Mauro of Manhattan
“Come and visit me, I am in the exact center of the world.”
The day I arrived in New York last year, I would have never been able to utter such a pretentious sentence. But after a few weeks in the city I realized that, unless you are so self-centered to the point of not being ashamed of saying such nonsense, nobody will notice you.
I didn’t know anybody in Manhattan, had no friends: I was starting from scratch. But my company, Rizzoli, provided me with an office in a wonderful location: 31 West 57 Street. The most expensive real estate on earth, 850 dollars a year just to rent one square foot. So, why not make the most out of it?
“Reeeally?” Marsha replied to my hyperbolic invitation. A nice 30-years-old, I met her at Serafina. She was smiling suspiciously, especially after I told her I am an Italian journalist working for the magazine Oggi . She understood “Orgy,” like most people do, and she didn’t know whether to feign fake Upper East Side embarrassment, or ask for more details to quell her curiosity. Many of my interlocutors are disappointed after I spell it, explaining that it means “Today.”
In any case, Marsha asked me: “So, what’s this center-of-the-world thing? Is it your pick up line?”
I proceeded to elucidate: “The U.S are the most important country in the world, right? And New York is the largest American city …. ”
“But Washington is the capital …. ”
“Listen, the U.N. are here. Manhattan is in the center of New York. And 57 Street is in the middle of Manhattan, and the block between Fifth and Sixth Avenue is right in the center of 57 Street …. ”
I had to speed up. When you are courting women either you choose the hypnotic approach, and you can speak for hours, or you bore them to tears. But we were standing at a cocktail party, and I had to be fast.
“The center of the world is the crossroad of 57th with Fifth Avenue?” Marsha interrupted me.
“Right,” I agreed. “Where else can you find Tiffany, Bulgari, Van Cleef and Vuitton all in the same place?”
Just hearing the sound of those names made her feel pleasure, I could tell from her eyes. I had gained 20 more seconds: “So, the Rizzoli building is in the center of that block, and my office is on the fourth floor, which is right in the middle of the seven stories, just up from the three floors of the bookstore …. ”
“O.K., I’ll stop by one of these days,” she finally capitulated.
“Actually,” I went on, “there is a town, Spoleto in central Umbria, which is the region in the middle of Italy, that boasts to be the center of the world, too. And they were right, at least until the discovery of America, given that Italy lies in the middle of the Mediterranean. The owner of a bar in Spoleto’s main square even maintains that the central skittle of his billiard-table is the real thing, the navel of the planet …. ”
“Can you get me something more to drink?” Marsha cut off bluntly my geographical meanderings.
I still had to get her phone number. I learned that in the Upper East Side it works like this: Out of 10 beautiful women you meet, you have the nerve to talk to no more than five. Out of these, only one (the less attractive) will give you her phone number (which is usually wrong). Out of the other four, to whom you give your card, only one (the plainest) will call you back or send you an absent-minded e-mail after days and days. You then propose a date for the week-end, and she invariably proclaims to be busy. So you downgrade the suggestion to an after work drink, and she replies: “Maybe next week.” You implore her to drop by at the Rizzoli bookstore, which after all is listed as a historical landmark in the official subway tourist maps, luring her with the offering of a Lavazza cup of coffee, and she replies, “I’ll call you back.” She never does. After two weeks you phone her, she doesn’t remember your name, and in any case in the end she pronounces the phrase: “Thank you for calling.” Which, translated from the U.E.S. language, means: “Don’t you dare to bother me ever again.”
Knowing already this fateful statistical outcome, when I printed my cards my new assistant at Rizzoli suggested that I drop the definition “U.S. Correspondent” of my predecessor. “Why don’t you present yourself as U.S. Bureau Chief?” he said. “Sounds more impressive.”
“Thank you Richard,” I objected, “but although we have a switchboard operator, an accountant and a lovely office manager, unfortunately I am the only journalist for Oggi here. Where the hell is the ‘bureau’?”
“Come on, I’ll be your bureau,” he winked.
He convinced me. Since then, I started placing myself in the center of the world. Shameless in New York.
Iris the Fare
Iris leaned her upper body out the window of her black Lincoln Town Car, a mini-cigar dangling from her lips and a Santa hat perched on her head. Her curly black hair was molded into pigtails. As various women walked past, Iris would honk frantically, point at them and yell, “You my fare?” Finally a woman emerged from a building and waved. “How are you, sweetie?” asked Iris, beaming, as the woman slid into the back seat.
