On Broadway on the Upper West Side, the ballet of the deliverymen has begun. Armed with pizza boxes and plastic bags, men on bicycles zip by, one after another, dodging taxis and Town Cars, SUVs and the M104. Every night, it’s the same clashing of horns and bike bells, the same frenzy of pedaling and panting and sweating. Between West 59th and West 115th Streets, the number of places that offer food delivery now totals close to 275.
The deliverymen run the gamut from boys to older men, from fit to flabby, but there are a few things they share in common: They are virtually all immigrants—many from China—and most of them speak little or no English. Among the neighborhood’s most experienced deliverymen is a 25-year-old Chinese immigrant named Justin. For the last seven years, he has been speeding around the streets of Manhattan delivering food for five different restaurants. Now he works six days a week at Ollie’s Noodle Shop & Grille on the corner of Broadway and 84th Street.
On a recent Saturday, Justin is assigned to the 6 p.m.-to-midnight shift. The busiest hours for a deliveryman are always 6 to 9 p.m., but on this night, in the middle of summer, the orders are slow. For the first 25 minutes, Justin sits on the sidewalk with his co-workers, waiting. He is the youngest among them, with a bit of a baby face, short spiky hair, two small earrings in his left ear—and an American name, which he picked from an electronic dictionary. At 6:26, he gets his first chance to work. He grabs two bags off the counter, throws a leg over his bike, and barrels down 84th Street.
One call from a customer complaining about cold food can be enough to get a deliveryman suspended, so Justin always pedals fast, running red lights and cutting in front of traffic to cross the street. Stopping on 85th between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive, he wraps his chain around a pole, snaps shut the rusty padlock, grabs the bags of food, and hits the buzzer—all this takes just four or five seconds. He collects $50 ($46.82 for the order, $3.18 for a tip), and then he’s back on his bike seat, one bag swinging from his handlebars.
Two minutes of pedaling later, he walks into a building on West End, armed with $13.71 worth of Chinese food: beef with garlic, spring roll, egg roll. He walks out with another $15 in his pocket. “They gave me $1.29,” he says with a shrug. By the time Justin gets back to the restaurant, it’s 6:39 p.m. His first round-trip of the evening—nearly one mile of cycling—took thirteen minutes. Nearly an hour into his shift, he’s made just $4.47 in tips.
In New York’s expanding service economy, deliverymen occupy a position near the bottom—earning less than doormen, security guards, nannies, maids, tailors, taxi drivers, and trash collectors and working in far more treacherous conditions. They work long hours and cover huge territories, often in inclement weather, dodging perils like potholes, taxi doors, and tow trucks (one of which killed a deliveryman last year)—all the while hoping they don’t get robbed along the way. And they do this for pay that is often less than the minimum wage.
But that may be about to change. Since last fall, some 70 Chinese deliverymen—including Justin and his co-workers at Ollie’s—have filed lawsuits against five Manhattan restaurants. Never before have so many restaurant deliverymen joined together to battle their bosses. It’s the Year of the Chinese Deliverymen—the year they decided to revolt.
The genesis of the deliverymen’s uprising can be traced back to a single incident that happened last summer at Our Place Cuisines of China, a restaurant on the Upper East Side. Deliveryman Guo Z. Wu, 38, says he and his fellow workers were routinely cursed at, and one day he decided he’d had enough of the poor treatment. (Like most of the deliverymen, Wu speaks little English, and he tells his story with the help of a translator.) On this day, Wu says, he walked into the restaurant and saw the “big boss,” general manager and co-owner Kong Ping Chen. “He yelled at me in a very rude way,” Wu says. “I walked out, but on the way to the door, I murmured, ‘You bastard!’ ”—Wang ba dan!—“He heard it. He then rushed to me, grabbed my collar, and said, ‘I dare you to repeat it!’ I said, ‘If you feel insulted by the curse word, think how we workers feel when you use curse words on us so often!’ ”