Tasty Laughter Through Sweaty Tears

Tasty Laughter Through Sweaty Tears

(A Pizza-Delivery Man's Story)

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

The poorer part of humanity, unfortunately, has few ideas on how to get by.

One of them is preservation: salting, marinating, freezing, and other methods of extending the life-span of perishable foodstuffs. For Russians, this is shchi, or cabbage soup, prepared a week ahead of time; the Polish have their bigos, which they make for the winter; seafarers of the era of great geographical discoveries put up salted beef in barrels for their journeys.

Another idea is the use of leftovers and stale food. Chop it up into crumbs, add some bread to freshen it up, and you have a regular meal. Boil all the leftovers together and you have solyanka (spicy soup). Bake some stale cheese on some stale bread, and you have Georgian hatchapouri. This dish is similar to the Mexican quesadilla.

The Italians, whose families are rich with children, drying linens and neighborhood-wide scandals, invented pizza. Pizza and macaroni, what could be more Italian? And if as yet no one has guessed to make pizza out of macaroni or macaroni out of pizza, well, it's just a matter of time.

When poor Italian immigrants landed in America a hundred years ago, they brought more than just the Mafia with them; they brought pizza. Soon pizza became the requisite accompaniment to mass spectator events, namely baseball and football. In the television era the link between pizza and football became a social phenomenon, as easily visible as the splash of patriotism at the inauguration of a new president. Why exactly football, and not baseball, hockey, basketball or the Italians' beloved soccer, is difficult to say, if not impossible. Although in Cuba, for example, pizza has survived only as a baseball accessory. You won't find it anywhere else, and you won't see a baseball game without pizza.

It must be said that American pizza differs from Italian pizza much more profoundly than American English differs from the British version. You may remember that in 1990 there was a sensational trial in Italy: charges were filed against a pizzeria for using the wrong cheese. These conspirators were accused of no less than desecrating and doing violence to Italian cultural values. In general, I would say Italian pizza and American pizza (like Italian and American cinema) are on opposite sides of a great divide. Two different art forms.

At the beginning of the end of the USSR, Italians opened some 20 pizzerias in Moscow, with their own cooks, recipes and cheese. The experiment failed rapidly: in Moscow only Pizza-Hut and a mongrelized McDonald's gained footholds, and that only after great battles and difficulties. The pizza I ate out in the Russian provinces… well, let's not talk about sad and depressing things.

In modern America, no one wants to trace their roots back to some down-and-out ancestor. They always think up something a little more respectable.

One I know claims as his predecessors the Italian royal pair Umberto and Margarita of the late 19th century. Round Table Pizza traces its history to the Italian Queen Victoria, mistress of King Richard I (the Lion-Hearted) in the late 12th century, no less. I suspect that these are sweet, adroit little pieces of nonsense, like the ancient recipe for pizza "baked by the fire-breathing dragon from Jurassic Park." Fact is, you won't make it in business without mythology, and if you do, it'll be boring. At any rate, it's very American, like Las Vegas' Excalibur Hotel (a six-thousand bed, Middle-Ages castle) or the Luxor, a full-sized Egyptian pyramid built out of black glass.

The most popular

The history of Round Table Pizza, the most popular pizza chain in California, is more or less true, by the way. The first Round Table Pizza was opened in Menlo Park by William R. Larson in 1959. Next year we will celebrate both the 800th anniversary of the death of Richard I and the 40th anniversary of his unforgettable mistress' favorite pizza.

Round Table Pizza soon took by storm all of California, Hawaii, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah, Iowa, Alaska, Colorado, Minnesota, and even Taiwan! Hundreds of pizzerias, either franchises or independents, began to spring up like mushrooms after a warm rain. After 20 years, Larson retired from the business, selling the controlling share to a group of six investors.

In 1965, Barbara Nowell bought the twenty-second Round Table Pizza franchise and opened her first pizzeria in Santa Clara. In 1990, Kathleen Hendricks joined Barbara and together they now own three pizzerias - in Santa Clara, Felton and Monterey.

In each pizzeria there are three or four bartenders (who serve as managers, as well), almost exclusively American-born. In the kitchen there might be a dozen Mexicans of either sex, and out of five or six pizza-delivery people there is maybe one of Russian descent. The managers come and go like the weather. The kitchen help and delivery people are the more stable part of the work force, which is why it is not always clear who is in charge. Most work at two or three different jobs - some as professors, some as cleaning people - which means, of course, that almost nobody works here full time. Often we have family members working for us, as at any small business.

