New York World

Can New York City Function Without the BlackBerry?

Only days after coming up with a contingency plan for a crippling snowstorm, City Hall is scrambling in the face of another potential freeze: the potential cutoff of wireless service to the 6,100 city employees who are issued BlackBerry devices.

“I’m always nervous in the electronic age,” said City Hall press officer Paul Elliott, who added that there was something particularly captivating about his blue gadget. “Some people might say I’m addicted to it.”

But like millions of other Americans, the top officials who keep New York City running could soon lose their preferred form of communication. As early as Feb. 24, a Virginia court will decide whether to uphold an injunction for copyright infringement against Research In Motion, the Canadian company that provides wireless e-mail service and BlackBerry devices. If the injunction is upheld, then service to all BlackBerry users in the U.S. could be cut off immediately. R.I.M. says it’s testing backup software that could be used in the event of a shutdown, but it’s unclear if the courts would let that fly.

The legal battle began in 2001, when NTP, a company in Arlington, Va., that purchases patents, went to court to claim that it held the patent to the BlackBerry technology and that Research In Motion had infringed on its intellectual property. Research In Motion has tried to dismiss NTP as a patent “troll”—a company with dormant patents that extorts money from successful technology companies. Nevertheless, in 2003, a judge issued an injunction forbidding R.I.M. from “directly making, using, offering to sell or selling within the United States or importing” the BlackBerry.

But in the years since that ruling was stayed pending an appeal, the BlackBerry has become the imported fruit of choice for deputy mayors, commissioners, City Council members and the Mayor himself. The Mayor’s press office also uses them, to send out press releases, which are then downloaded on BlackBerries by the reporters who sit in Room 9, a few yards away. Deals are brokered on them. Campaigns are waged. Rumors are spread.

“I think there’ll be a decrease in production at City Hall without it,” quipped Deputy Mayor Linda Gibbs as she slipped her black BlackBerry into her pocket on the way to lunch. “I feel very close to it,” she added.

Ms. Gibbs is one of the lucky ones: Not every city employee gets a BlackBerry, and so the squat little screen can be quite a status symbol. In order to qualify for one, a city employee needs approval in writing by his or her supervisors. And while there was surely a time, back in the prehistoric days of paper, when city government was able to function without them, officials now quake at the prospect.

Mitchell Ahlbaum, the deputy commissioner for telecommunication services at the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT), said the city is doing its best to prepare for digital doomsday.

“There is a contingency plan,” he said, explaining that the plan consists of testing other devices such as Treos, which seem to comply with City Hall’s e-mail system. “We would have to purchase them. I don’t know that we would purchase 6,100 of them.”

Indeed, the city’s teleworkers, who shrugged at the transit strike’s stalled trains and buses as long as they had their hands on a BlackBerry, are beginning to sweat.

Micah Sifry, a political consultant who worked on the campaign of Public Advocate candidate Andrew Rasiej, who ran on a wireless Internet-access platform (he lost), had his hands full with two BlackBerry devices—one black, one blue—during a Sunday afternoon political conference.

“People expect an immediate response at all hours,” Mr. Sifry said. “It’s great for productivity, but the injunction will free up a lot of nights.”

But it will also keep many free-roaming City Hall workers in their offices.

“It’d be a significant hardship,” said one City Hall official as he took an afternoon stroll away from City Hall. “It would mean a lot more desk time.”

A $450 million settlement between R.I.M. and NTP fell apart last year, and on Jan. 23 the Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal. That’s when city government’s BlackBerry abusers experienced the first shakes of an oncoming withdrawal.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who said that she uses her BlackBerry “obsessively,” managed to express some optimism as she walked up the steps of City Hall on a recent Friday.

“I think the city will be able to forge forward,” she said. “Despite the inconvenience, we can rise above it.”

But at what cost? “People are going to have to start sucking lollipops,” said Ester Fuchs, the Mayor’s former advisor for governance and strategic planning.

—Jason Horowitz

Mauro of Manhattan

My American girlfriend Marsha’s life is dictated by weddings. Like all 30-years-oldish, she has so many friends who get married, and unfortunately invite her, that she can’t cope any longer. Her entire vacation time gets absorbed by these fruitless ceremonies, provided that the absolute majority of marriages end up in divorce.

“You know the latest about Cindy?” she told me the other day.

“Yes, Cindy, that lovely girl living in the Upper East 80’s who got hitched to Robert in 2004. What’s new? Wasn’t she pregnant?”

“She divorced. She found out Robert’s on cocaine.”

“What? But we went to dinner with them at Demarchelier, he looked so nice …. How long had they been together for? She didn’t notice?”

“Apparently not. She found out only because money was missing regularly and massively.”

“Wow! Aren’t they the ones who met on the Net?”

“No, that’s Jade. Don’t you remember her wedding in Florida?”

