The Pizza Connection

The Pizza Connection

I’m on the subway. 

It’s a few minutes after 5 in the morning. 

I’m catching a few snippets of conversation between a man and a woman sitting almost directly across from me. My guess is that they’re in their late twenties or early thirties. They are unusually attractive and well dressed for this time of morning. Between 4:30 and 6:00 AM is ordinarily reserved for the blue collar crowd of which I am a part. These two provide a pleasant diversion.

I have a good frontal view of him and a delicately beautiful profile of her. He looks confident and tolerably masculine; she is a wonderfully restrained and equally confident feminine. They look to be young professionals just hitting their stride.They are each dressed to a neat corporate stereotype and cloaked in camel fur coats. I don’t know how the camels feels about it but these two look marvelous.

They are not romantically involved. Sherlock that I am, I know this because they are sharing a 3 seat bench but the middle seat between them is empty; the unspoken distance. That said, they do appear to know each other. They both have beautifully clear, honey colored skin, thick shiny dark hair, slightly almond eyes; he with full beard and both with expressive hands. I’m thinking Queens by way of Central Asia.

I catch the word “pizza”.
It’s like magic. All at once, I’m all in.
If I hadn’t been listening before, they’ve got my full attention now.

~)(~

I can’t think of a time when I haven’t been happy to hear that word. Not simply because pizza is a gift and proof of a fundamentally jolly universe but also because of the near endless associations. 

After club hours at Mama Angelina’s Pizza in Philadelphia on Locust Street close to the NE corner of Broad Street. I haven’t been there in more than 30 years and I won’t be going back; it’s long gone, replaced by who cares what.

_

After violent, high decibel shows at The Ritz (formerly and subsequently Webster Hall) in New York City. 75 cent slices up and down 2nd Avenue to feed the hunger and calm the nerves.

_

A dozen pizzas delivered to a construction site where I was working at the southern tip of Manhattan. Not every good intention results in a successful conclusion and in this case the pies arrived only after the gang had all gone home for the night. All but myself and one other guy. An obsessive compulsive mental defective, he ate 3 full pies. I had 2 slices and just watched the carnage. He was taking a breather before the next onslaught, gulping air and swigging Diet Pepsi when I left him.

~)(~

Back on the subway, I’m building a story about these two good looking individuals. They are roughly the same age and with their apparent familiarity I would even hazard that they are related except for his next comment: 

 “When I was young…“

Uh oh. I don’t like the sound of this. We might have had the beginnings of a courtship; a budding romance. I like romance. These two early morning commuters, quite possibly from a neighborhood with a distinct cultural community may recognize in one another their common bonds and common interest. Their common commute has afforded a daily 30 minute window of relative privacy and intimacy as they thoughtlessly barrel headlong through tunnels to who knows what final destination. There’s a little magic in the air but he’s gonna blow it with a comment like:

“When I was young…“

He’s leading with a complaint and all but declaring that sooner or later he’s going to prove himself to be a stick in the mud. Given his relative youthfulness my money is on sooner.

In my mind I’m whispering to him to shut up and ask her about herself. He’s so self assured that his clumsiness is troubling. I feel like it exposes a paternalistic streak. Not that it’s any of my business of course but honestly, he’s ruining the latest fiction that I was so carefully constructing around them. I had all but put the child in the empty seat between them and now this?

When I was young? Are you kidding me?
You still are young sonny-boy so why don’t you just give it a rest.
And you may have noticed that she’s got eyes!!! I can see them from here!!! Just gaze into them adoringly; maybe ask her about her hopes and dreams for the future.
Let’s face facts young fella, it’s becoming obvious that you’re at your most eloquent when you’re not talking.

Obvious to me anyway. Who knows what she’s thinking. Women are a riddle, wrapped in a mystery and cloaked in lacy undergarments.

I think it’s fair to say that I dislike “When I was young…“ as a lead off to a story and not least because I know I’m guilty of using it. And not just me; everyone!! Inevitably these words are followed by a story whose details are sharply defined from the repetition of telling but whose colorful aspects are faded by their distant origins.

The story is going to be about how things used to be different; how things used to be better; how difficult it is to adapt to the changing landscape of the present; how slippery the future looks. What’s more; “When I was young…“  inevitably gives a tidied up view of the past. Cigarettes, candy and gasoline were cheap and good for you!!!

