My Short, Happy Pizza Career

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One morning in June 1974 I reported for work at Melio’s Heights Inn, a pizzeria and lounge in Madison Heights, Michigan. Dino, the manager, led me to the big stainless-steel sink with a spray nozzle and garbage disposal.

Next thing I knew, a stocky woman appeared across from me and said: “Scare me! What’s goin’ on? Louie s’posed to be trainin’ you, but Louie out somewhere fartin’ around.” Thus I met Exa Mae Davis, line cook at Melio’s and the spiritus rector of the Italian restaurant that would be my home for three months.

Exa Mae told me my first job was to strain several gallons of spaghetti sauce made the night before. I recall the fragrant, thick, cold paste disappearing through colander holes, leaving ham skins, onion chunks, and whole celery stalks as I stirred it all down with a giant steel spoon. Next, Exa Mae introduced me to the prep table with its gleaming slicer.

My main lunchtime job, though, was to make pizzas. Since then I’ve often said that being a pizza cook was my favorite job ever, except for being a college professor, and sometimes it even beat that.

You pick up a large, medium, or bar-size wad of dough and run it through a power roller twice to start flattening it out, and then you work the dough so that it thins in the middle while staying thicker at the edge, spreading it until it matches the desired size marked by a  concentric circle on a broad wooden paddle strewn with corn meal.

I did not toss the dough in the air. I didn’t want to waste all the dough required to get the 10,000 hours of experience I’ve heard is necessary for perfecting this maneuver (or playing the violin).

Once you have your blank canvas stretched, you ladle on tomato sauce, sprinkle on grated mozzarella, and then choose from the small steel tubs of toppings — pepperoni, green peppers, onions, black and green olives, ham, mushrooms, and an ancient can of anchovies.

You open the short, wide oven door, pick up the wooden paddle, and let the pizza glide over the corn meal onto the brick floor of the oven while you scoot the paddle back out. Meanwhile you have burnt off some hair if not some skin on your forearm as it touches the 500-degree oven door.

Exa Mae admired my pizza skills, saying that whenever she tried it, she always made “footballs.” Sometimes she’d sing her theme song, “Exa Me Mucho.” One day she asked me through the utensil rack that divided the cooks’ area from the pizza-assembly station: “Geoff, we all outa crabs. You got any?”

That was the summer that Nixon resigned. We heard his farewell address live on the kitchen radio. It was my first summer home after a freshman year at Michigan State. It was the summer of “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” and “Eres tú.”

Dino the manager did not micromanage. He trusted me to get the prep work done, to keep up with the lunch rush, and to drive his car to pick up extra chickens. He paid me in cash (above-board; withholding was hand-written on the pay envelope). He tended bar, too, and once a month he would disappear into his little office in back, which doubled as the liquor locker, and go on a day-long binge. Otherwise he didn’t touch the stuff.

The night crew came in around five. Zenobia, known to her friends as Noble, asked me in a husky voice: “Geoff, you got a girlfriend?” “Yeah.” “You should have six. One for every night of the week, and Sunday is the day of rest.” German John, the tall blond pizza cook who made the next day’s dough, didn’t say much.

Once Exa Mae gave me a history lesson. Dino was the son-in-law of Melio, the founder of the Heights Inn. “I remember the day Melio died. Had a heart attack right over there by the pop machine.” Exa Mae looked forward to getting off work: “Got a six pack o’ Miller’s in the trunk.”

One day after lunch rush I was eating some spaghetti instead of the bar-size pizza I’d usually make for myself. I was sitting in the dining room (usually off limits) with an attractive waitress whose name I don’t remember, who at over twenty years old was from another planet. I twirled my spaghetti onto my fork. She said: “Are you Italian? You eat like one.”

This waitress was the same one who took me to the hospital. I was working a few months later over Christmas break, cutting up chicken after chicken for a catering job, when the knife slipped and cut deep into the index finger of my left hand.

Dino asked the waitress to take me to a hospital. The closest one was Providence in Madison Heights. I heard my mother’s voice: “Don’t ever go to Providence Hospital.” My mother had few but definite opinions. The waitress’s mother had told her the same thing. We went to Beaumont in Royal Oak.

I had sliced into but not through a tendon. Fourteen stitches, two in the tendon and the rest in two layers of skin. Bad news for a mandolin player. I probably started using the finger again too soon.

My witty eighteen-year-old self said “I had a knife fight with a chicken, and the chicken won.”

And thus ended my career at Melio’s. Scare me!