Like the entire "fast-food culture," our pizzerias are oriented on young people and children. Children possess an unerring sense of taste, and prefer the simplest pizza, with cheese and pepperoni. Business people do not shy from dropping in for lunch. We have our regulars: noisy sports fans, the inveterate one-armed bandit and computer-game players, impassive chewers of pizza.

We have our own traditions here, largely based on the rich traditions of Italian trattorias - family parties, barflies, the rustle of big city papers and local news. Our pizzeria, in the best Italian and post-Italian traditions, is a favorite of police officers.

A few words about the pizza itself and the methods of its preparation. Thick and thin crusts in five different sizes are prepared the night before and stored in the refrigerator. First the dough is freshened up with the assistance of a rolling pin. Sauce is spread on the dough, after which it is covered with grated cheese. Then toppings are added: eight different meats, 15 vegetables, two fruit and two seafood toppings. To avoid confusing you with the math, I'll tell you right off that the number of possible combinations is 2,432,902,008,000,000,000. Is it clear now the difference between American pizza and Italian pizza? American and Italian film?

The most popular size is the large, the best tasting pizza - the Combo. Once I wound up at a taste-testing contest between local restaurants. There was no jury, but it seemed that a crowd hovered constantly near the Round Table Pizza stand. Every half-hour I would bring over another four super-sized Combo pizzas and they would disappear in an instant. I tried the pizza of many different companies there, and nothing even came close to ours! The success of our pizza was so astounding that the stand's manager, impressed, gave me a $45 tip, a record. Naturally, the cooks and I shared the cash around in the kitchen, although this is not a common practice.

Hot pizza is not some hamburger, some nauseating Big-Mac. A pizza spirit hovers nearby, casting a spell over all within range. All noses pick up the scent and follow the swirling steam rising from the pizza. I usually build myself the following pizza: sauce, either White Ranch or green pesto; crushed garlic, unafraid that the garlic note may chime louder than the rest of the orchestra; a layer of cheese, of course. Next, mushrooms, better finely-chopped than coarsely, because they cook better. Then the vegetable layer: fresh green pepper, marinated red pepper, artichokes, zucchini, a few sliced tomatoes. Now the carnivore's dream: slices of ham, the irreplaceable pepperoni; for a little spice, some salami, and chicken fried in barbecue sauce. On top, another layer of cheese, then a little seasoning with a mixture of garlic, cheese and pepper. Next, gently squish it down a little bit (otherwise it won't fit into the oven), and onto the pizza conveyor, which carries the pizza into the oven. For thin crust pizza it takes seven to ten minutes, for a thick crust - 12 to 15. While it's cooking you can treat yourself to a mug of beer (but not Budweiser! Why is this liquid called beer at all? Have a Sam Adams or a Sierra Nevada or any Mexican brand), but if you are overly scrupulous, get yourself a glass of mineral water and some sauce for the pizza (I prefer bleu cheese).

Pizza ignites and warms the yearning soul. This ardor can be cooled with some beer, or whatever is at hand, and, having dipped your piece of pizza into the sauce, you quick swallow it down, and while a commercial or some Disney rerun drones on the TV, you take another gulp of cold beer, wipe the light sheen of sweat from your forehead and think, "My God, I'll bet they're getting crushed pretty good in the Moscow subway right now!" What more does one need in life? Pheasant under glass perhaps?

I must say that in America, the Soviet spirit is especially noticeable in small businesses like pizzerias: hanging on a wall in the most visible location is a record of achievement and the employee-of-the-month board. A newspaper is hung up on the wall by the toilet. In storage areas - instructions on personal safety, such as "don't forget to duck" and "what to do if you've been electrocuted." Above the telephone hangs a firm warning: "No personal calls," although nobody makes calls that aren't personal. One more thing - the monthly inspections by the management, in advance of which everything is feverishly cleaned, repaired, put into order - that's how things get done around here.

You only live once!