Dont get me started.

It is a given that only people over 50 should be starting a sentence with “When I was young…“ A half century is a real nice kickoff point for developing a tiresome, crotchety old age. If you are under 50 and using “When I was young…“ as a conversation starter you need to get on antidepressants and focus more on your listening skills.

For those of us that are well over 50 the flip side of “When I was young…“  is the obvious acknowledgment that we are not so young anymore. It’s not good being not young. This side of not young doesn’t look as good as it did when I was young and frankly it didn’t look that good to begin with. So I am secure in my person; so I am more or less in charge of my own destiny; big whoopee!

“When I was young…“
The horizon was a beckoning mystery.
The girl in the tight top was a provocative mystery. 
Young, Loud and Snotty was a fully formed ideology.

“When I was young…” is the beginning of a story no one wants to hear but everyone wants to amplify with their own story about when they were young.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that things aren’t more difficult now. I’m not saying that the world isn’t more complicated; that it isn’t more fractured; that relationships aren’t fraught with greater risks or that the arrow of time isn’t heading in the direction of chaos. 

What I am saying is that even though I am no longer young and even though I am no longer immortal and even though I am no longer the center, even of my own universe,  with a bit of age and a bit of luck and a little reminder from a chance encounter one does recall that where you look for offense you will find offense and where you look for meaning you may not find satisfaction but in the end, you will gladly settle for pizza.

Road Noise

Road Noise

Having left my home in Brooklyn, I am motoring north along Manhattan’s FDR Drive on my way upstate to Cherry Valley, NY. It’s a four hour journey from a restless city to a sleepy town that I may also one day call home. 

Home

At this point there are so many places I’ve called home that the word has lost any suggestion of  permanence that I may originally have attached to it. I now think that each has simply been a pause, a series of way stations between the first and the final. 

And while the great beyond may linger vast and empty on either end, in between there’s a lot of driving to be done and today is a driving day. 

In search of sound I toggle through the radio’s preset buttons with the foreknowledge that I haven’t preset any of them. It’s quite possible that they are random defaults from the dealership set back in 2013 when the car was new. There are 18 preset stations, none of which are worth settling into. 

Empty-handed my ear and I move on.

Hitting the radio’s SEEK button on the back side of the steering wheel I continue searching for something that will appeal to the moment. 

The stop and go of traffic is mimicked in this push button review of radio offerings but in this case there’s no end in sight as I cycle ‘round and ‘round the dial losing the promise of, or finally, any hope of a place to stay awhile.

There is nothing on. 
And you know what? 
There never is. 

It may be that the problem is New York radio. I don’t fault the medium or the market but somehow with over 200 stations in about 17 different languages it manages the neat trick of too many options with too few choices.

Or it may be ……………
That the problem …..
Is me ……………………….

Maybe I just don’t like driving to the all too familiar offerings of music, news and talk. Each in its way interferes with the pure, meditative experience of driving. 

And yet hope springs eternal that the ideal should manifest. 

By all rights the radio should be able to provide an audible veil to quiet the volatile mind. 

It is just another of life’s clever little ironies that the right sound is able to create its own kind of silence. 

However, the closest I will get to that immersive trance of listening today is the mixed medley of sound as I change stations without pause.

Sound en masse.

The radio doesn’t have good listening but the radio is good listening.

I often do this and find it makes an interesting auditory collage though the constant button pressing is bothersome. 

It makes me wonder why there isn’t a SEEK BUT DON’T STOP function on the radio. I believe it is a solid entertainment option and frankly I think it’s sound advice too; words to live by. I need to talk to Dodge about this obvious shortcoming in my vehicle.

I settle for a short while on a station bangin’ out some old time gospel, not only because it has a certain authentic sound appeal but equally because it is pleasantly rhythmic in a way that embraces the beat of my tires as they pulse over the expansion joints in the roadway.

But there’s only so much of that crap you can listen to so I start moving around the radio dial again and that is when I find a fellow saying “uh” every three seconds in a flat monotone, very much like a muffled mechanical process.

This would be the very same “uh” that acts as a placeholder in a sentence before the next clear thought gains traction.

