PUBLISHED BY MOSHOLU PRESERVATION CORPORATION

Vol. 18, No. 18

Sept.  22 - Oct. 5,  2005

     
 

Taxi Dispatchers Form Close Community

By HEATHER HADDON

“Good morning, buenas. Where are you? Please hold. Two minutes.”

It’s a rapid-fire exchange familiar to any Bronxite needing a cab to go to the doctor’s or across town. It’s a simple transaction — a phone number is called and a car comes — but one wonders about the anonymous operator and their clairvoyant knowledge of where the cabs lurk. And how’d they learn to talk so fast?

“You either got it or you don’t,” said Luis Carela, one of seven dispatchers at Webster Avenue’s Prestige Car Service. Pausing from the addresses and cab numbers he fires off like an auctioneer, Carela jokes: “There’s no talking-fast school.”

For the taxi dispatcher, the verbal drill takes place hundreds of times a day, requiring quick reflexes, patience and a tireless tongue. Some are former drivers, while many of Prestige’s dispatchers, like 25-year-old Carela, grew up in the trade.

That’s also the case for Naomi Lozado. “My mother was a dispatcher,” said Lozado, 34, Prestige’s only female operator and probably one of the few in the entire field. “I’ve been doing this since I was like 16.”

They float in and out of the dispatcher’s seat, but Prestige’s operators always seem to return to the job. “We have known each other for so long,” said Lozado, her hand hovering over the 15 phone buttons. “It’s like a family — some are quiet, some are loud, some are the black-sheeps. But we all get along.”

 

“Hello, Prestige. Please hold. Hello, good morning, God bless. Give me an address sweetie. Hello, buenas, digame.”

It’s 9:30 a.m. on a summer Tuesday, and the calls are tapering off some. Carela and Lozado sit side-by-side, bantering in Spanish and slurping orange juice in their small office perched above Webster Avenue at the corner of East 204th Street. The room contains little but their desks, taped-up signs and schedules, and a coat rack with ties emblazoned with “Jesus Loves You.”

“She never has to wear ties,” said Carela, eyeing Lozado’s flip-flops and trademark ball cap. “She gets off easy.”

The pair make the job seem simple, transitioning seamlessly between the calls and the cabs. After a request comes in, the dispatchers “throw it out,” or repeat it to the cabbies through a microphone. The closest driver picks it up, and their cab number flashes on a screen. A few years ago, Prestige invested in computers, which feature a digital relay to the cars.

Dispatchers still keep a paper log of the transactions. By the end of a busy eight-hour shift, the record will often run 20 pages — the equivalent of 1,000 calls.

“It’s hard work,” said Felix Medrano, Prestige’s accountant, while sitting in the small administrative office. “I couldn’t imagine doing it.”

The dispatchers all gripe about the stress, and “breaking nights,” or covering the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift. There is also the occasional angry, foul-mouthed customer. “My friends say, ‘You work in a shirt and a tie, with clean hands,’” said Carela, his face framed by beaded cornrows. “But you work hard here.”

Dispatchers call police when drivers are victims of robberies or assaults. Lozado thinks things have been safer in the last few years, but the trade is still dangerous. Just six months ago, she remembers a driver getting stabbed in the hand.

Usually the chatter between drivers and dispatchers is light, involving ongoing baseball rivalries and playful jokes. Most is in Spanish for the large number of Dominicans, but English is used for the handful of African and Pakistani drivers.

 

“Decatur and Gun Hill. Copy, five minutes. The driver gives you the price, sweetie. Just come down. ¿Está bien, papi?”

Carela ends his shift at 10 a.m., taking off his tie and kissing Lozado on the head. Jose Franco, a former driver, takes over. “Driving a cab, everything is up and down,” said Franco, 51, attaching a makeshift pillow to his chair with a bungee cord. “Here you have a schedule, days off.”

But like the cabbies, when the dispatchers don’t work, they don’t get paid. The operators earn between $12 and $16 an hour, according to Lozado, without benefits. “It could always be better,” she said, sucking on a Newport outside. A single mom, Lozado is raising two teenage daughters, and many others support families back in their native countries.

Despite the challenges, there’s also plenty of fun. Prestige’s staff play on a softball team, competing against rival Kiss Cab and La Nueva Estrella Restaurant, a driver hangout across the street. During games, families picnic and socialize at French Charley’s Playground. One year, the team played in Florida.

The base is also homey, offering a long-distance phone, message board and a barbershop. Drivers congregate outside to discuss their day and greet the dispatchers. That morning, Papito (aka driver #67) gives Lozado a smile and a kiss on the hand.

“You have to like people to do this job,” she said.

Still, Lozado doesn’t wish dispatching on her daughters. Her mother, who started in the business in 1978, has left to open a travel agency. Lozado hopes to join her.

But dispatching is in her blood. “I love my job,” she said, sitting in front of the radio microphone. “I love to sing on this. I love to keep the guys on their toes.”


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