The Five Families of Feces The porta-potty business is as dirty as you’d think. But one man keeps coming up smelling like roses.
harles W. Howard is the porta-potty king of New York City. The seat of his vast empire is Broad Channel, Queens; from this windswept rock in Jamaica Bay, you can see the lights of Manhattan twinkling across the water. Early every morning, while the city sleeps, dozens of trucks — tagged with WE’RE #1 AT PICKING UP #2 decals — snake through the five boroughs to clean his 18,000 toilets. The company boasts more than $35 million in annual revenue, thanks in part to “salesgirls” who head out each day in the company’s signature Volkswagen Beetles to poach contracts from competitors who are too shy to sell with sex. Charlie himself arrives at work only around midday in a black Cadillac Escalade. Young female dispatchers and clerks cry “Charlie! Charlie!” while men in orange slickers hose down toilets in the yard.
On a recent Thursday, the gleaming Escalade stops at a pizzeria, and Charlie, 53, steps out, a bit heavy and wearing a rumpled purple dress shirt. He’s brought along Kimberly, the star of his company’s YouTube channel. She’s beautiful, blonde, and his wife. Charlie favors superlatives, like another Queens businessman, and speaks with the accent you’d expect from a man so old-school New York there’s a neighborhood named after his family. And now, not far from Howard Beach, he explains why he’s the greatest toilet man in America. “I had different theories about business,” he says, “and they all turned out to be correct.”
Nationally, portable toilets are a $2 billion business. Construction rentals are three-quarters of New York’s market, and as America’s real-estate sector has rebounded over the past half-decade, the industry has exploded. Developers pay $100 a month for a pump truck to visit once a week and hoover up blue-tinged waste. Profits are made by building dense routes: lots of toilets at a stop and lots of job sites close together. Events are a growing corner of the business. Go to Smorgasburg and count the toilets: Daily rentals run about $225 each. Use a luxury restroom trailer with flushing toilets at an upstate wedding? It cost the bride’s parents a few thousand bucks just for the night.
You can’t get denser routes than in New York City, which makes it a major prize. But the market is a nightmare to navigate — traffic, tolls, angry unions, toilets that need to be lowered by crane from skyscrapers. A small group of competitors controls the industry: “the big five.” Mr. John is clean-cut and corporate. Abe Breuer, a wiry Hasidic Jew, runs John to Go from Rockland County. A Royal Flush owns the special-events market and enjoys an enviable 7,000-toilet contract with New York Road Runners to clean up after nervous, caffeinated runners. Johnny on the Spot is now part of a national chain. Over a four-decade career, Charlie’s Call-a-Head has held its own.
But now, Charlie might fall off his throne. More than 1,300 former pump-truck drivers, the men who literally haul his shit, are part of a class-action lawsuit that could put him out of business. The rest of the big five covet his empire.
“They would love for us to get destroyed,” Charlie says, though it’s quite a vague “they.” Spend enough time in his world and you wonder if he’s perhaps the most hated man in the city. Kimberly Howard nods. “Business,” she says, “is war.”
In 1976, Charles P. Howard — Charlie’s dad — was a commercial fisherman in a sour economy when he built six wooden toilets and bought a broken truck. He set up shop on an old gas-station lot in his hometown of Broad Channel and put his son to work. Charles Jr., then just 11, painted toilets with a spray gun and fielded orders out of the family kitchen. Within a few years, he was driving a truck without a license and making deliveries around the city.
But in Broad Channel — hardscrabble, Irish Catholic, and working class — everyone’s dad was a cop, firefighter, or tradesman. “They were a laughingstock, to be honest,” one longtime resident says of the Howard family. “It was ‘Your father’s in the shit business.’ ”
In 1981, Charles P. Howard was preparing to sell: A competitor had offered $25,000. Charlie, then 16, went ballistic. Revenue had topped $50,000 that year, he pointed out, and the company was on pace for $75,000 the next. Quit now? No way. Charlie dropped out of high school, and his father turned over his 150 toilets.
In the 1980s, the market grew quickly. New federal regulations banned outhouses and required toilets on job sites. Event organizers realized that guests stayed longer and spent more money when toilets were available. Foremen got more work out of laborers who didn’t wander off to find a public bathroom.
Charlie had bigger ideas — grander plans. “What I’m doing is I’m trying to create dreams that are inspirational to everybody,” he says. He developed color theories: white-and-blue paint jobs for porta-potties, and stainless steel on pump trucks, to convey an antiseptic feeling. He hustled for contracts and joked that if he won the lottery, he’d use the money to buy more toilets.
