It’s 3 p.m. on a sleepy November Sunday at Iggy’s Pizzeria. A half-dozen pies of varying freshness sit in the display case. The owner, Ignacio Sono, in a leather jacket and pageboy cap, smokes outside. Iggy’s is a quintessential what-you-see-is-what-you-get East Village pizza joint, with perhaps a slightly better than average Sicilian square (Sono was born in Sicily, after all). It is also the establishment I have picked as the base camp for a daylong experiment in living the life of a New York deliveryman.
Iggy’s has three real delivery guys, Leo, Gustavo, and Olodin. The peak hours for orders, Iggy tells me, are between 6 and 9 p.m. Thursday to Sunday, with an early-afternoon Saturday and Sunday uptick (hangovers). Delivery guys use their own bicycles. Some attach a porteur-style rack in front of the steering wheel, others a sawed-off milk crate. My bike is uncustomized, so Iggy teaches me to ride with the delivery bag flat on the handlebars, held down with my thumbs, to avoid a sudden redistribution of molten cheese.
Iggy’s employees are paid a base rate of $6 an hour, which covers helping out in the kitchen—hauling meat, folding boxes—during delivery downtime. The rest is tips. Prepaid tickets, filled online or by phone, generally include the gratuity. The delivery guy takes a printout of the ticket to the customer for his signature, and gets the tip out of the cash register upon returning the signed ticket to the store. For cash transactions, the deliveryman essentially “buys” the pizza from Iggy, paying for it in full before he leaves; he then “sells” it to the customer, pocketing the whole amount, plus the tip. Online ordering may bring more business, but it also means deliverymen pocket fewer off-the-books tips. A typical New York pizza deliveryman makes about $60 per shift, or $300 a week, assuming five shifts. That’s a little more than $15,000 a year for a full-time position.
Every deliveryman in New York ought to buy Transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan a free slice: The dedicated bike lanes along the avenues, her marquee project, have made zipping around the grid simple and almost safe. (According to the D.O.T., accidents on streets outfitted with parking-protected lanes have dropped by more than half.) Of course, deliverymen aren’t the most cautious bikers around. For one, they don’t follow the lanes’ direction lines. The bicycle lane along First Avenue, on which Iggy’s sits, is a veritable two-wheeled highway, with bikes zipping north and south carrying everything from pizza to Chinese to, in one case, a bunch of two-by-fours. No one working for Iggy’s wears a helmet. I actually took the owner aback by the question, and by volunteering to don a baseball cap with the pizzeria’s logo. The guys deliver in their civvies. This isn’t Domino’s.
My first delivery is at 4:15 p.m., on East 13th Street between First and A. I gingerly dismount and buzz the apartment, and soon I am ambling up six sets of stairs to a stranger’s place. The door is open. I knock anyway. The customers are exactly who I’d expect to be ordering pizza at 4 p.m. in this neighborhood. Two college-age girls lounge in front of a muted TV; the musk of freshly smoked weed permeates the dark room. One gets up to greet me. I walk in—farther, I realize a second too late, than I would be comfortable letting a pizza guy walk. I stop cold; the girl pauses, too. She giggles. I get the pizza out of the insulated bag—still reasonably warm—set it on the table, and back out.
No money changes hands; this is a prepaid order. Advance tipping is efficient, but removes the roulettelike thrill I used to get delivering pizzas as a student. Sometimes you’d score a fiver, sometimes nothing. I still remember the face of the man who mockingly tipped me a penny.
For the rest of my shift, I swing by places that range from the penthouse of a tony building on Fourth Avenue to a dank tenement walk-up on Avenue A. I’m aware I might feel different if I did this every day, or if it were mid-February, but I find the work oddly pleasurable. Since Iggy’s, like most Manhattan pizza joints, delivers to a radius of just ten or twelve blocks, the destination is never too far. Each trip is a burst of quick physical activity followed by a cooldown and capped by a reward. It’s Pavlovian, in the best sense: Spin the pedals, earn a few bucks.
In no more than a few hours, I notice, I have begun to assume a deliveryman’s point of view. The customers begin to blend into a demographic I never realized existed. They look sleepy and alarmed at the same time. Their apartments, seen in vertical snatches through the door, are messier than the ones we see when we visit each other. I try not to spy, and the customers try not to stare me down. While the pizza changes hands, both parties stare at the floor. There’s a dance of sorts, a few seconds of awkward pas de deux. Then it’s over.
Delivery orders begin to peter out by 9 p.m. Iggy’s closes at ten. On balance, it hasn’t been a bad day. I made some money, didn’t screw up any orders, and only once came close to slamming my head into a truck’s rearview mirror. That said, I am happy to rejoin the other side—the customers’ side—with a renewed commitment to overtipping.