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.