By the 1990s, Call-a-Head was flourishing. Charlie got a steady girlfriend, Donna Buonagura, and bought a yacht and named it Both Ends. He acquired a plot of land in Broad Channel, and, in a neighborhood with a then-average home price of $140,000, he hired an architect to design a million-dollar mansion, a cross between Newport, Rhode Island, and an Epcot pavilion. It had five fireplaces, an indoor pool, and a dock. “Bathed in floodlights after dusk,” the Newsday real-estate section reported in 1998, “it becomes a beacon.”
Across the river, in Edison, New Jersey, Gary Weiner, the owner of Mr. John, watched Call-a-Head’s rise and took note. On paper, Weiner’s background was almost identical. His father, Morton Weiner, started out in 1964 — with a toilet he built from plywood and a 55-gallon drum turned on its side — to take advantage of the postwar building boom. Gary worked in the shop and then as a driver in high school and college. Like Charlie, toilets were the only world he knew.
But in other ways, the two men were opposites. Charlie, in a recent deposition, said of his drivers, “I go through thousands. You know, they are scrubbing a toilet bowl with a brush. I can’t remember them.” Weiner, who studied public policy and law at Syracuse University, describes his efficient and economical service with the pep of an Applebee’s waiter at happy hour: “If that’s not the best value in America, I don’t know what is!”
Weiner is a gentleman and won’t say an unkind word about Charlie on the record — a courtesy that is not reciprocated. Howard openly belittles every facet of Weiner’s business: He has expanded over too much territory; his toilets’ earthy tones are suited for a living room, not a porta-potty; he buys bad equipment; his sales techniques are a joke.
During the ’80s and ’90s, Mr. John also grew, as Weiner won contracts and bought up smaller competitors. By the aughts, New York was changing and Mr. John saw an opportunity to take advantage: to be a “sanitized” sanitation company in the city that mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg had cleaned up. He was a generous employer and a reliable corporate partner. On September 12, 2001, Weiner personally led a convoy of trucks to deliver 100 porta-potties to ground zero for rescue workers.
When I visit Mr. John’s offices, Weiner has just graced the cover of PROmagazine, a monthly trade publication for portable-restroom operators (Pumper, a sister magazine, covers liquid waste). But he’s more interested in showing me a weathered copy of the New York Times from August 24, 2005. The “Metro” section that day had an above-the-fold profile of Charlie Howard. Why, I ask, does he have this 13-year-old newspaper in his office?
“Because he’s somebody that we, uhhh …” Weiner says, then blushes.
The meaning is clear. Mr. John wants to overthrow the king.
In December 2003, Howard Schwach, then the editor of The Wave, was in the weekly paper’s Rockaways newsroom when his phone rang with a tip.
“Do you know what’s going on over at Call-a-Head?” the caller asked. “You wanna go over there.”
The company’s main yard abuts Jamaica Bay wildlife refuge. For decades, the national park has been popular with bird-watchers and gangsters looking to dump bodies. When one of Schwach’s reporters arrived, state environmental investigators were swarming the property, taking water samples and storing them in test tubes. Call-a-Head employees had been power-washing toilets in the yard, they claimed, and letting dirty water seep into the park. Charlie Howard paid a $100,000 fine for polluting protected wetlands and using unmetered city water.
It was just a speed bump for Charlie, who was busy developing new theories, like “The grass is always greener.” He let competitors ink the initial waste contracts on new job sites. Call-a-Head spies scouted the city for rival toilets, then Charlie dispatched pairs of salesgirls — one all business, the other all flirt. “As soon as Mr. John messes up,” Charlie says, “they’re thinkin’ of those girls.” Weiner began hearing stories about provocatively dressed young women entering job sites to cascades of wolf whistles. “It might be a little Hooters-ish,” says Ray Luden, a regional manager for PolyJohn, a portable-toilet manufacturer, “but it works!” Charlie’s best salesgirls today make $150,000 a year.
His wealth growing, Charlie decided to put his mark on Broad Channel. In 2005, he announced plans to build a pharmacy, a “Venetian café,” and a hotel. In a Times article, the same one Gary Weiner keeps under his coffee table, Mr. John could only feebly dispute Charlie’s assertion that Call-a-Head was the state’s top toilet company.
But as Charlie strove, as the Times wrote, to “become Broad Channel’s Donald J. Trump,” his hubris grew. Call-a-Head pump trucks blocked traffic on the town’s main artery, Cross Bay Boulevard. Out on the water, his yacht dwarfed his neighbors’ 15-foot fishing boats. A quiet consensus grew that he was not donating enough money to Broad Channel Athletic Club and the volunteer firefighters. The community turned on him.
“I don’t think I know anybody in Broad Channel who had any care for him,” Schwach says.
Charlie was bullying drivers, too. He screamed and threw paychecks in employees’ faces, and when a customer called to complain about a dirty toilet, he humiliated a driver by forcing him to kneel down and demonstrate his scrubbing technique. Asked for comment, he explained, “I’m very passionate. The best example is Steve Jobs — it’s very hard to get people to do their jobs correctly.”