In March of 1996 I found myself on these shores. With English-language skills at very low tide. In August I received my driver's license and bought the first car of my (not quite elderly, but not so young, either) life - a Ford Festiva (tin can on wheels), for $1,500. At the end of December, when the meager reserves from our Soviet existence had worn thin, and my wife's contract had expired, I, on the advice and with the help of a friend, applied for a job at the pizzeria. I filled out a huge questionnaire and read through a thick book of instructions very quickly (since I can't read English). I brought with me my DMV report stating that I have no accidents or violations (where could I have had any? First car, remember? And I haven't had any yet).

A few days later I became a pizza delivery man.

I remember I sweated it out the first few days: next to me on the seat - huge insulated bags, inside of which pizzas slowly cooled; all around - the darkness of an unfamiliar city, poorly lit street signs (and all in English!), mysteriously numbered houses and apartments, the wooded labyrinths and thickets of the suburbs, where rich Pinocchios and Papa Giapettos live in privacy. To call and ask for directions would be useless, I didn't understand a word. Passersby? Hah, there are none, and what good would they be? I didn't even know how or what to ask, and, even if they understood me, they still wouldn't be able to explain to me how to get there. Americans suffer from poor spatial orientation, and, with honest convictions and sincere goodwill, are ready to send you to Mars and farther. You drive and pray: "Please God, You who are everywhere, help me find this address, which doesn't seem to be anywhere!" This was a challenge even for the Almighty, but together we somehow managed to find those misplaced clients.

That was in January of 1997.

Now it is April of 1998. For five months during this period I wandered around both Russia and America, for business and pleasure. Therefore, my time of pizza service is less than one year. I know the city like the back of my hand now. I am on excellent terms with many of our clients, and have broken many pizzeria records: for number of deliveries in a day (40!), for a day's earnings ($202!), for the longest workday (12 hours), and for the largest tip from a client. I regularly make roughly… well, in general, I do pretty well for a 30-hour work week. I have conquered the language barrier: everyone around pretends to understand me, and I have learned to pretend to be quick-witted. For that matter, having been raised in Soviet society, I learned long ago that nothing is so important that you can't keep silent about it.

The client is always right

In general, I always take the side of the consumer. I myself am an inveterate consumer, and I studied marketing much longer than I did advertising, and a marketing specialist (as opposed to an advertiser) always spies in the client's interest. The minor harm that I do my pizzeria in favor of its clients is without a doubt repaid by the loyalty of the clientele. For example, if the client cannot find that discount coupon, I generously wave it off. If s/he does have it, but forgot to mention it while ordering, I convince him/her to call and correct the order (two bucks is still money!). I never refuse a client the little extras - grated cheese, pepper, paper plates.

Of course, tips are our main source of income. But it would be uncool to let go of your self-respect and change your attitude toward the client depending on whether and how much s/he tips. Some can't afford to give (students), some don't give as a matter of principle and have that right, some are shy, and one eccentric, a professor and consultant on proper behavior, for that matter, simply forgot. We had an interesting conversation on the relationship between language and behavior and he just forgot. Later he called the pizzeria, apologized, and, as I understand it, left my tip in an envelope somewhere. Only I couldn't understand where.

I often confuse these single-color American dollars, but not even once has someone pocketed an unintended five-spot or twenty. They hand them right back, or, when they figure it out later, they call the manager.

Of all our clients, there are only two kinds, which are beyond my understanding.

The first kind is rich people.

They live in palaces, mansions, huge cottages, but order poor people's food, even on their birthdays. These people remind of the poor washerwoman, who, having become queen, no longer washes anyone's clothes but her own.

The second type is people in love.

Lovers travel to an expensive hotel with a view over the ocean and the roar of the surf at their door. They pay $400-$500 a night and… order pizza for twenty bucks. Buy your beloved a hillock of flowers, arrange and feather your nest anticipation, break out the champagne, oysters and other delicacies (not many, but expensive and rare!), and then, in that luxurious bed, just about stark naked (understandable), they scarf pizza!

I usually tell such couples some romantic tale about the ocean here, or about the stars and comets in the Monterey sky, so that maybe a taste of romance and rapture would remain for them.

The rich and the enthralled usually give good tips, but I can't understand their convoluted sense of material well being.