Nothing else; no background of any kind that I could discern. Just “uh” followed by 3 seconds of dead silence. 

“I wonder where this is going” I think to myself. 

More compelling than the gospel music, it alternates with the dull percussion of the expansion joints  in a catchy syncopated rhythm.  

Both calming and disquieting; what could it mean? How had it come to be broadcast and how would it end? 

I’m hooked. 

The “uh”s continue across upper Manhattan; they continue across the George Washington Bridge; they continue through Fort Lee, NJ and onto Route 4. I listen through Teaneck and Paramus; Ho-Ho-Kus, Ramsey and Mahwah.

It was around Teaneck that I slowly become conscious of a heartbeat between the “uh”s. Had it been there the whole time and I’d simply missed it from road noise or was this an entirely new element? 

An “uh” following every heartbeat.
A heartbeat following every “uh”.

As if pausing…….to what…. reflect? 

Shall I commit to one more?

Why? 

To what end?

After about 40 minutes of listening I start losing the signal around mile 33 as I pass the Sloatsburg Service Area. It seems like the heartbeat is the first to fail. 

The “uh”s have become intermittent, arhythmic, the final echoes of a heart monitor, until finally it too is gone and I am left listening to the ssshhhh of smooth static.

I allow the radio to broadcast white noise for the next few minutes.

By mile 38 I have completely lost the signal but I continue to listen up until Harriman at about mile 44; just in case. 

I don’t want to move on. I don’t want to miss something that seems on the verge, on the very edge, of happening. 

I don’t know how it ends. 
I don’t know what it means. 
I have no answers; no explanation.
I have no guesses; educated or otherwise. 

I am left with nothing on the radio.
Which is how I started out. 

There was nothing. 
Then there was something.
Then there was nothing. 

A Day in the Life, Part 2

To say the police took a keen interest in the skull would be a mild exaggeration. I would say it was more like a professional interest but I like the sound and grab of keen so lets go with that.

The police took a keen interest in the skull. Everyone in construction knows that if you find a body, no matter how old, there is an agency somewhere that will want to shut the job down and put you out of work for a week while the paperwork clears. In an extreme incident downtown an entire office-building project was cancelled because the archeologists determined that the site had been, and in all fairness I suppose it still was, an old “Negro Cemetery”, as the sign said. Which is to say that the cemetery was old and had what were then known as Negroes buried in it and not that the cemetery was exclusively the final resting place of old Negroes. Language is funny that way.

My own brother was on a water job that saw several floaters come in. The job was only a mile or two downriver from a bridge that was popular with jumpers of the suicidal type. When the first one floated in they called the cops. The job was shut down for several hours while they investigated the “flounder” as I’ve heard the coroners call them. The same thing happened a few weeks later. Now, this business is no different from any other; time is money. The idea that the tides could somehow offer up a clue is so far fetched that even the boss must have noticed. From that point on, any body that came sailing onto the job was pushed back out into the current.

I myself found a foot on the job one day. It was so unlikely looking, so gray, that I thought it was a manikin foot until one of the guys picked it up, turned it over in his hands and stated, very matter-of-factly, “yup, it’s a real foot.” My foreman and I took the foot to the office trailer. His name was Robbie but he died and so he’s now referred to as Dead Robbie. When we walked into the super’s trailer Dead Robbie told the super that he couldn’t lend him a hand but he could give him a foot and tossed it on the desk. The super told us to get rid of it before the cops found out and shut us down. Robbie tossed it back in the drink but it got caught up in an eddy next to the pier and spun around in slow circles for the rest of the day. Take a moment to picture that in your mind; the water, the foot, the slow turning. It’s more than just the foot separated from the body above. It’s also the foot separated from the earth below. Isolated from the two things it must have thought were a given and yet still wandering in endless circles. It makes you think that although a foot can do what it does in a hundred different ways, still it can only be a foot.

I exit the subway at 5:32, same as every morning, to connect to the cross-town bus that would take me to work except that it departed about 90 seconds ago. Same as every morning. I can walk the mile or more before the next bus will come and so I do. As soon as I made it up to the street from the subway my cell phone chirped at me like my brothers childhood pet guinea pig, Spot. We called him Spotchalism for short. A sweeter more pleasant natured animal you’d be hard pressed to find but like many of the pets of our youth, short lived. Too soon consigned to a shoebox in the back yard.