The work was hard enough without the abuse. Vacuum-cleaning a portable toilet is a bit like sucking down a root-beer float. The hose shakes and squirms as it swallows lumpier bits, then it’s down to the frothy blue dregs. When construction workers drop rags or cell phones down there, though, it can get messy. In 2008, Moises Maloof was pumping a toilet when debris caught in the hose. The vacuum pressure split the rubber, spraying excrement into his face.
“Thank God, I have a deviated septum,” says Maloof, who is now an MTA tower operator. When he returned to the office, Charlie yelled at him for having removed his uniform.
Portable toilets are a lagging economic indicator. In a recession, housing starts drop, but projects under construction are typically finished. Porta-potties stay on site until the bitter end.
But toilets can also be a canary in the coal mine. Fewer events means fewer opportunities; no new construction means no new toilet orders.
If Charlie saw the recession coming, it might explain why, over the Fourth of July in 2008, he had his meltdown. Of course, it probably didn’t help that he now faced a flood of lawsuits from drivers alleging unpaid overtime or that Charlie had moved out of his beloved mansion to be with his new girlfriend, Kimberly.
On July 3, Donna Buonagura, now his ex, was eating dinner at a restaurant in Broad Channel when Charlie and Kimberly “made a scene within the restaurant and commenced an altercation,” according to court documents. At 1 a.m., the fight spilled outside. Charlie revved his car’s engine and tried to hit Buonagura, who narrowly jumped out of the way.
“Get your own family!” Kimberly shouted at her. “Get your own house! He has been cheating on you for 15 years!”
Two nights later, headlights beamed into Buonagura’s window. Charlie and Kimberly were sitting across the street in their car, the engine running. They sat there for 20 minutes, then drove away. Charlie was back again the next morning, screaming into the intercom. His threats echoed through the mansion. “You own nothing!” he cried. “You have nothing! This is my house!”
Charlie disputes details of the weekend. Whatever transpired, it was the prologue of a horror story for Call-a-Head. On September 10, 2008, he and Buonagura signed a truce. He would give her the keys to the Porsche and buy her a new Denali truck and a $1 million house within a year so he could move back into his castle.
Two weeks later, the stock market crashed. Housing starts had been falling for more than two years, and now it was official: Porta-potties were in trouble. All around the city, toilet operators buckled down. In West Haverstraw, upstart Abe Breuer of John to Go fired a driver and paid himself $1,000 a week to pump his own toilets through the cold winter. Gary Weiner at Mr. John furloughed workers, consolidated routes, and canceled year-end bonuses. A management consultant told Weiner to “put a hole” in Call-a-Head and “sink his boat.”
Around 3:30 a.m. on February 25, 2009, Broad Channel residents smelled something coming from Call-a-Head. Not the usual mix of toilet chemicals and diesel. Something else. A neighbor poked his head out the window. Across the street, flames were roaring high into the sky.
It took 60 firefighters nearly an hour to control the blaze. Surveillance video later showed a masked man in a Call-a-Head uniform setting fire to a truck. The flames spread to six more vehicles, eventually destroying $250,000 worth of equipment.
The list of motivated arsonists was long: angry environmentalists, neighbors, and drivers.
“All of us put our heads together, and we came up with like 100 people,” Charlie says today and laughs. Everyone was a suspect.
When, after several months, the arson investigation stalled, Charlie took out an ad in The Wave offering a $100,000 reward. But a different rumor was already spreading though Broad Channel.
“People were convinced — and I have no evidence for this — that he did it himself for insurance purposes and that he blamed it on the community,” says Schwach. “You would be hard-pressed to find anybody who didn’t believe that.” Charlie claims he never collected any insurance money, lest his premiums be increased. The arson remains unsolved.
He had other problems. “he is the biggest piece of sh*t ever known to mankind,” Buonagura raged on Facebook. Charlie still hadn’t bought her a house. He pleaded for patience.
“This economy has affected me and my business, and I cannot give you what I do not have,” he wrote her in a letter. “Winter is coming, and business is getting worse as job sites are closing daily.”
In February 2010, Buonagura sued for breach of contract. The tabloids picked up the story. “Call-a-Head King’s Ex Wants Indoor Plumbing,” read the headline in the Daily News. According to an affidavit, Buonagura even took a job at Rent a Throne, a smaller competitor, and picked up Call-a-Head accounts.
Call-a-Head floundered. In 2011, Charlie reported $1.6 million in income, according to tax records, down from $2 million the year before. He still owed SunTrust Bank $1.4 million for My Kimberly, his new 72-foot yacht; that June, the bank repossessed the boat. In 2012, his income cratered to $637,000.
