While I have worked in the so-called "food industry" in New York City for over a decade now, what I want to share below did not occur to me until recently. I can honestly say it crystallized quite suddenly and, when it did, it made me to look at the city I live in and love in an entirely new way. It was like lifting the carpet and discovering all that debris and dirt that someone had swept under and covered up.
Most of my experiences are commonplace... a daily reality for thousands of underpaid and overexploited delivery people who make their living by walking or riding bikes to deliver food to residences or businesses in the city. And yet, taken in their totality, they offer an ugly story.
Before I begin, though, let me give credit where credit is due. What made me connect my experiences in my mind and led to the realization that they have a story to tell, was Bryant Simon's excellent book, Boardwalk of Dreams: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America The book is an eye-opener. It argues in forceful terms that the early success of Atlantic City as America's most popular resort was due to the fact that in the times of segregation it allowed middle class whites to act on their racial fantasies of superiority. Segregation, Simon has argued, led to strictly defined racial roles between the white middle-class tourists and the blacks who appeared in roles of subservience, or, more exotically, as the personification of "otherness" in the city's many entertainment spots. The book is worth a close reading by anyone who is interested in the rise and development of cities in general and of public spaces in particular.
And now to my story. I work at a high-end food service establishment in midtown Manhattan. A major part of our sales come from online (Seamless) and phone orders. In the course of a regular day, we make something in the order of 30 to 40 deliveries to offices and residences in midtown. For those of you who do not know, midtown Manhattan is the home of some of the most prestigious media, publishing, banking and real estate companies in all of the United States. So what does it mean to work there? And what does it mean to be one of the people who makes a living by servicing one of their many needs?
It means that prestige and power is, yet again, associated with segregation. Let's say you are a hapless and happy delivery person. Hapless, because it is your first day on the job and everyone at your place of work is telling you the place is busy, busy, busy with orders you have to deliver. Happy? Maybe because you finally got a job, you are moving, the sun is shining and you are in the midst of it all -- Manhattan in all its glory. Happy, moreover, because even though your hourly pay is something like $6, the fact that the place where you work is busy, means you have a lot of delivery tips to collect at the end of the day. So... in your mind you begin to make these little, happy calculations. Like, how if you walk really fast you can maybe make 6 or even 7 deliveries per hour. So.. assuming an average tip of $2 per delivery (more on that later), that adds a not inconsiderable $12 or $14 to your hourly pay... Hey, almost $20 per hour all told, right? Who's complaining?
So, they hand you your first delivery and it is just around the corner... you look at the tip they paid when they placed the order, and it is $3... Your heart lifts -- a good start... you can be back for another delivery in mere minutes. With no trouble at all, you locate the address. You happily enter the building and approach the security desk... And get your first cold shower of the day. The security guard (in a bad temper, since he probably has to explain this repeatedly to dim-witted delivery people such as yourself) tells you you cannot be going into the front door... No no.. the address may be correct, but the "messenger center" is actually around the block in the neighboring street. Well.. ok, no biggie. You come out again, obediently walk around the corner... stare at building numbers and brass plates and finally, after some search, locate the coveted "messenger center". Searching for it was certainly not helped by the fact that while the front lobby of the building from where you were unceremoniously evicted moments ago takes half a block, the door to the "messenger center" is discreetly hidden. Oh yes, there is a brass stand or sign somewhere, pointing to it or identifying it, but this does not change the fact that it almost looks like a dirty little secret. That's because it is.
For there is no other purpose served by this separate, segregated space, euphemistically called "messenger center" but that the high and mighty who work in the bank, or publishing company do not have to come face to face with a group of people, who in their vast majority are Hispanic, who look like and are in fact, tired, worried, frustrated... laboring under the weight of huge delivery bags that sometimes carry up to 30 individual food orders... People whose language skills barely allow them to make a phone call and inform the person who placed the order that they are there, at the messenger center, waiting to deliver the food. There is a feeling, when you enter among them, that you have been herded together for some sinister purpose. All of these bags of food... all of these sweaty, tired faces... We speak in hushed tones... Security guards watch over us with an air of superiority and disdain. To add to the humiliation, while the lobby where you could not be seen was spacious and comfortable, this room is cramped, ill-lit... and freezing. Maybe because the door opens too often... But then you think back to the lobby and its motion-activated enormous doors... and it felt so warm and comfortable. Here... a small door leads to the street, and yet the temperature is not much different than what it is outside.
But this is just the beginning. Remember those happy calculations you were making earlier? About making 6 or 7 deliveries per hour? Even with the "messenger center" setback, your recalculation still makes you smile. Not 6 or 7 deliveries perhaps... But 5? Definitely! And then the wait begins. Sometimes, in all fairness, they do come down to pick up the food right away. But in more than half the cases, you wait... and wait... and wait some more. They said, they would be right down when you called. "Right down" turns out to mean 10 minutes... oor 15. Sometimes, you call and the call goes to voicemail... you call again.... same result. Oh they were in a very important meeting... it could not be helped. You can wait right? What's the problem? Isn't it customary for "you people" to laze about? Isn't a 15-20 minute break in your schedule a welcome respite? Isn't it? 30 minutes later, you are back at your restaurant. The lunch rush hour is 25% over and you have accomplished 1 delivery... The boss does not say anything but is looking at you with something like real displeasure. After all, your delivery was just around the corner! 30 minutes?? Really?!
After a while you are no longer hapless. You learn the ropes... you remember where the messenger centers are located. Your efficiency improves somewhat. And then you begin to notice the tips ... And wonder. Delivery around the corner? $3 tip. Cool! Delivery 20 blocks away... more food (ergo heavier bag)... tip $1.50. Huh? Huh!? Delivery on a bright and breezy summer day... tip $2. Well ok. Delivery in a downpour... or a deep freeze? $2. Really? Remember... this is walking or biking... not driving. There are exceptions, of course, and you learn to appreciate them and be grateful. You also learn that there is a major competition at your restaurant... who will be the lucky person to make the $8 tip delivery? Sometimes you are lucky... sometimes, the boss is fair (mine is)... sometimes, you end up with a string of $2 or $2.50 tips...
Believe me, I am grateful to have my job. I am also grateful that making deliveries is only incidental for me ... We do have 2 delivery people and they usually manage, but sometimes I and some of my other co-workers need to pitch in. When I do have to make deliveries, the feeling is sometimes truly oppressive. Our restaurant is really nice and clean. We keep it that way. But almost everywhere I deliver, I feel invisible... I feel like I am treated with lack of respect that quite often verges on humiliation... And I feel this way with only having to make 2-3 deliveries a day at most. I look at my colleagues whose main job it is to make the deliveries. They are usually of good cheer. They sometimes remark on a particularly miserly tip or a particularly good one. But I know them as friends. I have never asked how they feel when they enter these corporate fortresses and are deliberately made to feel as less worthy than the people who work there. Because I know how I feel... I feel as if something very fundamental in my humanity is affected, I feel as second-or-third class... And I know that making me feel that way is a way for someone to feel first-class.