Sunday, January 16, 2005

Independence Day

I worked four pizza jobs over the course of my career, all of which have funny stories attached to them. However it's my second pizza job story that takes the cake (pie?).

I worked at a dingy place called Pizza Pal Plus in the Westville neighborhood of New Haven, across the avenue from Edgewood Park where Fitch Street heads to Southern Connecticut State University and the housing projects. It was the kind of neighborhood where, when my friends Alan and Mark were robbed of their mountain-bikes at gun point, the police actually collaborated in the theft with the pawn shop that was fencing them.

Pizza Pal Plus did a lot of business in those projects, which were situated out by West Rock Ridge state park. West Rock was a beautiful park, which stretched miles out of the city into the surrounding towns and countryside, linking Sleeping Giant and East Rock. All three parks were part of the same geologic formation. Then, as now, New Haven was in dire financial straits, and had to choose which of the their parks to maintain, and West Rock had lost out. As a result, twenty minutes up the paved drive, the ridge returned to a real semblance of wildness. The tarmac was overgrown in places with grass and saplings, just past some ancient graffitti which read "The women's movement is a bowel movement" and "Frak Zappa". My friend Dennis and I used to take mushrooms and go watch the trees melt: "Frak Zappa" always sent us into paroxism of laughter. Camping was illegal inthe park, but ten minutes in, you saw cairns pointing to choice spots and beautiful overlooks. It was my understanding that years ago, someone had the idea that poor people were isolated in ugly urban ghettoes within New Haven's limits and so housing had been placed out by the state park, where they could commune with nature. And so it was that the poor people were just as isolated if not more so, and a number of the trees around the entrance to the park were pocked with bullets.

It is a true shame about New Haven: it is in a geologically rich area: the Quinnipiace River empties into Long Island Sound, the surrounding countryside is nearby and beautiful, and the three ridges give ample space for wilderness recreation. Every summer, there's a free jazz festival on the Green for three weekends every summer. The pizza is the BEST PIZZA IN THE USA. I am NOT kidding about this: once you've had a pie at Sally's, Pepe's, or (my favorite) Modern, you will never go back. Oh, and they all spell it "apizza" and prounounce it "ah-beets".
Yet for all this loveliness, New Haven remains little more than Yale and a slum, a dying city wracked by unemployment, drugs, and gang violence.

Pizza Pal Plus was owned by a guy named Bill and his wife, whose name I can't remember: I'll call her Carmella for the rest of this piece. I can't remember their last name either, but they were two of the most awful people I have ever met in my entire life.

Bill sported a large and well-cultivated beer belly, which stuck out from under his tee shirt. His hair was red and so was his splotchy skin. His receding hairline was always soaked in sweat, which dripped from his ruddy nose and onto his thick rubbery lips. Bill's clothes were always dirty, caked with filthy grey remnants of flour and dough. He had short eyelashes, giving his face a distinctly bovine appearance, which matched up well with the moo that was his voice. Expand the rear of your tongue so it almost blocks the back of your mouth, and try to talk: a sound like Tennessee Tuxedo's pal Chumley the Walrus's voice comes out.

On my first day of work, Bill was running down the ingredients on the various pizzas and grinders we sold (they call 'em grinders in most of New England: hoagie is the preferred word here in the mid-Atlantic). "Now when you make a grinder, ALWAYS put oil on it." He drew out the word "oil." And when you make a pizza, put oooooil on the sauce, and a little more oooooil on the cheese." He was the kind of person who referred to hamburger as "grounded beef". [Although I'd like to go on about how disgusting the food at Pizza Pal was, it was actually entirely unmemorable. The only thing that stands out is that the crust was made in a big machine.]

Carmella stood about 5'4", and was as tall as she was wide. Her head was covered with wiry black hair that looked like steel wool, and she was prone to terrifying fits of rage. Everything would be going along quietly, and than all of a suddent his shriek would go echoing through the kitchen.

Carmella's eyes were deep brown, set closely in the middle of her face, making her look as piggish as Bill looked bovine. She kept the radio tuned to the top 40 station, and whenever Paula Abdul's hit "Straight Up" came on, she would sing along loudly and tunelessly, absentmindedly lifting her shirt. Her bloated purply gut would hang out and she would pick dirt out of her bellybutton, "Straight up now tell me is it going to be me and you fah-evah, oh-oh-oh..." She preferred white tee-shirts with yellow stains under the armpits, which emphasized her sloppy brown nipples, and black leggings stretched tight across the pudding she called her thighs.

