him one of the few dispatchers who speak more English than Spanish on the radio. He makes $140 a day, roughly the same as a driver’s take-home pay after gas and car insurance.
Shortly after 6 p.m. on this Wednesday, an argument erupts on the radio in Spanish between two drivers vying for a pickup. Manny suspends them both. There’s no time for distractions, especially during rush hour. Five phone lines are lit up, and the calls are coming in fast: 627 40th Street, the Food Co-op on Union, 331 State, 11 Sterling, Nostrand and President, 70 Washington.
Most nights, Manny suspends only one driver, if that, but by 6:40 tonight, the number of suspensions has reached five. Manny punishes one driver for taking too long to pick up a customer in Manhattan. (The driver had gone to West 49th Street instead of 29th Street.) Another didn’t answer his radio after Manny called out to him five times. (“If you don’t answer your radio, what am I supposed to tell the customer?”) One of the suspended drivers comes straight to Arecibo to plead his case—irate drivers have been known to bang on the dispatcher’s Plexiglas window—but Manny doesn’t budge.
Suspensions usually last two hours, although tonight there is one driver—219—who is still suspended from the night before. The trouble began when Manny sent him to JFK to pick up a customer. Airport runs can be very lucrative, but at Arecibo they also carry a certain degree of risk: If a driver doesn’t make it in time, he loses the customer—and he gets a two-hour suspension. That’s what had happened to 219. But instead of leaving the airport after he was suspended, he had stuck around. And the next time he heard on the radio that there was a customer waiting at JFK, he’d swooped in, even though Manny hadn’t given him the job. When Manny found out, he slapped the driver with another suspension, this time for 24 hours.
“IF IT’S A NEW GUY who’s never done this before, he will get killed,” Manny says. “They will attack him.” It wasn’t long ago that Manny himself was the new guy. He was 17 years old and had been answering phones for a year and a half when the company’s best dispatcher, Ramon Cordero, got up from his chair and told Manny to take over. Manny didn’t think much of it; as a phone operator, he often filled in when Ramon went to the bathroom or to the bodega next door. But this time, when Ramon returned, he told Manny to stay put. Manny’s legs began to tremble. Soon the drivers were complaining on the radio that the new guy didn’t speak clearly enough. Ramon grabbed the mike. “Easy, easy, easy,” he said. “He’s gotta learn.”
It was a little like joining the major leagues without ever playing an inning in the minors. If you can survive in the dispatcher’s chair at Arecibo, you can work anywhere. The toughest part of the job is the sheer volume of cars; depending on the shift, the dispatcher has to keep track of 80 or 100 or 120 drivers at a time. “He learned very quickly,” Ramon says. It helped that Manny had grown up studying maps of the city. His father used to drive for Myrtle Car Service, and when Manny was 8 he would spend afternoons in his father’s Town Car, riding around picking up customers. By 13, he was answering phones in Myrtle’s office, with his homework spread out in front of him. He started working for Arecibo at 15. Since graduating from Fort Hamilton High School last year, he’s been full-time.
By now, Manny can recite the cross streets without consulting a map for almost any address in Brooklyn. It’s a crucial skill; the more time it takes to throw each call, the longer customers have to wait. “Like in baseball, what do you need to win? Pitchers,” Manny says. “With a base, you need dispatchers.” For some addresses, Manny can even rattle off the relevant landmarks. When a customer asks to be picked up at Clinton and Myrtle, he asks: “Where are you on the corner? The bank? Connecticut Muffin? The grocery store?”
Manny doesn’t want to be a dispatcher forever—he plans to get a college degree—but he does find the job addictive. When he’s bored at home playing video games, he likes to switch on his two-way radio and listen to his co-workers. He tries to pick out those moments when the dispatcher gives the wrong cross streets, and then, inevitably, a driver comes on a few minutes later to complain he can’t find the building. Why bother listening to the radio when he’s not at work? “So I can get better,” he says.