Broad Channel has one of the lowest elevations in New York City. The island sits just three feet above sea level. High tides flood the streets about twice a month; the local historical society’s calendar tells residents when to move their cars to the elevated median on Cross Bay Boulevard. In October 2012, as Hurricane Sandy barreled toward Broad Channel, a six-foot storm surge drowned the island. Boats, cars, and portable toilets floated in the streets.
When floodwaters subsided, Charlie surveyed the damage at Call-a-Head. Porta-potties lay scattered across Cross Bay Boulevard and the marshes. But the toilets he really worried about were the thousands deployed around New York City, which still needed cleaning. Of his 80 trucks, only one was operational. Charlie moved into an airport hotel, ran his business from a cell phone, and slept two hours a night as he scrambled to pump the dirtiest toilets on his routes.
Charlie called Mr. John and begged to rent trucks. Gary Weiner’s brother and business partner, Mitchell Weiner, refused. It took Charlie six months to get Call-a-Head back to normal, but in the meantime Mr. John had swiped contracts. By 2014, Charlie’s income was still stuck at $600,000. “They want to act like I’m a rock star,” he said during a deposition with Buonagura’s lawyer that year. “You can’t pay money you don’t have.”
But the economy was roaring. And Charlie had another theory he wanted to test.
Portable toilets have gone through multiple evolutions, with each advance fixing a critical deficiency: makeshift barrels on World War II shipyards (no privacy) to enclosed wooden toilets (soaked up too much liquid) to fiberglass (cracked easily) to high-density polyethylene plastic (bingo). But the basic contours of PolyJohn’s workhorse toilet, the PJN3, which retails for about $550, hasn’t changed in decades.
“At the end of the day, it’s a four-foot-square box,” says Ray Luden, the toilet salesman. “And guess what? People take a shit in it!”
Charlie saw a new market: luxury restroom trailers. They were becoming popular at weddings and upscale events as the economy strengthened. The man who had dreamed up a Newport-cum-Disney mansion wanted to separate himself from the pack. Today, you can watch more than 60 promotional videos for themed toilet trailers with names like the Cambridge and the Plaza. Kimberly Howard stars in them all, including the ad for the Versailles, which was inspired by the couple’s trip to France.
“On our flight home, we discussed how to create a restroom trailer in the grand Louis the 14th style,” she says, running her manicured fingers over “Calcutta marble” and porcelain vessel sinks as classical music plays. The market is crowded: Abe Breuer’s luxury trailers were at Art Basel in Miami. Kimberly helps Charlie stand out from the pack.
Today, midtown Manhattan is once again dotted with Charlie’s toilets — many of them now colored bright orange, an innovation to make them more like traffic cones. The Versailles luxury trailer rents for $3,000 a night at weddings and the Westminster Dog Show.
Charlie is chastened. He bought a new My Kimberly, a more modest 52-footer that cost a third the price of the old one. He now drives an older model Escalade to avoid sparking jealousy among locals, lest someone key his car. And since 2012, he’s donated substantially to the Broad Channel Athletic Club, quietly paying for a new scoreboard and batting cages.
“I’m much better at handling that,” Charlie says. “Just trying to be low-key.”
Former drivers remain furious over years of abuse.
“Who does this fuckin’ scumbag think he is?” asks Timothy Aduleit, a former Call-a-Head driver who successfully sued, winning a $5,000 settlement for unpaid wages. “He looks like he crawled out of a dumpster.”
And now the drivers are an existential threat to the business. In June 2015, more of them sued, seeking more unpaid overtime. But this suit has class-action status; more than 1,300 pump-truck drivers are currently represented. Charlie has always settled, but not now.
“This is the case where I have had it, and I want to fight back to the end,” Charlie said in a recent deposition. “And now the drivers have to, you know, pay.”
If Charlie goes to trial and loses, the damages could be in the tens of millions of dollars. Call-a-Head would be finished.
Charlie has new competition, too: Private equity is making a porta-potty play. In July 2017, Platinum Equity, a Beverly Hills–based investment firm, bought United Site Services, the nation’s largest portable-toilet conglomerate. Charlie frequently fields calls encouraging him to sell. His payday would be enormous, perhaps as much as $40 million — at least according to Charlie. He always refuses, he says.
And then, in December, Gary Weiner dropped a bombshell. He had just sold himself to United Site Services. Mr. John was throwing in the towel. Within days, according to Charlie, the toilet giant was calling Call-a-Head’s clients, offering a 30 percent discount on rentals. (Weiner disputes this.) A battle with Wall Street and “a lot of college-educated people from Harvard” loomed, but Charlie saw only “bean counters” who didn’t understand the industry.
“This is my life,” he says. “I love it. I’ll always be doin’ it.”