“Why’s this so good?” No. 50: Jennifer Gonnerman and real lives
I often tell students, both undergraduate and graduate, that beautiful stories are everywhere. You can head off to Iraq and Afghanistan and pen a riveting war epic, but you can also discover scintillating stories much closer to home – in the faces of people you see everyday, in the mom-and-pop store up the street, even in the back of a dusty cupboard. You just have to look.
This is why I’m a fan of Jennifer Gonnerman, who describes herself as a journalist who writes about “how the other half lives,” which is itself a paean to that famous late 19th-century raker of muck, Jacob Riis. Author of Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett, Gonnerman has written for New York magazine, the Village Voice, Vibe, Mother Jones, and the New York Times magazine. She finds her subjects in the cracks of a sidewalk or just outside a subway car’s shutting doors, in the urban parks and tenements and delis and Indian restaurants of New York. She’s profiled Chinese food deliverymen, West African teens and panhandlers, subway workers, nannies, juvenile delinquents and foreclosure victims. In New York magazine’s 40th anniversary issue she published a marvelous feature on the immigrant family behind Shaheen Sweets, a New York landmark, and its four-decade quest for the American dream. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve passed Shaheen Sweets, but it never occurred to me to write about it.
I want to explore another of Gonnerman’s New York stories, though. “The Town Car 500,” from February 2009, deals with a livery-car dispatcher in Park Slope, Brooklyn. In it she profiles Manny Mendoza, an 18-year-old half-Ecuadorean, half-Guatemalan Brooklynite who wields a special kind of power.
For a piece like this to work, it has to transport the reader to an unfamiliar world. It requires empathy, a keen eye for description and an ability to recognize the innate drama that unfolds when you have a conflict between two opposing forces: the drivers hell-bent on getting their fares, and the dispatcher, whose role is to maintain order. What’s more, the writer has to establish a relationship of trust with the source, and spend hours upon hours watching him do what he does. You don’t get a story like this with a phone call or two, or an email interview. It requires immersion.
From the first sentence, Gonnerman hooks the reader by jumping right into the action. Each paragraph is a mini scene, cinematic in scope, with the camera zooming in to her character, pulling back to reveal the setting, then flashing back to prior events, all accomplished with a brisk pacing yet without sacrificing the details that bring the story and characters to life:
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.
The next graf, she pulls back to reveal her main character, Manny Mendoza, who’s often called Oso – bear in Spanish – “because he’s tall and round.” It provides context and introduces the setting, “a tiny, fluorescent-lit room equipped with a two-way radio, three computers, and fourteen phone lines” in Park Slope, where dispatchers for Arecibo, a livery car service, ply their trade. She also introduces a note of humor, with all of the dispatchers answering customer calls in exactly the same way: “Arecibo. Where are you? Five minutes.”
Graf three discusses the power that Manny has – “I’m the one who gives out money, because the calls are money” – and this places him in the crosshairs of a “hundred hungry drivers” enmeshed in a zero-sum game; only one driver can win each fare. It also raises the stakes. The number of calls has fallen since the recession hit, and the drivers are hungrier than ever. Manny is established as a no-nonsense guy yet you feel compassion for him; you are on his side.
Gonnerman then zooms in on a specific event that perfectly illustrates these conflicts – that’s key, because the event has to reflect the theme of the story – and you as a reader are right there:
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.
Gonnerman explains that flare-ups like these are common, but Manny isn’t fazed by the pressure. “Once I’m inside,” he told her, “I don’t have no friends.”
Gonnerman structures her piece in a fairly traditional way:
Part 1: Introduces her main character in the middle of doing what he does, provides a bit of context, sets up dramatic conflict, and ends with an anecdote that reflects this dramatic conflict.
Part 2: An overview of the limo business in New York and the fact that there are 11 competitors within a mile of Arecibo’s office, a brief history of Arecibo, and a recent night when Manny had to suspend five drivers when tempers flared.
Part 3: Tells Manny’s story and in the process develops his character – how he ended up at Arecibo when a dispatcher named Ramon walked off the job, and how hard it was at first, “like joining the major leagues without ever playing an inning in the minors.” The “toughest part,” Gonnerman writes, “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.” When Manny’s 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.”
Part 4: Delves into the kinds of corruption that some dispatchers engage in. Dispatchers are forbidden to use cell phones while on their shifts, to discourage them from “selling calls” – steering pickups to drivers who pay them on the side.
Manny insists he never accepts money in exchange for calls. But he does admit that when he throws an airport call and twenty drivers hit their radios, he doesn’t always give it to the driver whose number appears first. “I pick out the better driver,” he says. “But I don’t do that all the time, because people got to eat, they got to pay bills.”
Although the reader may not know it yet, this short penultimate section – and Manny’s quote – sets up the denouement.
Part 5: Ramon, the dispatcher who quit, opening the way for Manny, has opened up a rival limo service nearby, called Express 11. Ramon poaches dispatchers and drivers from Arecibo. Manny has to walk a fine line, since he’s friends with Ramon but works for Arecibo, and there’s outright war between the two companies. Then suddenly Manny is fired. One of the Arecibo drivers claimed that Manny had steered a call to the competition, a charge that Manny denies. So he moves to the competition. The last paragraph takes us back to the very beginning.
The dispatch room was not unlike the one he’d left the day before: the same map on the wall, the same computer software, a two-way radio on the desk. But at 5 p.m., Arecibo would be in its usual rush-hour frenzy. Here, the dispatchers slouched against the wall, hands stuffed into their pockets of their jeans. The phones rested in their cradles, and the only sound was the soft hum of the radio’s fan.
We’ve come full circle. There’s a character arc and also a narrative arc: a story with a beginning, middle and an end.
How many of us have taken a car service? Now, how many of us have taken a car service and thought to write a story about the dispatcher?
It takes a special writer to do that and an even more special writer to make it interesting. Gonnerman did it all in 2,500 words.
Adam Penenberg is a journalism professor and assistant director of the Business and Economic Program at New York University. A Fast Company contributing writer, he has also written for Inc., Forbes, Slate, Wired, Playboy and Mother Jones. He is currently working on his fourth nonfiction book and has just published two novels. A former senior editor at Forbes and reporter for Forbes.com, Penenberg garnered national attention in 1998 for unmasking serial fabricator Stephen Glass of The New Republic. Penenberg’s story was a watershed for online investigative journalism and is portrayed in the film Shattered Glass. He tweets at @penenberg.
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