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.