MOST mornings at 3:45, Stanley Wissak, 84, leaves his Sutton Place apartment on the East Side of Manhattan and drives across the Queensboro Bridge in his Mercedes-Benz sedan with a license plate that reads, “OFFDUTE.”
By 4 a.m., Mr. Wissak is on duty, working as the dispatcher within the gritty confines of 55 Stan, his yellow-cab company on Vernon Boulevard in Long Island City, Queens.
With 140 medallion cabs, 55 Stan is one of the larger fleets in the city, and under a less-experienced dispatcher, the busy pre-sunrise shift change might turn chaotic.
But for Mr. Wissak, handing off cabs from the night to the day shift passes for sport.
The night drivers come in griping about drunken passengers, bad tippers and unfair summonses. Their gas, toll and credit-card charges are computed, and the cabs are cleaned out, gassed up and rushed back onto the road.
In a booth the size of a narrow bathroom, Mr. Wissak squeezes past a hulking safe and takes his usual spot at a window, where his feet have worn the floor bare. He leans toward a microphone, and his gravelly voice blares through the lot and the locker room: “Let’s go. Bring in some keys. I need keys.”
As each key is turned in, he slides it back under the bulletproof glass to the next day-shifter shuffling in from the darkness of the Queens streets and sends him or her off with an order to “feel good.”
Forget computers. Mr. Wissak scrawls a long list of drivers on duty in a large ledger, in pencil.
“The way I do it, the job hasn’t changed,” he said at 5 a.m. on a recent weekday. Already, numerous drivers had called in sick, so he began calling his standby men, saying: “Get in here — I got you on a car.”
The drivers rent the cabs from Mr. Wissak for 12-hour shifts, at rates that range from about $110 to $130. Including weekenders and other part-timers, he has 500 drivers.
“I hired them all, and I know where they’re from and the members of their family,” he said. One driver approached and beamed when Mr. Wissak said, “This guy’s daughter is a doctor in her last year of residency at Mount Sinai.”
The next driver, from Ghana, shouted a cheerful greeting in Asante, to which Mr. Wissak replied in his native Bensonhurst dialect, “Aw, you son of a gun.”
Then came another driver: a 6-foot-6 woman nicknamed Shorty, who is from the Ivory Coast. Then came a Dominican who said, “Stanley boss, I am your soldier today, and I am here early.”
“Good, you get a T-shirt,” Mr. Wissak snapped.
Mr. Wissak’s cabs never rest. His cars are sold after two years of continuous use on the road. He has a staff of 15 mechanics to keep them running.
He is continually recruiting new drivers at the weekly hack-license tests and cabdriver schools.
“I look for older guys with families,” he said. “When a guy comes in and says, ‘I got five kids,’ I say, ‘You’re hired.’ ” Younger drivers are flightier, he said, like the one a few years back who left a cab on the Brooklyn Bridge, jumped off — and survived.
“He asked me to take him back, but I told him, ‘No chance,’ ” Mr. Wissak said.
Mr. Wissak’s father, Elias, bought his first medallions in 1938, and Mr. Wissak entered the business after serving in the United States Army Air Forces at the tail end of World War II. He dispatched and drove a fleet of DeSotos and Studebakers.
At one point, Mr. Wissak won a legal battle for the family and broke the good news to his father just before he died, in 1964. “It was the greatest day of my life,” said Mr. Wissak, who now runs the business with a son, Richard, 52, a lawyer who dispatches and often represents the drivers in court.
Mr. Wissak enjoys weekends in Connecticut, European vacations and good Manhattan restaurants. But mostly, often six days a week, he is among his mechanics, gas pumpers and struggling immigrant drivers.
Fleet medallions are said to be worth $1 million apiece these days. Mr. Wissak said they were such a solid and profitable investment that he had established trusts for his grandchildren by putting medallions in their names.
As for his valuable property on the East River, where luxury high-rises have sprung up, he said he had no desire to sell to a developer and retire.
“What else am I going to do?” he said.