2 p.m. Saturday. Cars, taxis, buses, and dollar vans swarm. Ubiquitous on Flatbush Ave., Brooklyn, dollar vans distinguish themselves from the frenzy of Brooklyn traffic with a fare-seeking catcall: Beep. Beep. A dented, beige, ten-passenger van veers to the curb and stops just long enough for me to jump in. (The rapid pick-up is flattering, especially in a place yellow cabs notoriously avoid, the only cross-borough train route is as short as it is undependable, and buses often require a twenty-minute wait).
The driver, John, guides the van back into the stream of traffic. He wears an army jacket over a ribbed orange turtleneck sweater, loose jeans and aviator sunglasses. He aims toward Grand Army Plaza and sings along to the van’s stereo:
Is this the ki-ng, is this his gar-den
Now we are sheep of his pow-er.
A minute later, he pulls over. “Your stop madams,” John says. Two older women giggle, lean forward to give him two dollars each. “Bless and love here, yah, God bless.” He has the kind of mouth that looks more natural when he smiles, and when he does—which is often—he bares two gold teeth.
A ride in a dollar van costs two. The fare was true to its name until the dollar van drivers followed the MTA’s hikes. But the vans’ real appeal is their frequency. Almost 24 hours a day vans hurtle to the curb at the raise of a finger.
Dollar vans have cruised the lesser-served boroughs for decades, dating back to the 1980 public transit strike. The first were in Queens; then they came to Brooklyn. A throwback to informal transportation systems in Caribbean countries—where most of the older drivers are from—a savvy way to make a buck in an emaciated job market, recognized by the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission—not quite banned and not quite regulated—the dollar van system works.
Outlawed briefly in 1993, it has been difficult for dollar van drivers to register as a livery vehicle with the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission since. But recently Bloomberg started to flirt with the jitney system. When he and the TLC Commissioner cut bus routes last year, they asked dollar van drivers to pick up the slack. The experiment didn’t last long. (“You’re not going to drive a route if nobody’s on it,” one driver told me.) The problem with a livery status is that it doesn’t permit a street hail—and since 100 percent of passengers find a dollar vans—beep, beep—with a street hail, drivers divide into shades of illegality. Like the majority of dollar van drivers, John doesn’t have a livery plate [hence why no last name]. He doesn’t want to go “fussing with them people.” This TLC, after all, hardly has any tender loving care for a man in the illegal dollar van.
Flatbush Ave. slices through Brooklyn’s southwest corner. From downtown Brooklyn, to Park Slope—baby carriages, $6 cupcakes, boutique shops—past Prospect Park, further and further from the G train—99 Cent stores, Caribbean patty joints, hair-braiding salons, and clothing shop storefronts lined with mannequins flaunting sequined dresses.
John’s van crawls back on to Flatbush. “This traffic is crazy, it’s going to make me crazy, ya’ hear? Business is no good when it’s slow like this.” A one-man business, nobody gives John a paycheck. When traffic is slow, so is his cash flow. As such, John prefers the prime time. 10pm to 2am. Flatbush is less congested, and local police have other fish to fry. When traffic is smooth he pulls $300 in a single shift.
He speaks of a driver who is legally registered as if describing a mythical figure: “I heard of a guy who has the diamond sticker. I hear he pulls in $700 a day, and fills out his tax return too,” he says. It’s unclear why a registration would result in more income, but John describes this man more like an idea than a person. “Yeah, he’s got that diamond, I hear he keeps all his receipts, keeps it real straight, rakes it in,” he says.
Police will pull a registered van over for the same offences as a non-registered vehicle. “The police stop you, they give you one ticket,” a driver who has been on the road for seven years tells me, but if you’re registered, “maybe they give you no ticket.”
On January 1, 18,000 “street hail” medallions, a makeover of the livery license, hit market at $1,500 a piece. Winston Williams, owner of Blackstreet Van Lines, isn’t convinced that dollar van drivers will be lining up to take the bait. He still hasn’t heard from the TLC about upgrading his eight drivers to “street hail” status. “If there is no enforcement behind it there will be will a lot more illegal cars,” he says. “To become legal is very expensive.”
Despite the city’s push for regulation, the dollar van system appears untouched. John drops off his last customer and turns the corner to the end of the route, the hub of the system: Kings Plaza, a highly trafficked intersection where a giant shopping mall erupts above the concrete landscape. The two routes in this network of dollar vans meet here, Flatbush Ave. and Utica Ave. Vans line up on the sidewalk outside a Radio Shack, and men congregate beside the vans to herd passengers. “Flatbush! Flatbush!” or “Utica! Utica!” they yell. The drivers chat, swap stories, and negotiate which route to drive. But what seems a permanent van stand is actually temporary, dismantled at the drop of the “P” word: “Police.”
“If you do the dollar van you’re supposed to stop here,” John says as we speed around the corner, “but sometimes the police don’t want you stopping there.”
We circle back to pick up his friend who had been buying lunch. The stretch of sidewalk is empty. Someone dropped the p-word. Police.
Around three o’clock John decides his shift is done. He lets the last passenger out and pulls over so we can chat. He lifts his sunglasses to the top of his head, revealing eyes puffy with fatigue.
He moved to America in 1995, he tells me, following his father. In Jamaica he worked as a police officer. I ask why he moved. He pauses, laughs out loud, and replies slowly. “People always say you come to America to better yourself, put it that way,” he says. “You could come here and make good of yourself if you want to.”
He still believes this version of the American Dream, “Yah, I can be what I want here.” But seems to be at a crossroads between what he wants to be doing, and what he perhaps should be doing. He earned his license as a nurse’s aid while living in Brooklyn, but after a few years as a nurse quit his job and went back to the road.
He’s currently taking classes to get his certification renewed. “I take the board exam at the end of the month, yah. Maybe I’ll look for a nursing job, always somebody needs a nurse in this city. Yah, maybe I’ll be professional,” he says. He pauses and drums on his steering wheel. “Maybe not. I never really liked it, no,” he says.
Driving a dollar van is not a stepping stone job; it’s one without the prospect for fame and fortune, or even a pension.
But perhaps the draw is deeper than that. John takes a sip of his Pepsi. “I just like to pick up and go, I drive myself and I feel… safe. Yah, when I drive myself I take myself safe, nobody can take me safe like when I drive.”
A song on the stereo caught his ear. He gives me a sideways glance and turns the volume up.
The birds in the trees,
Just keep singing so sweet.
He turns the pulls the van back into traffic, and sings along. “The birds in the cages, would like to fly away. Oh my, oh my. Na na na na…”
Photographs by Jeffrey Jones