The woman was the third passenger in the car; the vibe felt like a back-seat slumber party.
“This guy wouldn’t come home with me cause he’s allergic to my cat,” said one of the women, a brunette.
“That’s a bad sign,” said another passenger.
Iris Javed is one of very few female livery-cab drivers in New York City. Of the 40,000 taxi and livery drivers in New York City, less than 1 percent are female. When Iris began driving five years ago, she found that women would get in her car, exclaim “Oh my God, a female driver!” and ask how they could call her again. She now has about 60 regular female customers.
“Women feel comfortable with me,” said Iris, who is 35. “They’ve had bad experiences with drivers who’ve looked at them, tried to touch them or jerked off.”
Brianna Smith, a 24-year-old who has been riding with Iris for six months, said she feels safe in her car. “It’s nice not to worry about whether I need to have some guy drop me a block from my apartment so he won’t know where I live,” she said.
Indeed. Earlier this month, a 28-year-old woman was raped by her cabdriver after he followed her into her lower Manhattan apartment. And last month, a cabdriver sexually assaulted a woman in her mid-20’s who’d hailed his cab for a late-night ride to Queens.
Iris operates her car caravan-style, picking up one person, then another. Everyone is encouraged to interact.
On a recent night at 1 a.m. when Iris was making her rounds, her cell phone rang; she answered it and then announced: “We gotta make a special pickup.” The V.I.P. was Delia Rodriguez-the customer who gave her the idea of aiming her services at young women. “Yellow cabs won’t go where I live,” said Ms. Rodriguez. As she left the car, she tipped Iris with two cigarettes.
Like Ms. Rodriguez, Iris is from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in a primarily Puerto Rican area. “It was the toughest place to grow up,” said Iris. “But it’s all cleaned up now.” Iris has seen her share of violence: She’s been shot twice, both years ago in incidents that she doesn’t like to discuss. She still has a bullet fragment in her head and will roll up her pant leg to show you another bullet’s entry and exit points on her calf. “Oh man, that hurt,” she said. She was also stabbed a few years ago and has huge scar across her abdomen.
Iris didn’t master English until fairly recently. “I told one passenger that she had nice nipples; I meant dimples,” she said, burying her face in her hands. Her accent is so thick most passengers assume she is from another country.
Iris has three kids. Her daughter Myrna is 22; Iris had her when she was 14. “We’re best friends, like sisters,” said Iris. She also has two younger children: Rick, 8, and Heather, 4. “My mom watches my kids while I work,” she said. “I’m the only crazy one in my family. The rest of them have normal jobs.”
Iris said she’d always been drawn to motor vehicles: She drove a tow truck, then an 18-wheeler. She works through Northside Car Service in Williamsburg-of the 40 drivers, she’s one of two women. “Sometimes I feel like a goldfish around piranhas,” she said, though the other drivers seem to revere her. She started out getting all her fares through the company, but she now operates mainly as a free agent and will tell you-about once every 10 minutes-that she is her own boss. She said she hopes to buy her own car and to start an all-female car service. She is looking for female drivers to join, and wants to help finance and train women to take the Taxi and Limousine Commission exam.
“A few are interested, but no takers yet,” said Iris. “They’re scared to be a driver at night.”
The job has not always been male-dominated: New York gave its very first license to a female driver in 1925. During the 1960’s, 10 percent of drivers were women. But as crimes against drivers rose in the 80’s and early 90’s, the number of female drivers dwindled. And it’s not the easiest way to get rich. “I make $600 a week. $800 on a good week,” Iris said.
The safety record for livery drivers is far from stellar: In the past 10 years, 19 have been killed and 5,000 robbed. Safety measures built into yellow cabs, such as bullet-proof partitions, are lacking. Once Iris was almost used as a getaway car in a robbery. “This guy told me he’d pay me $60 to drive him, wait five minutes, then drive back,” she said. “He went into this run-down house. I heard shooting and it brought back bad memories, so I drove off.
“I’ve got more lives than a cat,” Iris said. “Life’s in God’s hands, and when it’s your time, it’s your time. God don’t want me there yet.”