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The Almanac

There was a time when I listened to Garrison Keillor’s “Writer’s Almanac” on National Public Radio almost every day, but then I stopped listening so often because of the daily closing of the show: “Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.”

It felt more like a taunt than a good wish. I was not well, I was not doing good work, and I was not keeping in touch.

Even today, years later and in a much better mental and emotional state, I sometimes avoid clicking on the podcast. Just the memory of pointless guilt can reawaken pointless guilt.

The “Writer’s Almanac” always begins with the word “And”: “And this is the Writer’s Almanac for Friday, the nineteenth of June …”

That “and” can either be a sign that the days plod on and on, connected by a weary conjunction, or it can be a sign of continuity, that our lives are not merely additive, but have some sort of narrative in which meaning accretes and accrues.

And the poems—the poems can actually have an antidepressant effect, even or especially the tougher ones.

So now I usually do listen to that small daily serving of civilization. But when I do, I always think that there were times when I thought I was not well, did not do good work, did not keep in touch, and had forfeited the right to do anything about it.

Remembering like this is not wallowing, it is therapeutic. It is like looking at the high water mark on a plaque commemorating a historical flood. Imagining the water over your head can help you feel high and dry.

Egelsee bei Krems, January 1990

Just after New Year’s in 1990, when we had been living in Salzburg since late August and our son was not quite a year old, I decided I needed a change of scene from the demands of running a study-abroad program. In a brochure from a tourism bureau (this was way before the Internet) I found an old vintner’s house available as a vacation rental in the village of Egelsee (literally “Leech Lake”) up the hill from Krems on the Danube west of Vienna. I called the landlady, who was the wife of the Lutheran pastor in Krems, and booked the place for three nights.

On the autobahn trip from Salzburg to Krems I had occasion to use the fifth gear on the program Peugeot for the first time. I accidentally went from fourth to third, and I was afraid I might have damaged the transmission. We stopped at a rest area near Amstetten and had lunch. I ate very tasty Blunzengröstl (roughly “blood-sausage hash”) while worrying about whether the car would work when we got back on the road.

We found the woman’s house on Martin Luther Square in Krems and followed her car up hair-pin turns (the transmission being in fact intact) to Egelsee, a wine-growing village that was rapidly becoming a bedroom community. It was home to a motorcycle museum and several condominium construction sites.

We arrived in the village. I was relieved not to have swerved off the road into the dark pine woods. In the middle of the old quadratic house was a clay-and-tile stove for heating.  It extended into each of the four large rooms. (The Swiss writer Jürg Laederach calls such an arrangement “equal opportunity freezing.”) It was the only heat in the house. The landlady patiently told me how to stoke it and keep it going. I was worried that I would let it go out (she said it was very hard to get started again from scratch), causing my family to freeze to death in Leech Lake the week after New Year’s.

On the wooden kitchen table there was a big round of rye bread, probably a kilo, and a two-liter bottle of local Grüner Veltliner. These bottles are called Doppler, “doubles,” because they are double the size of a normal liter bottle. And of course, the result of drinking one of these is called the “Doppler effect.”

This was much better than a mint on the pillow, and I ate and drank happily, or at least eagerly. (Christen doesn’t drink, and so the Doppler wisely never got finished.) The oven door was in the kitchen, and I spent much of my time between bites of rye and swigs of white trying to put wood on the fire without extinguishing it. It was not good to open the door too often—it tended to put out the fire—but how else could I judge the embers? I have no memory of the bed in that house, or of how we slept, but I do remember that the bathroom was cold until heated with an electric space heater. I’m pretty sure there was no hot water. Very romantic.

It was a beautiful, quiet week in the fragile January light before Epiphany. We walked through pine woods past giant stacks of timber, and drove back down the hairpin turns to Krems to get dinner, once at a Chinese restaurant, and once at the ancient inn Alte Post. Back up on the hill we discovered the Donauwarte, a tower overlooking the Danube valley. You could look down across the vineyard-covered slopes to the medieval center of Krems and, right below Egelsee, its neighboring town Stein (home to a penitentiary). The little town of Und (German for “and”) is tucked between them. (“Krems Und Stein are three towns.”) In a slight haze on a promontory across the river stood the massive fortified monastery of Göttweig.

There had been a bit of a thaw and the ground near the outlook was muddy. Our son Coleman got out of his stroller, toddled in his yellow one-piece snowsuit, fell down, and got right up, showing a big brown spot on each knee. I realized it was the first time he had ever walked outdoors.