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Food + Cooking

When I Was a Superhero

Published in Gourmet Live 06.20.12
Matt Gross explains why delivering pizzas as a teenager was the best gig in the world
pizza delivery guy

The day I got my name tag was the proudest day of my young working life. “Matthew,” it read, in unevenly spaced adhesive black letters on a white plastic tag, and when I pinned it to my blue-red-and-white polyester polo shirt, I felt like I’d finally become what I’d always wanted to be. I adjusted my mesh baseball cap. I was nearly 19 years old, and I was a Domino’s Pizza deliveryman.

Ah, the summer of 1993! Shortly before noon every day, I would arrive at Domino’s in Williamsburg, Virginia—capital of all things colonial and home to other tourist destinations such as Busch Gardens and Water Country USA—and change into my uniform. When orders came in, I’d watch my coworkers make everything to order. (Who’d a thunk?) They’d pound, stretch, and assemble the pies, saucing them just so and placing them carefully on one end of a conveyor belt leading into an open oven. Then, when the pizzas emerged on the other side, I’d box and slice them, insert the boxes into insulation sleeves, grab whatever sodas and extras had been ordered, and climb into my blue 1986 Toyota Tercel hatchback.

The minutes that followed were among the most blissful of my day. All I had to do was drive into placid, leafy residential neighborhoods, to the hotels and motels that lined Williamsburg’s small highways, to down-at-heels apartment complexes. I’d listen to NPR—Fresh Air, Talk of the Nation, Afropop Worldwide—or mix tapes (remember those?) friends filled with Jimi Hendrix, Primus, Jane’s Addiction, Public Enemy, Misfits, A Tribe Called Quest. I drove well and I drove casually, learning the map of my town better than anywhere I’ve since called home.

But the best part came when I strode up brick walkways and down Days Inn corridors, knocked on the door, and heard from behind it the muffled, sweetly familiar call: “The pizza guy’s here!”

There was something special about that moment. To be the guy who brings the pizza is to be a hero—a minor hero, to be sure, but a hero nonetheless. You are the magic link enabling hungry families, tired travelers, and famished stoners to stay in and yet enjoy the comforts of something almost restaurant-fresh: pizza, America’s favorite takeout. You are doing the one thing they are unwilling or unable to do. You make this nation’s beloved door-to-door delivery system—born of good roads, plentiful gas, and ubiquitous phone lines—function and flourish.

The pizza guy (or, to some, the “pizza boy,” although he is, of course, sometimes a she) is an almost mythic figure. He’s a lone gun, a cowboy of the highways and subdivisions, arriving speedily to bring sustenance to those in need. Of course, he’s also got access to all the pizza he can eat, plus leftovers to bring home to family or roommates. And we can’t forget the potential for porn-film scenarios, though in my four-month stint in the business I never heard a credible tale. A myth can’t be all glory, however, and the pizza guy does face the risk of robbery—or worse—although Williamsburg was über-safe.

For me, the free pizza was nice, and on my days off I loved the sense of importance I derived from wearing a company pager. (Hurry, Matt, we need you!) But what I really appreciated were the cowboy-on-the-range moments alone in my car. I remember Williamsburg as a beautiful place, covered in often-dense woods, with colonial homes (some authentic, others ersatz) on every street, and the simple act of driving there calmed me. I was being paid—just above minimum wage, as I recall, plus tips and 18 cents per mile for gas—to do almost nothing at all. Just drive.

Sometimes, if we were short-staffed, I’d answer phones and take orders, but I never learned to make pizza—to spread the dough, fling it in the air, distribute toppings. I didn’t care. I didn’t want that responsibility. The pizza guy’s pleasure lies in the journey and the moment of presentation, not in an extended relationship with the food or the people eating it. The tips don’t hurt, either, and even when they were low—don’t act like you’re being generous when you tip $5 on a $75 order—I shrugged my shoulders. In a minute, I’d be back in the car, soothed by the sweet, sweet voice of Terry Gross (no relation, I’m sorry to say).

The added benefit of my Zen detachment was that it insulated me from criticism. I was merely the courier. If the pizza itself was bad or had the wrong toppings, I never lingered long enough to hear about it and couldn’t be at fault. Some schmuck back at the store had to take that call, although I might have to return with the corrected order, for no additional tip. The worst I personally could do was get lost or arrive late, and that never happened.

OK, it happened once, and the memory haunts me to this day. The delivery was to a Days Inn—or maybe a Quality Inn or a Hampton Inn or a Comfort Inn—and Williamsburg had three or four Days Inns (and Quality, Hampton, and Comfort inns). So, I drove to the Days Inn I thought was correct and attempted to make my delivery. I had the wrong hotel. Thinking it might be another Days Inn farther afield, I drove down the highway and tried again. Wrong hotel. My third try, a failure. My fourth, too, which is when I phoned Domino’s for help. Come on back, they told me—the customers had been calling to find out where their pizza was.

At the store, my manager walked me to the wide front windows and pointed across the vast strip-mall parking lot to an agglomeration of hotels and motels just visible a quarter mile away. Peeking out from among the brownish buildings was a sign that read “Days Inn.” With a pat on my back, he indicated the fresh, hot replacement pizzas he’d prepared and let me go deliver them. Surprisingly, he wasn’t angry. It was just pizza. They were just tourists. We ate my errors together that night.

As the end of the summer approached, I prepared to return to college. With the money I’d made, I’d bought a portable CD player, which I connected to my car stereo and which skipped with every bump in the road, and a TV for my dorm room. Meanwhile, a coworker had bought a new Honda Civic that got 50 miles to the gallon—the perfect pizza-guy steed—and I considered starting up a newsletter for Domino’s Pizza guys to share advice about cars, deliveries, how to perfectly balance a stack of pies on a canted bucket seat. Such information, I knew, would be useful—valuable, even.

But I did nothing. I went back to school and during winter break picked up a few more shifts at Domino’s, but I could tell I was done. There were other, more grown-up jobs to get—video-store clerk, English teacher, copy editor. I couldn’t be a pizza boy forever.

Except that a part of me has remained that 19-year-old pizza boy. Throughout my complicated grown-up career, with its lows (getting laid off from Fox News) and highs (travel columnist at The New York Times), I’ve wished at times for the utter simplicity of the Domino’s gig. I missed the solitude of my Toyota, the look of joy and relief on my starving customers’ faces, and the confidence that I’d done all I needed to do simply by showing up.

Matt Gross writes frequently for the New York Times travel section and for Saveur, is a contributing writer at Afar magazine, and blogs about parenting at DadWagon.com. His last piece for Gourmet Live was My Life As a Freeloader. Follow him on Twitter @worldmattworld.