The restaurant, especially on weekends, is packed with people, especially children. We put on parties, victory dinners, birthdays. The noise and mess they wreak is horrific. But: the pizzeria is owned by women, and that means that children get special attention. The whole interior of the pizzeria is decorated with fairy-tale adventures of pizza, and the menu features a pizza in the shape of a Jurassic dragon. Beer slash sports fans crowd around the television. It's pleasant to shoot the breeze with them about one thing or another, even if you can't understand what they're talking about. They sense in me the kindred spirit of a boozer and companionable instigator.

A private affair

I like the work, though I don't know how much longer I'll be doing it, or whether I'll ever do anything else. It would be difficult, considering my age and status, to find a full-time permanent job. But a professional is a professional, and remains such in any environment. Driving around the city, I have learned it pretty well, have begun to understand the social demographics, the municipal and architectural planning decisions. I have written a few articles on these topics which were published in Russia. Many sketches and episodes from my work formed the foundations of stories for Russian-American and Russian newspapers and magazines. Generally speaking, I plan and compose while I deliver pizza. This very article was written on the job, more or less. In Moscow, I wrote much of it in the Metro; it's a bit more comfortable in my car.

I have learned much about the psychology and daily behavior of Americans. For example, there's not much chance that I would go to a doctor who doesn't give tips; he'll either try to economize on my health or make a buck off of it.

On the whole, Americans are very patient and tolerant, and they literally melt with pleasure if you praise their house, dog, car, country, or planet. When they find out you're from Russia, they are always slightly surprised and immediately ask how I like America - at least it's warmer, right? More and more often people ask me where I got my "wonderful accent," and when they find out they are ready to listen to Slavic meanderings until exhaustion sets in.

By the way, it only seems to the casual observer that I break my neck rushing from customer to customer. In fact, I spend several hours a day enjoying classical music. In the average work day, there is no time for this sort of thing, but I turn the key in the ignition and I'm floating on waves of my favorite composers and performers.

I also like solving the eternal "commuter's problem," with its many different conditions and limitations: time, size of order, one way streets and traffic jams, roads closed for repairs, and et cetera. After all, I worked for many years in geography and transportation economics.

Some of my relatives and friends ask whether it was worth it to come to America to deliver pizza. After all, they say, in Russia you were a respected figure, a theoretician, member of various scientific councils and even a member of the Commission of Experts of the Federation Council (the Federation Council is Russia's Senate). How does one answer that? So what? It's just the Federation Council. As far as culture shock goes, that is not my problem, but rather the problem of those who are shocked by my job. Or maybe I didn't work for ten years as a dockworker, all the while a Ph.D. candidate in the sciences? Or maybe I wasn't forced to work on collective farms and vegetable warehouses, regardless of any status. And I liked that work. Why should this bother me?

Now I provide all my friend with pizzas at half-price (this is one of our benefits), made to my specifications. The important thing here is not the variation from the standard recipes, but rather that they are prepared with love. On collective farms the herds get milked by machine, but the favorite cow always gets milked by hand. Hand-milking a well-bred cow produces a product incomparably superior to the machine-produced variety.


I understood, fairly quickly, that no one will purposely exploit you or try to convince you to work. You want to work more? Work more. Wanna work less? Work less. Don't want to work at all? No one will force you. You can wear yourself out. Or you can take pleasure in your job.

Another thing entirely is the itch of competition between us drivers. Although we enjoy a fine camaraderie, and help each other when we can, we vigilantly and jealously keep track of each other's successes and victories. Any cooperative labor has a hint of sport to it, granted that the sport is founded on gentlemanly behavior and minor intrigues within the framework of established unwritten rules and good taste.

I remember one such episode: a distantly-located company placed an order for the following evening, but the manager misunderstood and prepared the order for that very day. The pizza was delivered on time, only 24 hours in advance of the client's expectations. Naturally, nothing was paid for and no tips were received.

The next day, it fell to me to deliver the order. The client gave me a hefty tip, and upon my return I split it 50/50 with the previous night's unfortunate driver. He then spent the evening explaining to everyone, including himself, that my actions were just and correct. See? Soviet ideas on the collective work ethic are valued even in America.

In the kitchen

For the kitchen brotherhood, I am Alejandro who goes by Sasha, Sashero, or Sashito, a little eccentric, but one of the group. I also like the Mexicans in our kitchen. To tell the truth, they sometimes seems a little dim to me, but, on the other hand, I seem pretty dim to them - I can't sing, can't dance, and can't eat jalapenos (which cause my eyes to bulge from my head).