Yes. No. Honestly, I’ve been to so many weddings in the past months that I can’t tell one from the other any longer. I only know that Marsha’s yearly schedule revolves around them. Because most of her friends, even when living in New York, pick strange and faraway places to tie the knot. Naples (Florida), Washington, Philadelphia, California, Seattle …. Why they don’t just stick to the Harmony or Metropolitan Club? The father’s bride has to shell out $100,000 in any case. Please, at least spare us the travel expenses.

Plus we have to add some extra holiday days around each marriage, otherwise what’s the point of traveling 12 hours just to get there and back? So, at the average of four days for four weddings yearly, all of Marsha’s meager two weeks’ vacation time gets sucked up. No more room for a trip to Europe: for us, it’s either marriages in the U.S. or vacationing overseas. No wonder Americans travel the world less than any other nationality: the blame’s on marriages.

Italian weddings are a big thing, too. Many families love to squander the savings of a lifetime for their daughter’s once-in-a-lifetime endeavor. But at least in Italy this is a one-day affair: the church, the banquet, the feast, the dance and that’s it, we can leave before midnight. Plus, Italy is so small compared to the U.S. that you have to fly a maximum of two hours to get anywhere.

On the contrary, in America everything’s got to be humongous. The problem with Marsha is that all of her friends and acquaintances seem to be so close and affectionate (even if they shared only two years in college with her 15 years ago and barely met afterwards) that her presence (and mine) is required also for such a nightmare unknown to us Europeans which is called “rehearsal dinner.” It takes place the night before the wedding, meaning you have to get the Friday off. And the day after the wedding there is usually a brunch, too, reserved for the out-of-towners (that is, everybody).

Many times Marsha is asked to be a bridesmaid. After watching so many American movies about weddings, especially the recent ones with Julia Roberts and Steve Martin, I thought I was experienced in them. Wrong. You actually have to go yourself through the plight of being the bridesmaid’s boyfriend, in order to fully understand what it means to be left alone most of the time for three consecutive days because your loved one has been restrained in order to perform rehearsals and endless fittings for dresses, hairdos, nails …. I found myself with so many idle mornings and afternoons that I visited Benjamin Franklin’s house in Philadelphia, Paul Allen’s rock museum in Seattle, the Phillips Collection in Washington. In Florida there’s nothing to see, so I just walked on the beach.

In Philadelphia, all of the seven impressive pink-dressed bridesmaids got literally hijacked because they had to arrive to and leave the church simultaneously in a stretched limo. It took me hours to figure out the way to ceremony and afterwards to a country club on the Main Line, tens of miles away from each other. I actually enjoyed getting lost in the same fabulous suburbs where Grace Kelly grew up, and discovering that places like Marion, Penn., are even more elegant than Greenwich, Conn., or Beverly Hills, Calif. But when I finally made to the club and its three bands (one for the cocktails, one for dinner, one for the dance), I couldn’t get a hold of Marsha either: She was again secluded for hours in a secret location for the photo session.

Apart from this, American marriages are wonderful. You get to know so many people, all of which get very excited when you tell them you’re Italian (do they know Italy is full of assholes?). There is mutual neverending fascination between Italy and the United States, we too get crazy when we meet any American in Italy. I remember that while in high school in Udine we even spoke to the Mormon missionaries just because they came from the States. And now it seems that all U.S. celebrities have to go to Italy in order to meet and get married: It happened to Angelina, Brad, Tom, Katie ….

At a certain point during the night many wedding guests get drunk. Which is normal at any party, but marriages offer an advantage for the romanticism involved. So, if you are single, marriages transform into paradise, as outlighted in the movie Wedding Crashers. Some dinner tables are reserved for them: They have time to socialize while eating, and to get closer afterwards, dancing. Girls seem more eager to find a mate and give themselves away, there are statistics about an overwhelming number of relationships started at weddings (and funerals). Sometimes behind the bushes that very night at the golf club.

The problem with us New Yorkers is that we forget that when the whole thing is over, we still have to drive back to the hotel. On a leased car, and in unfamiliar territory. In Washington I was slowing down on some Beltway to find the right exit, when a police car pulled us over.

“What have I done? I wasn’t speeding up, that’s for sure …. ”

“Erotic driving.”

“I beg your pardon?”

I felt kind of flattered, too wasted to understand “erratic.” Marsha saved me with her gentle, blue eyes imploring the merciful cop. Besides, I had an Italian driving license, our hotel was very close and the police car with the alcohol control equipment was too far away.

The next day, Marsha confessed to me that she had a discussion with her father about him setting away $75,000 for her own wedding. It sounded too much like a hidden invitation to propose, so I rushed to enumerate all the failings of the wedding industry: “Listen baby, this is just a big 50 billions business devouring itself. Because young couples get in debt in order to hire a marriage consultant and all the shit, plus many already have to repay for college, then comes the house mortgage, little children are expensive too …. And in the end, do you know what’s the main cause for recently married couples splitting? Financial stress. It’s a circle. So, why doesn’t your father just give you the money, and you do what you want with it? Aren’t we already happy living together like this?”

“I don’t like it when you call me ‘baby,’” she said.

—Mauro Suttora