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Seven years ago he went from being a Catholic to a Baptist, and before he knew it he was saving $5000 a yearnot because one religion has a better approach to saving than the other, but "in becoming a Baptist, I stopped drinking and spending money going out, and that's when my business started growing," said Brazilian-born Antonio Duarte, 41, owner of Peniel Limousine Service in Queens.
Duarte called his business Peniel because it is the name that Jacob gave to the location where he fought with the angel of God and received God's blessing. Printed on Duarte's business stationery is the quotation from Genesis 32:30, "I saw God face to face and my life was saved."
Standing in his office on a street of commercial garages in Astoria, Duarte spoke into the microphone of his Nextel radio system, telling the drivers of his fleettown cars, stretch limos, and a vanwhere to deliver people.
Duarte said he came to New York in the late '80s to take helicopter lessons. He had been a police officer in Rio, making $80 a month hunting out drug dealers in the hills, and he wanted to learn how to fly a helicopter to advance his career. He only intended to stay in New York long enough to take the lessons. While looking for a place to live, he met a Brazilian woman who had an apartment to share. She thought it would be inappropriate to have a strange man for a roommate, plus she had a boyfriend, but "one day she's no longer with the boyfriend and I become the boyfriend. Two months later, I was allowed to move in." He never took the helicopter lessons. Today Duarte and Zila are married with an eight-year-old daughter, Virginia, and live in Astoria, the center of New York's Brazilian community.
In the beginning, Duarte earned money as a drivera business, like restaurants, that a newcomer can get into right away. There are some who begin the day after they arrive. They "start illegally with private plates, working hotels, no license on cars, no insurance. Some get caught, they go to jail, next day they're out, and you see them back at the airport."
Duarte himself went to work for a car service. He quickly became an owner of one. The business is tough, risky, and highly competitive. After the drivers pay their weekly base fee to the owner, cover their car payments, insurance, and gasoline, and clear maybe only $400 a week, they are not always in the happiest frame of mind. They get tempted. From the owner's perspective, Duarte said, "every customer you give to them to drive, they can give the customer their own phone number so you no longer make the commission."
When Duarte was a limo driver for Carey, "all the drivers had to sign a contract. After six months, you had to sign another contract to stay with them for 10 years. I told the owner, 'It's going to get to a point where I will have to accept customers who will want to hire me on the side.' Even though I'm strong in Christianity, I'm weak as a human." Duarte did not sign. In 1996, he bought a limousine business with two cars and some debts for $70,000. On the whole, the limo business is okay, "less headaches than the car service." He owns all his cars, which means about $11,000 for each secondhand Lincoln. And for a business with four driverssometimes more, depending on how busy he isyearly expenses can run "$16,000 for insurance, $2700 for licenses, $36,000 for gasoline, $2800 for radios, $18,000 for garage rent, $9600 for office telephones, $6000 for cellular phones, $12,000 for advertising, $4200 for office help." Then there is gas to heat the garage, car washes, oil changes, accident repairs, computer supplies, garbage collecting, "another $480 a year for the container outside. You can't have a regular bucket..."
With those expenses, he can use God's help.