Of course, it sometimes happens that we mutually misunderstand each other. For me, Mexican English is very difficult to understand, and my English is very unique.

The Bosses

I have very respectable relationships with the managers and the owners. Very equal. Probably because I'm older than all of them put together. I do not suffer from the complex, widespread among my countrymen, of "puttin' in time for the Man" (which is why many Russians quit delivering pizza and start driving taxis). Even when you work for "yourself," for example, maybe you write poetry or stories for your own enjoyment, you are still working for someone, and that someone is God. Because, no matter what you do, if you do it with love and good intentions, then you work for God and with God, independent of your religious affiliation and even if you don't believe in Him.

On each pizza I handle I make more than anybody else, about five dollars. A manager makes not more than a dollar off each pizza, but gets ten times the orders that I get. The owners are lucky if they get a quarter for each pizza sold, but get a hundred times more orders than managers do. But they have to deal with all the organizational, financial, delivery and employee headaches.

Pizza prices are stable and do not rise, because all around are competing pizzerias whose prices are already lower than ours (Domino's, Little Caesar's, Italian Pizza, Pizza-Hut. There are no less than ten different pizza chains operating in our small city of 30,000 residents!). Our wages steadily rise (by one dollar per year), not because our owners are swell, but because California law says so. That means the bosses are forced to scrimp and save on the little things, but we understand, and don't moan or groan.

I have noticed that many of my ideas and suggestions become reality one way or another. I once suggested that we sell pizza by-the-slice and was told that this is impossible and impractical. Now, however, pizza slices sell like hotcakes. I began to gather maps of the city's subsections and local hotels, and now each driver has his own little atlas of such charts and maps.

Many of my ideas are as yet unrealized. This, I feel, is primarily due to linguistic difficulties, which is why I've decided to end this commentary with a few suggestions. Who knows, they may turn out to be good ones.

What can we think up next?

Monterey, as a tourist destination, yields only to Los Angeles, Disneyland, San Francisco and San Diego, and if we have figured out how to make dinosaur-shaped pizza, then we should have no problem coming up with a pizza stuffed with seafood in the shape of an otter, the symbol of Monterey. We can also do a Christmas pizza in the shape of Santa Claus, an Easter pizza shaped like a bunny, and all of these practically from one pattern!

We can make pizza rainbows. Our variety of toppings would allow us to create any pizza rainbow that the client may wish for. For picnics or parties, in six, eight, or twelve colors.

If we can make Polynesian pizza, then nothing can stop us from making borsch pizza (it's great!), fish pizza with Polish sauce (finger-lickin' good!) and football pizzas in the requisite shape with the characteristic stitching.

Tuesdays are farmer's market days on Alvarado Street. If we were merely to cross our threshold with hot pizza, the smell alone would cause a riot.

Sometimes my heart almost stops: a guy orders pizza, patiently waits almost an hour for me to deliver it, and then runs out to get beer, leaving to the fates his football and his hopelessly cooling pizza. As if I couldn't bring him a couple of beers! It is not tough to figure out who is 21 and who isn't.

Monterey is the linguistic capitol of the world, but the interests of the students, instructors, interpreters and military personnel are not being served at all.

If the best clients are children (I agree), then it might not be a bad idea to teach all delivery people a few uncomplicated sleight-of-hand or balloon tricks. I know only one such trick and always perform it for kids. The squeals of delight are multitude every time. I know these children now beg their parents to order pizza not only for pizza's sake, but also for the tricks of the pizza man. If I knew ten such tricks the demand for pizza deliveries would increase dramatically.

We don't reward the loyalty of our clientele, although we do keep track of who buys how much. It would be great if the client, after perhaps his hundredth delivery, were to receive some sort of souvenir; after his thousandth, he would become a member of the Round Table Pizza Lovers' Club (great honors and modest privileges).

Last but not least, a small idea for the management: as a deliverer of pizza, I would be much more interested in investing my meager savings in the stock of my beloved pizzeria than in keeping them in some gigantic bank. In such a way my money would work alongside me, and the owners would receive an additional, albeit modest, source of investment in their tasty business.

30 April, 1998, Monterey