(Photo credit: Gregory Boyd/Getty Images)
On a frigid, windy day two weeks ago, one of FreshDirect’s veteran drivers, Phil Erazo, sets out on his route. He is 43, by all evidence a preternaturally happy man. He’s spry but not sleek; despite his light Puerto Rican accent, he looks at times like a mad Russian. After two years on his Tribeca route, he knows the run as well as he knows the rooms of his own home—where the elevators are in every building, which doormen demand I.D., how each street fills and empties at any given hour.
Everything at FreshDirect is computerized as far as possible, and Phil Erazo’s day is no exception. He’s provided with a manifest at the start of his shift, putting all of his deliveries into a theoretical sequence, but Phil ignores that right off the bat. The computer doesn’t even know to stay clear of the Holland Tunnel at 6 P.M. So Phil begins not at the beginning but with delivery Nos. 9, 10, and 11. “That computer, it doesn’t see traffic or construction or nothing,” he says. “It needs the human eye.”
Delivering food on the streets of Tribeca is like a gas-powered version of all of history’s skirmishes, battles, and wars: The driver is at war with his helper. The two of them together are at war with the clock, with UPS, FedEx, and the bicycle-delivery guys. The trucks and the bikes are at war with the cabs. The cabs are at war with everybody. The world of delivery is tribal, even if one tribe is delivering fresh-squeezed Fuji apple juice and fresh kosher branzino. The beat cops strut slowly through it all, forever shifting alliances between the double-parked UPS vehicle and the bat-shit-crazy double-decker tourist bus and the hapless FreshDirect driver who stops in front of a hydrant, may the heavens help him, because the company won’t be reimbursing him for that particular kind of ticket. “You know what it costs for idling?” Phil asks me, as if he’s hitting the climax of a campfire chiller. “One thousand dollars!”
Phil and his helper, Derek, start at one in the afternoon and live in two-hour windows of increasingly stressful time. The day is a frustration machine, an I Love Lucy episode on wheels. There are roughly a dozen deliveries that must reach their destination between two and four, another dozen for the following two hours, and so on, until 10 P.M. It’s common that we visit the same building during each window, which makes the whole thing seem like a strange recurrent dream, the more so because a staggering majority of the recipients on this route are thirtysomething professional women. Most are on the phone when we arrive. Nearly all of them have dogs, but none has a cat. A half-hour into the shift, as another FreshDirect truck rumbles past, Phil is already tunelessly singing “We’re behind, we’re behind.”
In October, FreshDirect had its first bona fide scandal. A deliveryman was arrested for allegedly phoning six female customers—“just doing it for fun,” he claimed—and hilariously threatening to rape them, mentioning details only someone who’d been in their apartments would know. Phil insists this man was barely an employee: very new, a rogue element, that sort of thing. “For a while after that, customers were terrified when I came up,” Phil says. “But after about a week, everything went back to the same.”
Creepy delivery people are nothing new, but that street runs both ways. Phil has seen it all. “Once, my partner and I were walking in someone’s door and this older guy came running out with a knife,” he recalls. “It seemed like he was drunk and that he thought we were his wife’s boyfriend coming in. I shouted ‘FreshDirect! FreshDirect!’ and that calmed him down. But now when I go to any door, you know, I step back and ask if I can come in. And you hear so many stories—girls getting deliveries in their underwear, girls half-undressed. But me, no, I am a married man. I could tell you such stories. But I’m like the president! I can’t tell you everything.”
By the end of the first window, Phil has to make The Call. He buzzes customer service. “How late are you and why?” the customer-service woman demands to know. Phil explains that we started late: The lady hangs up. In a show of truck unity against the rude lady, Derek, Phil’s mostly silent helper, abruptly weighs in. “I bet she’s not even gonna call the damn customers,” he says.
The tragedy of those three customers’ lives is lost on the civilians walking past our rackety truck. They’re abnormally happy to see the FreshDirect logo. A man walking his Scottish terrier on the windiest corner on Earth, at the most exposed end of River Terrace, grins and waves like a fool as we stack boxes onto a handcart. Phil is pleased to wave back.
But something has to crack. It’s getting late in yet another window, and a whole wall of the truck is still virtually obscured by boxes. Back on River Terrace, Phil decides to go for broke. He combines several loads, deftly stacking an impossible nineteen boxes and four bags of frozen stuff onto his cart, then makes a desperate, Gallipoli-style assault on the building. He looks like a man pushing a small mobile home. Starting from the top floors, he makes his way down, rolling faster as the cart lightens. Where there was a wall of boxes, suddenly there are few, fewer still because Derek has made a large, simultaneous delivery to a neighboring building.
The end is in sight. Paradoxically, both men look less tired than they did nine hours ago. They sing into their cell phones—Phil to his wife, Derek to some friend or lover. Of the hundreds of boxes on Route 211, only one has been damaged.
At 9:45—fifteen minutes early—it’s a full lid, and there’s relief all around. Right about now, the butchers and fruiterers and sorters back in Long Island City are getting revved up. Our truck careers along Lafayette, then turns to make its way toward the Midtown Tunnel. The truck might as well be invisible now. Even those who wave at trucks never do so at night. Besides, some of the people who would wave are online, placing their orders for tomorrow.