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The Deliverymen’s Uprising


On this Saturday night, Justin doesn’t yet know about the Our Place settlement. At the moment he is more concerned with the same questions that preoccupy him every night: How many more orders will he get? How much money will he make? And is it going to start raining before he gets off work?

Between 6 and 10:30 p.m., he dropped off nearly twenty orders. Most were small—$15.99, $15.39, $11.87—and yielded small tips. Two nights earlier, he’d had more luck: He’d delivered an $80 order to 11 Riverside Drive and collected a $12 tip. This night isn’t shaping up too badly, though. At least the weather is cooperating: Just an occasional drizzle, and the temperature hasn’t climbed past 82. And he hasn’t had to deliver any orders to those buildings, mostly along Central Park West, where the doormen carry the food upstairs—and are notorious for keeping some of the tip for themselves.

Shortly before 11 p.m., Justin stands alone outside Ollie’s, waiting for his next order and watching the couples leaving the Loews theater across Broadway, walking arm-in-arm. Slouching against the side of the restaurant, he pulls out a pack of Marlboro Lights and rests a cigarette between his lips. Deliveryman can be a lonely job. Night after night, he walks in and out of the same buildings, delivering food to the same people. He hands them their order, they give him the money, then they shut the door. It’s rare that anyone realizes they’ve seen him before. “Most of them are old customers,” he says. “I recognize them, but I’m not sure they can recognize me.” In fact, before Justin started going to the Saigon Grill pickets and met the organizers, he’d never had an extended conversation with a native-born American.

Finally, at 11:22, a bag of food appears on the counter inside. Justin grabs it and races east on his bicycle, just one block. The kitchen closes in about fifteen minutes, so he figures this may be his final delivery. Then, at 11:43, two more orders come up and he’s dashing north up Broadway. His last stop of the evening is on 87th Street, between Columbus Avenue and Central Park West, on a block with few potholes and no traffic. Trees line both sides of the street, their branches forming a canopy over his head, offering a rare moment of serenity at the end of a grueling shift.

He drops off his last order at 11:52, and in the end, this evening turns out to be no better or worse than most. He collected a total of 23 tips—the largest was $4.76—and when he adds them all up, they come to $59.36.

He pedals back to Ollie’s to lock up his bicycle, and soon he’ll be on his way home, to a tiny, $300-a-month cubicle on the second floor of a residential house in Jackson Heights, a floor he shares with six men from different parts of China, garment workers and factory workers, none of whom he really knows. By the time he gets in, it’s 1 or 1:30 a.m. and he’s usually hungry but too exhausted to cook. So he does what any New Yorker would do: He pulls out his cell phone and orders food. He always calls the same Fuzhou restaurant, which stays open until 2 a.m., and on a $10 or $12 order, he makes a point of giving the deliveryman a $3 tip.

Additional reporting by Rong Xiaoqing.


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