I see that sometime during my subway ride of 21 minutes my foreman has called me. Usually this would mean that I am being redirected to another job. In this company redirection, not to mention misdirection, is a common occurrence and in the past I have spent hours being redirected multiple times before ever making it to work. My foreman is a great guy, talented in his work and amiable in his demeanor though subject to momentary bursts of uncontrollable rage. His three great loves are his wife, model railroading and marijuana.

As with many in this business you wouldn’t necessarily know from the way he talks that he loves his wife but when she suddenly took ill one day he looked ashen, hung up his cell phone, said “I’m gone” got in his van and left. Not a word to the super or any of the gang. If I hadn’t been there we would have gone looking for him at lunch and assumed he fell in the river.

The model-railroading thing is purely a sickness. I was warned by a mutual friend not to bring it up so of course I had to. He was so excited that I didn’t have the heart to tell him I was only teasing. I had to draw the line when he brought me an article about how to create realistic looking miniature pond scum. I think I’ll leave it at that.

The marijuana thing is of no surprise except as a matter of frequency. Half a joint on the way in, at coffee and lunch if the opportunity arises and it almost always does, and one on the way home. I say it’s of no surprise because if you took away the smokers, the drinkers and the jesus freaks who are, to a man, former substance abusers, you would seriously depopulate the industry. Let me retract that part about former substance abusers. Once an addict, always an addict. It’s a personality thing. They are as obsessive with their Christ, as they were with drink or drugs or women or food or whatever else it is that they claim to be cleansed of. The only difference is that with religion they lose their sense of humor. I’m ok with that though because they’re fun to torture.

As far as the substance abuse thing goes, I am absolutely sure that it is no different with us than it is in any other industry and it explains the whole margin of error factor in building projects. They say that if everything was built exactly to spec a two hundred story building would be viable notwithstanding that no one in their right mind would want to live or work that high. The point is that we over-design buildings because there is a factor that can only be counted on to degrade the best-laid plans. And that factor is human nature.

So my foreman called and the call went roughly like this:

Me: Hey, you rang?

Foreman: Good morning, where’s the skull?

Me: Why?

F: The police are here. I couldn’t find it. I told them that you may have taken it home or it may still be here somewhere.

Me: Who told them? Is the boss trying to relocate us? He is isn’t he.

F: Is it here?

Me: Maybe. What do they want with it?

F: They want to see if this is a crime scene.

Me: Tell them it isn’t and I want the damn thing back when they’re done with it.

F: I don’t know man, they seem pretty serious.

Me: Oh for christ sake. It’s on the shelf under the bag with my spare socks. I’ll be there in 15 minutes.

When I arrived I put on my tool belt and hardhat and made my way down to the work area. It had been raining and snowing off and on for two weeks and the mud is shin high. It’s still dark out. Everyone is standing around waiting for me and I get a little surge of celebrity. I’m smiling and shaking hands like a game show host. There are four cops, three male and a female. The detective looking one is in his early forties, the rest are fresh faced. He seems a bit serious, the other three are a little goofy and all are tired. It’s the end of their shift and they ask me to show them where I found the skull. Damn it! The game is over already and I’ve barely begun to turn the screws.

I walk them between a dump truck and an excavator through some deep mud. Let’s see how serious they really are. We get about twenty feet when the detective says “You know what? Just tell my about where you found it”. That was way too easy. Where’s the sport? I tell him I found it after we removed five feet of old concrete and 8 feet of mud. He says he isn’t interested in solving a murder from 1932. I point out the saw marks on the skull and suggest that it was an autopsy. He says “Look, if I call this in the archeologists will come and it’ll be a week before the paperwork clears and you’ll be out of work for a week. You don’t want that and we don’t want that for you. You know what this is and so do we, so why don’t we all pretend that this didn’t happen. You guys go back to work and we’ll go home. Just one thing. If this gets out we’ll be in a lot of trouble so keep this to yourselves and get rid of this thing. Get it off the site.” Then he tossed me the skull cap and said” Keep it for a souvenir.” That’s French for “I don’t want it and so I make a gift of it to you.”