Shoes of a Pizza Man

In 2003, I attended a  pizza competition at NAPICS, (the North American Pizza and Ice Cream Show) in the sprawling convention center in Columbus, Ohio. There were pizza guys from all over the country representing thier pizzerias and pitting their knowledge, experience and pizza prowess against all comers. My manager Al and I headed up into the bleacher seats to wait for the final results and sit down after the grueling day.

“That’s something we don’t have at Avalanche. Look at that old guy, wouldja?” Al pointed with his chin. Over to our left and up one row was an older guy sitting and hunched over in his chair as if playing craps.

“Him?” I pointed.

“Yeah, what a sad case for the pizza business right there.” Al shook his head and snickered. “He looks like he’s been pounding dough his whole damn life.” Al took in the guy like a kid watching lions at the zoo. “Check out those deck burns on his arms, wouldja?”

I looked this guy up and down. His eyes were bloodshot, he needed a shave, and his legs were bent with knees in a constant scissor-like motion. But the most telltale sign of a pizza lifer were the shoes: black springy rubber soled shoes, coated with a white film, splotches of solid white dough blobs, and droplet hits of red sauce. They were misshapen from years of neglect, with the toes formed upward from fast walking. He looked like he had given up taking care of those shoes.

I stared straight ahead and thought about that guy. Maybe the shoes were a metaphor for his life. He stopped caring about something that was just gonna get dirty over and over again. I figured he was alot like me or like every pizza guy in every pizza place doing the same thing. Repetition, followed by more repetition, followed by a new day and more pizza repetition stamps its mark on your soul like a pizza tattoo.  Then all of a sudden, you realize that you are old, worn out and all of your shoes look like shit.

“That dude’s been in this biz way too long. They should just go shoot him now, like they do at racetracks, ya know, like a horse who has a broken….”

“Okay, all right Al, your’ve made your point,” I said in annoyance. “He’s probably one of these guys who owns his own place in Beantown, Ohio, population 57.” I grinned. “I didn’t see him competing.”

Just then a  20-year old girl came up and handed the old man a soda. I had seen her making a pizza in the competition. It looked like a plain sausage, onion and green pepper. The man smiled in a tired sort of way and the girl, obviously nervous about the outcome of her pizza, chewed at her nails as they both looked away onto the convention floor.

“Must be his kid.” Al huddled closer to me, looking straight ahead. “John, if you don’t look out, you’ll end up like that guy. This business will eat you up. It’s no good if you aren’t growing your company and expanding, them chains’ll always be there and they’ll wait you out till you get tired and burnt out. You’ve gotta be a shark and take out all competitors. If you don’t…” Al thumbed to the old guy. ‘You’ll be a shaggy-shoed oldie like him.”

“Naw, I’ll never be like that.” I said.

I came in third place that year, and never looked back until I broke my foot four weeks ago. My doctor told me that I was on my feet too much and that I wore crappy shoes.

Today, I brought all my shoes out from every place they had been tossed: at work, the car, the porch, the closet, under my bed. I lined them up and…

…all of a sudden, I realized I am that guy.

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12 Responses to “Shoes of a Pizza Man”

  1. that is great story. i can relate at 57 i have been at it for 27 years. both of my children are in the restaurant business. one a graduate if fci ny and is working for michael white. the other with a mba in business a management training program with cheddars out of texas. both are saving every penny to start their own restaurant. i have had a wonderful time doing what i do. i follow you blog because of your association in a college town.i am in oberlin ohio home of oberlin college.

  2. I love this story…

    So I can guess you can tell a lot about pizza passion from the shoes that you wear.
    What a great pizza insight.

    Great post and great blog!

    Thanks, Pizza Goon.

    pizza on earth,
    albert grande
    pizzatherapy.com

  3. Joel F says:

    That’s why I wear WHITE Shoes. Yeah, still got the holes and the shoestrings are frayed and torn. But, the flour blends in. LOL. I do tend to get new shoes every 4 to 6 months, though.

  4. John says:

    Thanks Albert!

    That means alot coming from you! I really appreciate it.

    jg

  5. John says:

    Larry,

    You are an inspiration. I was just talking to my wife about letting my 3 and 7 year old in this biz. On good days, it’s miraculous, on bad one’s…well, I guess it’s still good.
    It’s nice to know that there are guys out there with such a positive outlook that I can feed off of. I gotta come visit sometime as soon as I take my head outta this damn oven.

    see ya
    john g

  6. Julie says:

    John

    This is a great story and I love the photos of all your flour and dough-speckled shoes. Would love to try your pizza if I’m ever in your part of Ohio some day.

    That said, I make my own pizza but have been on a quest in the NYC area to find really good pies — not just slices. Sorry to say, my latest discovery, Jim Lahey’s Company restaurant (hand-crafted pizza) while decent with esoteric toppings to boot (we had leek, bechamel, parmesan and sausage toppings) was outrageously expensive. $19 FOR A SMALL PERSONAL SIZE PIZZA? Give me a break.

    Julie
    http://www.eathappy.net

  7. Vertigo B says:

    This post is like a poem. I love what you wrote and the photos are absolutely perfect.

    BTW, I found you through Food News Journal.

  8. David Rubeo says:

    I can relate in soooo many ways. I flipped eggs & pancakes for what seemed like my entire life (15-20years). My shoes were always covered in grease, worn & turned up. I liked the story, with the old man. I got out at 40ish, thank GOD! The business will eat you up. I have held every position in many different joints, from dishwasher to cook to head chef to General Manager… It is all the same. I prefer being a cook best of all. Cooking is in my blood. Good luck my friend, don’t let it kill ya, it’s not worth it.

  9. John says:

    Thank you Vertigo, love your site also. Your latest post about the kids and thier costumes rocks! Yesterday, I spent 30 minutes trying to convince my 3 year old to take his ninja mask off.
    I gave up and I had to bathe a 3 year old ninja warrior.

    Love the 4 leafed clover!
    jg

  10. John says:

    Great comment Chef
    There’s so much magnetic energy in this business, some of it good, some bad. I remember washing dishes at Bimbo’s Italian Restuarant in Palatine Ill when I was 14 for $1.60 an hour. My bosses name was “Mouse” and he had a gangrenous leg that was putrid and he constantly chewed on a stub of a cigar that looked like dog poop. Worst of all, he called me “Weasel”…Oh, the good old days.
    You are right though, it surely does get in your blood.

    take care!
    John Goon

  11. Aunt Baaa says:

    Yup, always choose your battles wisely!

  12. Roman says:

    Those are some awesome shoes!

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