THE LATER IT GETS on this Wednesday night, the faster the calls come in—and the more likely callers are to slur their words. At the moment, customers are waiting for cars at Moonshine bar, Alma restaurant, the Food Co-op, Starbucks on Court and Joralemon, Home Depot, and Steiner Studios in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. At 10:44, there are six calls to assign, four phone lines lit up, and one driver who says he’s at the right address but nobody is outside. Manny punches out at 11:01, finishing a 45-minute flurry of dispatching in which he’s thrown 102 calls.
As usual, two surveillance cameras have recorded the entire shift. These days, Arecibo’s bosses keep a close eye on the dispatch room to make sure nobody is surfing the Internet. Or coming back late from break. Or using a cell phone. The no-cell-phone rule is supposed to stop employees from steering the most lucrative calls to certain drivers, a practice known as “selling calls.” Arecibo’s manager admits that selling calls used to be a regular occurrence here. At least one employee would charge drivers $5 for an airport call. Another gave orders to the drivers who hung around the base—“Bring me water,” “Bring me juice”—then doled out calls to those who complied.
The question of which operator or dispatcher is selling calls is a frequent topic of debate among Arecibo’s drivers, since each pays the base $90 a week for the chance to compete for every job. For his part, Manny insists he never accepts money in exchange for calls. But he does admit that when he throws an airport call and twenty drivers hit their radios, he doesn’t always give it to the driver whose number appears first. “I pick out the better driver,” he says. “But I don’t do that all the time, because people got to eat, they got to pay bills.”
NOT LONG AGO, Arecibo gained a new competitor when Ramon, the dispatcher who had mentored Manny, quit and took two dispatchers with him. He bought into another livery-cab company, also on Fifth Avenue, just sixteen blocks away, called Express 11. Not only did Ramon hire the dispatchers who had left Arecibo with him, he also began poaching his former employer’s drivers, letting them drive the first week for free. It was an aggressive move, but not at all unusual in the competitive world of livery cabs.
Manny found himself caught in the middle of the feud between the two companies. Ramon was his friend, but Arecibo was his employer. By now, he had worked there for two and a half years, and he figured his job was safe. Then one afternoon, Arecibo’s co-owner called him into the back office and told him the company didn’t need his services anymore. “You’re firing me?” Manny asked. “What did I do?” To Manny, the moment was more surreal than anything: “I was like, am I getting Punk’d? Is Ashton Kutcher going to come out?”
Later, he heard that a driver had accused him of giving a call to Express 11. The driver said he’d been on his way to fetch a passenger, only to see that customer climbing into an Express 11 car. Manny denies steering calls to the competition, pointing out that customers sometimes call two car services to shorten their wait. But there was no chance to argue the point.
Just after stepping out of Arecibo’s dispatch room for the last time, Manny pulled out his cell phone and dialed Ramon. The next morning, he went over to Express 11. For three hours, Manny and Ramon rode around the neighborhood together, handing out business cards promoting Express 11 with the tagline: “The Lowest Price in NYC.” Back at Express 11’s storefront, Manny sat in front of a computer redoing the price list, reducing some of the fees to be slightly less than what Arecibo charges. The shock of losing his job seemed to have not yet sunk in. Every hour or so he repeated the same thought: “It’s amazing how things change in a day.”
Over the course of the afternoon, the other dispatchers who’d left Arecibo stopped in. Despite the fact that there are already hundreds of livery cabs circling the neighborhood, despite the dire economic climate, the mood was defiantly optimistic. They were confident that the fledgling base could move cars around Brooklyn faster than anyone—or at least fast enough to beat Arecibo. “When it’s wintertime and raining, the big companies no pick up right away phones,” Ramon says. “You got to pick up right away. If the price is good and the driver is good, the customer stays with us.”
Six hours after he arrived at Express 11, Manny was still hanging around. “This is where I work now,” he said. The dispatch room was not unlike the one he’d left the day before: the same map on the wall, the same computer software, a two-way radio on the desk. But at 5 p.m., Arecibo would be in its usual rush-hour frenzy. Here, the dispatchers slouched against the wall, hands stuffed into their pockets of their jeans. The phones rested in their cradles, and the only sound was the soft hum of the radio’s fan.