Community Fostered in an Unlikely Place

Jun 10, 2010 Published under Introspection, KIND Snacks, Life, New York City

by Adeena Schlussel on behalf of Daniel Lubetzky

This New York Times article proves the KIND philosophy that strangers can be friends if they break modern society’s barriers; in this case, all it takes is talking to people who share your commute.

New York Times

June 9, 2010, 10:26 AM

22 Minutes in the 4:15 A.M. Van


Anthony Henry

Michael Nagle for The New York Times

Anthony Henry picking up early morning commuters in Queens. For his regulars, the van is more than a guarantee of getting to work on time. It is a living room on wheels.


The van departs punctually at 4:15 a.m. from the small parking lot at the corner of Merrick Boulevard and 233rd Street in Laurelton, Queens, bound for the Jamaica Center subway station four and a half miles away. It has room for 12 passengers, and its seats are so coveted that people call days in advance to secure their place.

For these commuters, the van is more than a guarantee of getting to work on time. It is a living room on wheels. That is what I learned while riding with Anthony Henry, a licensed commuter van driver, for several hours as part of my reporting about the increasing competition among licensed and unlicensed van drivers.

Regulars are given priority, and there are enough of them to fill Mr. Henry’s van every weekday but Friday, when one of them, Sandra Armstrong, is off. Only then does Mr. Henry lets someone else ride shotgun. Somehow, the front passenger seat became Ms. Armstrong’s seat, and no one else dares to sit there without Mr. Henry’s permission.

“That’s my spot, and no one’s taking it,” Ms. Armstrong, 36, said only half-jokingly as she settled in on a recent Thursday.

It was 4:12 a.m.

Outside, Mr. Henry paced back and forth, glancing at his watch and scanning Merrick Boulevard for sight of a straggler. “Yvonne!” he hollered as a woman turned the corner, a bag slung over her shoulder, a tube of moisturizer in her hands.

“My heels are very dry,” Yvonne Walters, 51, would say moments later. She had removed her shoes and was applying moisturizer to her feet.

No one seemed to care.

Ms. Armstrong, Ms. Walters and the 10 other passengers on Mr. Henry’s 4:15 a.m. ride all know one another’s names, what jobs they have, where they live and whether they have a spouse or children at home. It’s a familiarity acquired in bits and pieces, on spurts of conversation held during the 22 minutes it takes to reach the subway.

“We talk about baseball, football,” said Mark Daire, 44, a physician’s assistant who has to report to work at 5:30 a.m.

“Just keep it real: boyfriend, girlfriend, fooling around, divorce,” added Ms. Armstrong, 36, a tollbooth clerk whose shift starts at 7:30 a.m. in New Jersey.

“We go out for dinner together sometimes,” Michelle Norman, 41, a barista at a Starbucks in Rockefeller Center who starts work at 5 a.m., piped in.

Mr. Henry drives along the same route as the Q5 bus, which his passengers said has been less and less reliable. (A bus is supposed to pass by every 30 minutes.) Being late to work is one thing they worry about. Safety is another concern, especially for the women — Merrick Boulevard is dark and eerily quiet at 4:15 a.m.

Riding the van has other advantages. “You don’t have to stare at some kid’s underwear poking out from a pair of baggy jeans,” said Viagela Ginshy, 54.

Mr. Henry also enforces certain rules. There is no eating or drinking in his van. Talking on a cellphone is not prohibited, but it is highly discouraged. There is no smoking, and no one is allowed to carry fish in the van unless the fish is wrapped in newspaper and placed in a plastic bag with a few lemon slices. Most of his clients are from Jamaica and other islands in the Caribbean, so fish is a big part of their diet, Mr. Henry explained, “but I don’t want my van to stink.”

At 4:37 a.m., the van pulled up at the Jamaica Center station, the first stop on the E train, which runs to the World Trade Center stop in Manhattan. When the passengers filed in, they all said their good mornings. As they filed out, they paid Mr. Henry his $2 fare and wished everyone a nice day.

“Tomorrow,” Mr. Henry said with a smile, “I’ll see them all again.”

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