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.