Sunday, September 8, 2013

Goodbye, Mr. Pizza Slice

Today is indeed a sad day, dear readers.  One for the record books, especially those dark Gothic kinds.  No, I am not talking about the recent chaos in my newly adopted land, or the awful mess that is Syria and the requisite vapid Facebook posts where people who've never been there or done much of anything give their opinion on whether Syrians are "worth saving".  This is something a bit more personal than all of that. Much much closer to my greasy, greasy Jersey Style heart:

I just found out that Mr. Pizza Slice is retiring.

Well, you may ask, you inquisitive bastards, who is Mr. Pizza Slice?  Why should I care?

Fair enough.

To the first question, Mr. Pizza Slice is the restaurant in Red Bank, NJ (been there for 44 years!) that has been a social hub for generations of greasy Jersey boys and girls- especially with those killer bangs.

On the Boardwalk, you would be a queen.

 It's a place where you could have a slice of pizza, an awesome Italian Hot Dog, and circle fries, for like $10.  It had an arcade machine in the back corner- usually Pac Man, but later on replaced by Joust, Gauntlet (and the little heralded side scrolling version, Quartet) and, for one brilliant, fleeting moment Joust 2 (!).  The food was great, reasonably priced, and every time you walked in there was Mr. Pizza Slice himself, ready with his usual Jersey gruffness.  "Hey.  You eating, or what?" became such a powerful greeting that when he wasn't at the counter one was a bit lost, cast adrift on a sea of expected terseness.

You magnificent bastard.

So, good stuff all around.  But more than that, for me.  Much more in fact.  He might never have known it (the topic never came up between us anyway), and he might not recognize me if I walked up to him now, but this was a man who had a profound effect on me as a wayward youth and also encapsulates why Jersey was such a good place to grow up.  

As a sit here on the beautiful beaches of Dahab (it's okay to be jealous, I will not be offended), it is hard not to reflect upon where I was, how I got here, and what random twists and turns happened along the way that have molded me into this reasonably tan, slightly saggy person you see before you.  Mr. Pizza Slice was definitely one of those twists.

Cast your mind back, dear reader, about 26 years ago.  

Those weird leggings with stirrups at the bottom were coming into style, Reagan was president, and The Highwayman was on TV.

Oh God yes.  A thousand times yes.

I was in 3rd grade then, which is usually a time of exploration, discovery, and learning how to make funny noises with various body parts.  For me, however, it was a time where I was anxious and afraid more often then not; where I would spend my school days wondering what kind of scenario I would come home to, and dealing with teasing/comments about my eyes (as posted here!  Oh God, self pity plug!).  Life then was not very stable, or kind, or even very consistent, for young Lippart.  I was dealing with the crippling self esteem issues that follow in the wake of addiction, and also being one of the few white kids at a school where my ethnic group was not exactly tolerated by many of the teachers or the students.   In short, most people treated me like crap, or, even worse, ignored me, and so I learned to think of myself that way.  Not unusual at all, of course- nothing about my story is any different than the stories most of us have growing up, or see on Oprah, or read about in the middle of Readers' Digest, but as a kid I felt that all that bad stuff was uniquely MINE.  That no one else (even my own three brothers, which shows how kids think) suffered like I did, and therefore I was a man alone, unique in the grand expanse of time.

This shortsightedness, of course, made me feel worse.  Like I was being picked on by destiny, abandoned by fate, and whatever else kids say these days after watching Twilight.

Special snowflake, my ass.

But in the midst of that nonsense, there are always people who are The Helpers (to quote Mr. Rodgers). The ones who offer what kindness they can and reach out to people.  The ones who made an impact on people's lives not by grand, Drew Barrymore-esque gestures, but by being human, and allowing you to be human 
right alongside them.  As a veteran educator (where's my monocle!), I have seen how powerful it can be to just be there for someone, be present in their lives, even if you don't have awesome theme music.  

Mr. Pizza Slice was one of those types.

I used to go up there to have pizza when I was young, back when people under 18 were allowed to leave the house, and he would always greet me with his customary phrase, hand me a slice of pizza and some circle fries, give me shit about ruining his pizza by adding too much pepper, and then ask if I wanted change for the arcade game.  Once in a while, he would ask about my family, how was school, all that kind of stuff.

Nothing too earth shattering, for sure, but he was THERE.  And sometimes, he was more than that.

I'll never forget one time, in the beginning of Grade 4, when my mother dropped me off and then went to the nearby bar.  I whiled away the time with my usual slice of pizza and Pac Man knowing, in my young, small brained way, what was going on next door, but not able to stop it or hide from it.  Even though I tried to be super casual, there was a finite amount of stuff I could do to occupy my time.  After an hour, my initial dollar and pizza long gone, Mr. Pizza Slice came over to the corner where I sat and gave me another plate.  

"On the house.  I made extra anyway."

I finished the slice, eating slowly, and afterwards, when more time had passed, he brought me a soda and a plate of circle fries.  

""Here.  I should make you clean my windows."

He  never asked me to leave, and never asked what I was doing there for so long.  Soon after that my mother came to get me (we had walked downtown together) and, in that way of his, he told her I'd been sitting there a long time.  Then he nodded down at me and said, "but it's okay.  He doesn't take up too much space.  Quiet little guy."

After that, whenever I came in, he gave me free circle fries and asked about my mother.

We moved away from Red Bank a few months later but eventually came back, because all roads lead to Jersey.  Now I was 14 and I had just discovered the life changing sounds of Death Metal, so I filled with both anger and a terrible taste for leather spikes and earrings.  

I walked into Mr. Pizza Slice and he recognized me right away.  Asked how my mother was.  I wasn't living with her at the time but probably said something reasonably smarmy because, you know, 14.  I started counting out some money when he put up his hand.

"You know what?  I got to put some pizza boxes together.  You do it for me, I'll give you a free pizza.  You still owe me from last time anyway."

So I went to the corner and constructed 50 empty pizza boxes.  This took me probably about 30 minutes or so and when I was finished he gave me a whole pizza, with circle fries, plus some to take home.  For the next couple years every once in a while I would walk by and he would lean out the window and tell me I needed to make some boxes for him.

Looking back, it was obvious he didn't need the boxes made.  It was a super easy task and it wasn't like he was selling 50 pies at a time or anything.  Plus, he had his sons there to help.  He would just end up with huge piles of empty pizza boxes everywhere (he had other kids doing the same thing from time to time). What he did, though, was listen.  As I was folding the boxes, he would talk to me about school ("don't do anything stupid"), about girls ("don't do anything stupid") about my family ("yeah, sometimes adults do things that are stupid") and about what I wanted to do with my life ("Dreams are never stupid").

Then, the job done, we would share a pizza, have some soda, and he would look at his watch, nod and tell me to get the heck out of there.

He is a wonderful man.

May your retirement be as kick ass as your retirement video, sir.  You'll be missed.  By all of us.

No comments:

Post a Comment