Three-Car Minimum: Why My Dad's Dream Never Came True
My dad wanted to start his own business but raising the barrier to entry sabotaged his efforts before he ever got started. My mom took a different approach.
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My dad was a taxi driver in New York during the 1970s — the Taxi Driver era. He kept a crowbar under the driver’s seat, but that didn’t stop him from being held up at knifepoint. After years of what is consistently rated one of the “most stressful jobs in America,” he graduated to “blue cars,” or private cars.
Instead of fending off would-be robbers, negotiating with drunks and addicts, or chasing end-of-ride runners, my dad shuttled rich people to and from JFK. It was a cushy gig if you played your cards right. You could rustle up some fat tips when charming the right passenger. My dad’s obsession with literature worked to his advantage. Well-heeled passengers were invariably impressed when they saw his copy of Ulysses on top of the armrest.
The private car gig was much better than driving the yellow taxi, but he ran into another problem: He was constantly arguing with his bosses, who, according to him, were too demanding, too arrogant, too overbearing, and too dumb. They had no idea what they were doing, and he told them as much. The thing about bosses, though, is that they don’t like being condescended to. As a result (among other reasons), my dad struggled to hold down a job.
For years he talked about escaping this merry-go-round of employers by starting his own company. But he never did.
My dad said he needed at least three cars to start his own car company. That was the minimum needed to maintain 24-7 availability, each driver covering an eight-hour shift. He insisted that was necessary to build a reputation as a reliable outfit.
When I asked my dad why he couldn’t share one car among three drivers, he scoffed and rattled off something vague about the logistical challenges of handing off vehicles. As a boy, I wouldn’t challenge him, but his explanation didn’t hold water.
The Bakery Fiasco
It’s not easy to save money when you’re new to a country. If you’re a working-class immigrant, you start off with poverty-line wages. You have no savings, no credit, and no safety net. If someone had gotten sick or hurt, it would’ve spelled doom for our family’s American experiment.
You can save money as a working-class immigrant, but it requires monastic discipline. When my parents first moved to the U.S., my father kept up two jobs — busboy at the employee cafeteria at Korvettes, a now-defunct department store, and busboy at The Roosevelt Hotel, which shuttered during the pandemic after a century in business — while my mother raised my older sister, an infant at the time, as she sewed for three different factories from home. She would switch out the thread in the sewing machine when a factory rep came by to pick up the garments that she’d stitched together so they wouldn’t find out she was working for other factories, an apparent no-no.
It took my parents four years to raise $10,000 (almost $80,000 today), the result of a herculean effort — four years with little respite or reward. It was enough to open up a bakery back in Argentina. They transferred the money to a friend and — poof! — it was gone. Four years of savings. Gone.
I always wondered if their friend had double-crossed them, but my parents insisted that he was just gullible and likely swindled. Either way, the result was the same: My parents lost their savings and had to start over.
Peaks & Valleys
My dad never recovered from that loss. He never saved that kind of money again, even though he went from busboy to taxi driver to private-car driver, which in theory should’ve been a major step forward. But he’d become less consistent.
When you drove a blue car, you paid a monthly rental fee. My dad would skip work frequently enough that that he couldn’t cover the rent, so my mom would. That happened for many years. My dad’s productivity had peaks and wide valleys, while the minimum-wage efforts of my tireless mother provided his safety net.
Ever the dreamer, my dad would relate to me how he would build his empire, how he would expand, how he would differentiate his car company from others, and how he would avoid all the mistakes his bosses made.
The Daycare Center
In the mid-nineties, my sister saved up enough money working at a law firm in Washington Heights to start a business with my mother. A daycare. It was perfect for my mom. She was already working at another daycare, and she had experience as a teacher’s assistant at my elementary school. My sister managed the finances, and my mother took care of the kids.
When my mom took the financial helm, our situation improved. At first, she still needed my father’s contribution, but over time she became financially independent. It helped if he added to the pot, of course, but it was no longer necessary.
My dad was bitterly critical of the daycare. It didn’t take a psychiatrist to realize why. He complained about everything. My mom wasn’t making enough. She had too many employees. Or too few. She was paying too much in rent. In fact, why was she paying rent at all? She should’ve bought the building first. That way, she would’ve taken money home hand over fist. She could’ve rented out the upstairs to earn some passive income. If only she had consulted him.
When the daycare had a bad month, my dad pissed and moaned. He alternated between accusing the daycare of draining the family’s finances and badgering my mom for failing to open another daycare center. He was scheming about franchising and world domination while my mom paid the bills.
25 Years (And Counting)
Years later, once the daycare was established, my mom offered to buy my dad a car so that he could finally start his own company, but he declined. Three cars or bust.
My mom has been in business for 25 years (26 years this August). She eventually did open a second daycare center, although the rent for the second location ate into her margins, prompting her to revert to a single spot. She weathered literal storms, Hurricanes Irene and Sandy, burst pipes, broken-down HVAC, taxing work with the most demanding of all customers, parents, and a pandemic with a business that cannot be remote.
My mom didn’t start an empire. She didn’t get rich. She started with one daycare, and she still has one. But she’s her own boss. She made enough to buy a house, buy a car, and most importantly, provide for her family without fail.