Thanks for Your Order(s)
It was early Friday evening, about the supper hour. I opened the rear passenger door of our Honda to slide in a box of pizza, a foil bowl of Greek salad and two individually bagged sandwiches. I heaved a great world-weary wheeze, a cigarette sigh. Ann looked over her shoulder from the driver’s seat. “Is everything okay?” she asked me. “You were in there for a while.”
“I did it again,” I replied.
“I told a guy how to run his business, one I know nothing about.”
When I was 20, I knew everything and nobody could tell me differently. Knowledge is dynamic, elastic. I was a Dark Ages savant who knew all there was to know whilst not knowing most of it was wrong. I spent the next 40 years learning life lessons, most of them harsh. Because an income is crucial, I always viewed myself as a dedicated employee even as I resented hierarchy and process. I just wanted to be left alone to do my job without well-intentioned and unwelcome meddling. My code for “Will you please fuck off” to managers, colleagues and clients was “Thank you for your valued input.” Now aged 61 and pretty much retired, I now know more about everything than ever before. It’s not a miracle so much as an affirmation of a deeply personal journey of aggravation. Maybe I’m stubborn; maybe I’m arrogant: I’ve been called a lot worse by people who actually know and (used to) like me.
Campus Pizza first fired up its oven in 1981. It’s been in our neighbourhood a lot longer than I have. The business has changed hands many times but the Campus brand has remained remarkably consistent. The new owners have moved beyond mere paper flyers and have since created an understandably skinny social media presence. They say they want to hear from Campus customers. Careful what you ask for.
Ann and I are of a generation that still considers a take-out or delivered pizza something of a treat. We easily skip the dishes purveyed by Uber Eats. Campus is our go-to and we order out more frequently than our parents ever did. The modest operation reminds me of a neighbourhood joint I discovered in Calgary after I was transferred there in the early nineties. I’d rented a two-bedroom unit in one of those squat, low-rise apartment buildings whose builder had dodged the obligation and expense of elevators by sinking the ground floor, thus cutting off half a legal storey. The area was called Sunnyside; I could cut up two back alleys to catch a train out of there, but I liked to hang around.
On Tenth Street NW at its t-intersection with Kensington Road there was a record shop and a newsstand, conveniently located side by side. Along Kensington, past the Austrian consulate, the Polish Combatants’ Association, the cinema and the bookshop, were a couple of pubs who enjoyed my patronage. Beyond the pubs was a tiny bakery and delicatessen whose proprietorship changed at happy hour; it became Kensington Pizza. I suppose the shared space was what we would now describe as a ghost kitchen.
Tony and his Tatiana were from the Black Sea port city of Odessa, Ukraine. He had black hair and black eyes. His nose wasn’t exactly a beak but it was hard to miss. Tatiana was petite and very pretty. The first genuine conversation I had with her was when I’d wandered in and interrupted her reading of Len Deighton’s Berlin Game. Spy thriller! I said something like, “I’ve read everything he’s written.” Tatiana replied that she wished to satisfy her curiosity about what the “other side” was thinking during the Cold War.
Their all dressed pizza was called “The Godfather.” My problem was that green olives and shrimp just wouldn’t do. I customized the toppings and remained steadfastly consistent: “Hello, Geoff! The usual?”
Sometimes when I telephoned for home delivery Tony would come inside to chat in the living room for a quarter of an hour. A couple of times he buzzed my apartment from the vestibule, wanting to sit and chat even though I hadn’t ordered anything. I did what I could, offering him a cigarette, a beer and an ear. It’s not easy trying to start a small business in a foreign country; what could I presume to tell a stranger in a strange land otherwise? I worried that our relationship would turn Saul Bellow – The Victim weird, but mostly I fantasized about “Geoff’s Usual” earning a numbered line on Kensington’s Pizza menu, which, I guess, spoke to the dormant state of the aspirations and dreams that once drove me.
Twenty-five years later I strolled into Campus Pizza. “Hi, a pick-up for Ann,” I announced.
The owner shuffled his chits. He’s gym-fit with a shaved head, but he’s got the skull for it, so more action hero than egg man. “Your meatball sub needs another minute in the oven.”
I said, “You need a Philly cheesesteak sandwich on your menu.”
“I’ve been experimenting with it. I can’t quite get the flavour right. There’s no point selling it until I do.”
“You know, if you had steak on hand, you could also make Montreal-style steak and pepperoni subs. That’s at least two new menu items with a single additional ingredient. I had them try to make me one at Route 99 (a popular south side diner), but it didn’t work out.”
“Okay, your sub is ready. That’s everything. Anything else?”
“Yeah. Ann says your spinach pizza is missing something. Maybe some garlic or dill?”
He swivelled from his hips up and said to the cook, “You hear that?” He turned back to me and handed over the debit machine. I selected the “You Rock” gratuity option because I figured my advice was worth paying for. I knew my feedback, my input, was valued.
meGeoff has been your most unreliable, unbalanced and inaccurate alternative source of refined culinary criticism since 2013. My novella Of Course You Did is coming soon. Don’t miss out on the literary sensation of 2021. Bookmark this blog for breathless updates.