Photo by Rob Boudon
In the mid ‘70s I, a lifelong New Yorker, eagerly departed the crazy hustle and bustle of New York City when I landed a job in Birmingham, Alabama. I didn’t expect to miss New York or anything about it. But a few weeks after I moved to Birmingham, suddenly and unexpectedly I began craving almost daily something I would never have anticipated missing, the taste of the gooey, dripping deliciousness of New York pizza.
When my vacation arrived, I immediately flew to New York to sate this unexpected yearning for its pizza. After deplaning, I made a quick stop at my cousin’s East Side apartment to say hello and dump my stuff. I then headed up 1st Avenue in search of a slice of pizza. I walked intently in my pursuit. Crossing the street I heard a loud, pounding sound not yet totally familiar in the mid ‘70s. The sound was the precursor of the soon to be popular everywhere beat of disco. It boomed from a door a few stores down the block. I followed the driving, blaring music until I met its origin. A bright red neon sign lighting the storefront window announced my mecca: PIZZA.
I never liked loud music, and the thunderous noise rattled me. But not even the jackhammer cacophony of the music could stop me. I headed in and saw a familiar looking New York pizza joint, a long, narrow shotgun space with its floor covered by worn, scuffed black and white tiles. Off to the left a high glass case displayed samples from the parlor’s menu. Behind the counter, against the wall stood the heat-stained ovens where the cook fired the pizzas. On the right wall of the shop hung a long, flaking mirror. Under it several small tables covered by red and white-checkered plastic tablecloths stoically awaited patrons. A few faded posters picturing “Roma,” the beautiful Italian countryside, and famous Italian landmarks hung from the walls. As I took it all in, the sight, the sound, and especially the smell of the place I marched up to the counter to place my order.
A rail-thin, olive-skinned young man wearing a stained apron that covered him like a shroud approached me from the other side of the counter. He was already hard at work. White dough powder flaked from his hands. A line of sweat beaded his forehead. It was clear he’d taken great care to rake back his shock of unctuous thick, black hair. “What’ll it be?” he inquired in a monotone loud enough to rise above the music. “Two slices with sausage, and a coke. And would you mind turning down the music? It’s awfully loud.” The kid looked at me with dense, darkening eyes. “The boss likes it loud,” he said. “I understand, but it’s deafening; can’t you turn it down some?” I might as well have asked him to top my slices with a spray of exotic dope. In a firm, severe monotone all he shot back was, “The boss likes it loud.”
I took a seat at a table close to the door. I figured sitting there might diffuse the sound. No such luck. I looked out the large plate-glass window. A line of cars parked in front of the pizzeria blocked my view of the avenue and the other side of the street. To occupy myself I rummaged through my brain reconsidering my decision to move south and all that I missed about New York City. Finally, the kid came over; he deposited the coke and plopped down the two slices served on a flimsy paper plate. I dug right in. Before it could cool, I folded the first slice, took a bite and, palate-burning hot though it was, savored the pizza like a connoisseur tasting a fine, aged cheese.
I started to block out the pulsating music, to really relax as the pizza’s cheese, oils, sausage, and dough mixed and melted in my mouth. I sat there relishing each bite while staring dreamily out the window when a black Lincoln Continental jammed to a sudden stop and double-parked directly in front of the pizzeria. A hulking figure exited the vehicle and confidently marched toward the door. He flung it open with sufficient authority and approached the counter. The guy looked like a character out of The Godfather. He could have doubled for Clemenza. A double-breasted, wide-lapelled black suit covered his torso. He wore a slightly rumpled white shirt with the top button undone. His bulging neck made it impossible to close the shirt. A loosely knotted silver tie with its Windsor knot lumpy and askew hung half way down his bulking belly. His face was dotted with a day’s old stubble. His balding scalp shown through the slicked back, thinning gray-black hair. He did not look like the kind of guy you wanted to anger.
At the counter he motioned for the kid. They leaned toward each other carrying on what soon became an animated exchange, with the large man gesturing wildly at times. I couldn’t hear the conversation over the music. At one point I saw the kid point a bony finger my way. I figured they might be talking about my order, or perhaps that I was the only customer in the place. Who knew; who cared? I went back to my pizza and self-absorbed reverie. A few moments passed then suddenly I felt a beefy hand tighten around my shoulder.
The fat guy leaned into me. I could see the craters in his pockmarked face. A thin raised scar just below his left ear ran down half his jaw. I could barely notice it under the stubble. He smiled at me exposing a row of surprisingly large white teeth. The guy had clearly spent a fortune on that mouth.
He leaned even closer so I could hear over the pounding music. “How’s the pie?” he asked, and his suit jacket fell away, exposing a gun about the length of a tire iron. My eyes fixed on its raw steel heaviness as it hung in the leather holster strapped to his chest. It seemed too big for the holster. It seemed too big to be a gun. In fact, the more I (a city-bred kid completely unfamiliar with artillery of any kind) looked at it, the more the thing looked like a fucking howitzer. I was now officially nervous.
I considered an answer, but didn’t take long. The words slipped from my mouth as if they’d been waiting there for years to be released on just such an occasion: “Hands down the best pizza I have ever tasted. It’s really, really delicious.” “Good,” he uttered in a throaty growl, and clapped a hard whack on my back that shot me forward.
But he wasn’t finished. He studied me as if to make sure the manner in which I chewed the pizza sufficiently proved my delight. The increasing quickness of my masticating must have convinced him I wasn’t lying. So, pleased with this first response, I guess, he decided to ask another question. To my puzzlement and (I’m sure you’ll understand this) my chagrin he asked, “How’s the music?” (What the hell did that counterman tell this guy? ran through my mind) I wondered if he was serious. His impassive face told the story of a man unschooled in the art of irony. If I thought to offer some flip or glib answer his glare made me scrap that idea. My nerves began to jangle to the beat of the music. So in an earnest voice I told him what at that moment I truly believed to be the first and strongest tenet of a lifelong conviction, “Know what, I like the music loud!”
A smile bright enough to light up Broadway shot across his face like the sudden crack of a gun. With that grin plastered on his face he straightened up and his jacket folded back into place. He gave me another sound whack on the back. This one almost broke my shoulder and rattled my chin. Somehow I sensed in it the acknowledgement of a pact we’d just made. We’d come to a solid meeting of the minds. His eye fluttered at me in his attempt at a wink. It came off more like some cockeyed tick. But hey, fine with me. Who was I to question this age-old gesture signaling some shared hidden knowledge? Then with the air of a man who has just affirmed the growing contemporary notion that “loud is good,” he squared his shoulders and with all the authority of the weight he carried rumbled toward the door.