Bill and Carmella had a baby named Billy Junior who was about 9 months old. Carmella would sing the baby to sleep every night with Brahm's Lullaby. "See, the baby gets used to melody, and it's like a Pavlov reaction. I learned that in college," she told me. Sometime she would sing it in las, and other times would sing a song about the boy. It was the only gentle side I saw in either of my employers. "La la la, little Bill, Mommy loves little Billy, little Billy, lalalala..."

As we worked late into the night, Big Bill's mother, who was in her late 60s and looked like she was in her 80s, would watch Little Bill in the back of the restaurant. She was as skinny and dried out as a piece of beef jerky, and she dyed her hair the same color. The old yenta would try to start arguments with anyone about anything. "Whaddya mean you don't like Dunkin' Donuts coffee?" Her voice was like a big glass of sand. "Everybody likes Dunkin' Donuts coffee, egghead." Did she call me an egghead? She smoked Kool 100 lights, and her nails and fingers were stained a dull yellow. "EVERYONE LIKE DUNKIN' DONUTS COFFEE."

Bill and Carmella weren't just awful because they were physically repellent: they were also raving bigots who, for all the business they did with the projects, hated their black clientele more than just about anything else in the whole wide world. And they weren't too fond of Latinos, Asians, or anyone else for that matter. One of our drivers was a Latin guy named Victor. He did most of the day deliveries. Every time he'd dash into the kitchen to pick up another order, Carmella would beam at him and crow, "They call him Vic! They call him Vic cuz he's quick!" As he pulled away with his next order she'd watch the car disappear around the bend and look at me with a funny half grin and mutter, "They call him Vic, cus he's a fucking SPIC."

But it was the blacks, the niggers, that Carmella and Bill hated worst. "You don't know," they would tell me, their faces knotted in scowls. "You're still too young to know how those fucking niggers take advantage. Goddamn fucking niggers. By the time you move from this city, you'll hate 'em as much as we do."

"I don't have a problem with the blacks," Carmella once told me. "When they're humble and well-behaved, like Sally, they're not bad." Sally was one of our drivers.

Work at Pizza Pal Plus was long and grinding. I would show up at 4:00 PM and work until 2:30 or 3:00 in the morning. Pizza Pal Plus worked until the last order came in, and only Bill and Carmella could make that call. "Our best night is the Fourth of July," Bill said.

"We work all night," Carmella added. "It's really busy, so we're gonna need you to come in early, probably around noon."

As summer wore on, the nights got longer, and promised to get longer still. June began to draw to a close, and we had our busiest night yet. Carmella was on the phone taking orders every two minutes, and the far side of the board was stacked three slips deep. The pies and grinders were coming in faster than our drivers could get them out, and the customers were calling and complaining.

"You wanna know when you're gonna get your pie?" Carmella hollered into the phone. "WEll lemme tellya: I DON'T FUCKING KNOW! But you know what I DO know? EVERY FUCKING TIME YOU FUCKING CALL THIS FUCKING PLACE IT'S GONNA ADD ANOTHER TEN MINUTES ONTO WHEN I SEND YOUR FUCKING PIE OUT! Do you understand me? DON'T FUCKING YELL AT ME, YOU FUCKING NIGGER NIGGER NIGGER NIGGER!" She began slamming the phone on the counter over and over again, boiling with rage, her fat cheeks and flappy stomach joggling with rage. "NIGGER NIGGER NIGGER NIGGER NIGGER FUCKING NIGGER!"


"OHH FUCKING FUCK THE GODDAMN FUCKING BABY WOKE UP" Carmella screamed. "BILL, THE FUCKING BABY'S FUCKING AWAKE" and she stomped over to the back of the kitchen with thunderclouds in her wake. She picked up Bill Junior, and despite her fury began to rock him gently, while singing the familiar lullaby quietly to put him back to sleep. "Nigger nigger, nigger nigger, little Bill hates them niggers, fucking niggers stupid niggers, and your Mommy hates them too..."

I'll tell you, that incident put me in shock for the rest of the week: I could barely look either of these rancid people. I started painting houses during the day, working Pizza Pal Plus at night. July 4th was on the way, and every night I came into work, I was reminded to be there early and to prep up for the coming juggernaut.

What could I do? I hated the place. I hated the people. I hated the hours and the food sucked. So I waited until the morning of July 4th, called in and quit, and spent the weekend in Rhode Island with my girlfriend.