Papa Roma’s Italian Restaurant sits between a topless bar and a card room in the middle of Fourth Avenue just before E Street in downtown San Diego. The restaurant was once a little Italian grocery with a few tables in the back, where Papa with his big flea-bitten white mustache would bring out the Old World manicotti. Over the years, the tables nudged out the grocery, and now, in 1974, it is a bustling place behind narrow steamed storefront glass. In the window, a guy with a puffy tilted cotton hat twirls the dusty dough through the air. You push in the door and up comes the sharp smell of Parmesan, of burnt flour and bleach, of cigarettes and oregano, the licorice-fennel smell of sausage. Two long counters plunge through tomato-colored steam into the darkness of a dining room with cartoon-gondola wallpaper and vinyl red-and-white-checkered tablecloths. A trellis partition is twined with plastic grape leaves and clusters of empty Chianti bottles. The waitresses shout orders. A drunk is asleep on his arms in the back booth.
I am nineteen, a pale pimply suburbanite so thin my knees and elbows knife through my clothes. I have learned almost everything I know from television and Time magazine. I was once afraid of the world, worldophobic, but down here if you show your fear you will be eaten alive. I lean against the counter while Randy pulls me a run from the stacks of boxed and ticketed pizzas along the tops of the ovens.
“Charger Drive, Willamette Avenue, Clairemont Mesa Boulevard,” he recites. “All Clairemont, a good run.”
I nod and light up a smoke. Frank, the manager, sends loaves of mozzarella through an ancient grinding machine into gray plastic tubs. Dick, one of the drivers, limps through the door with an antipasto salad that apparently got turned over: the paper bag is soaked dark with oil. Dick has a serious ape face, scabby and bashed-in from when he went hang gliding off a cliff a week ago and forgot to strap himself in; he flew dangling upside down for a few miles before he finally smashed into another cliff. Dick’s long brown hair is thinning up top. He has wide shoulders and is compactly built, but his slender hairy arms seem about twice as long as his legs. Here it is, you think, seeing him for the first time: what Darwin was looking for. He holds up the soaked bag with a hopeless look on his bashed-in face.
“What do you got there, Dick?” says Frank, wiping his hands on his apron.
“Antipasto,” says Dick. “Kind of fell over, but it’s all right; the lady said she didn’t really feel like a salad, anyway.”
“All right, Dick,” says Frank, pulling down the lousiest run he can find. “These Thirty-second Streets have to go, and I got a National City you can pick up on the way back.”
Randy, the counterman, rings up my orders, and I lean back on my elbows, watching the customers come and go. The front door never stops swinging. Half the people who come into Papa Roma’s are lost or idle: drunken sailors, bums, whores, kung-fu warriors, winos, the insane. Frank keeps a .38 next to the cash register. Behind him is a bullet hole in the plaster, memorial to a girl whose name no one remembers, who died in the service of a cappicola sub with extra peperoncini. Cruz, the long-haired Mexican pizza cook, is eager for trouble. So is Chewy, another Mexican, who ladles up spaghettis and lasagnas and makes the meatball and sausage sandwiches. A handsome boy, Chewy is a Golden Gloves boxer and the lover of Guido, who makes sausages in back. Guido is fifty with a potbelly and greasy gray-striped black hair. He brings back boys from Mexico; they are his “cousins,” and they are always handsome and young and in need of a job. Randy comes from Iowa. At one time, he was the hammer man in a slaughterhouse; he is bald and his bulging blue eyes are kind, but his wrists are wrapped with sinews like snakes, and his hands flex constantly into fists: too many years bringing down the hammer gets into your blood. I once saw him beat a man who was supposedly a boxer. The people who work at Papa Roma’s love to fight. The word walkout is bellowed like a war cry; it means someone has left without paying. When this happens, there is a stampede for the door, fiery grins and sparkling eyes and rolled-up sleeves. The “walkout” never makes it very far.
I stack my pizzas three high on the passenger seat — the last one on the bottom so it will stay the hottest — and pull out from the curb. I have a big pale green 1964 Chevrolet Bel Air station wagon that reeks of oregano and pepperoni and onions; the seats shine from hot mozzarella drippings, and the floor is littered with sauce-and-oil-stained receipts. I am probably the only delivery man in history who doesn’t know east from west unless I am driving into the sun. Homing pigeons have a magnetic substance in their brains to help align them. I have no such substance. I drive in a flat dimension, like a rat in a maze, going by landmarks and memorized routes. It took me a long time to get to know the city this way. In the meantime, the countermen gave me the worst routes: Linda Vista, Naval Training Center, the south beaches, the ghetto. There is nothing like being lost in Logan Heights at two o’clock in the morning with a cold pizza, street lights broken out, packs of wild dogs running in the streets, gangs on corners watching you go by. You park and get out, trembling, glancing back to the car. The address is always in the back, the porch light is always out. You knock on the door: it is the end of your life. The people are almost always kind, happy to see the pizza man. Behind them, light from the television flickers on the wall like a blue-and-green portrait of loneliness.
Drivers get robbed — it’s part of the job — sometimes five in one month, in July, when it’s hot and people are outside with liquor in their bones, restless and bored and willing to risk a felony for a free pizza and a handful of dirty dollar bills. Dick got robbed two months ago: his bankroll, his pizzas, and his car. So I carry a gun, an unlicensed nickel-plated, walnut-grip .357 Magnum I bought from a vice cop for three hundred dollars. I keep a single bullet in the chamber, one off from firing position, which means I have to pull the trigger twice before I can shoot someone. I have used the gun two times. Once was down at Imperial Beach, where a dark stringy little Mexican guy with a goatee and no shirt and tattoos up and down his arms decided he wasn’t going to pay me; he opened the pizza in front of me, stuck his finger into the cheese, and told me it was cold.
“You ought to give me this thing for free,” he said.
“If you don’t want it,” I said, “I’ll take it back.”
He said, “I ought to kick your goofy ass.”
My heart shot up and began beating in my ears.
“Do you want me to kick your ass?” he said.
I whipped that gun out so fast it surprised even me.
He said, “It’s cool, bro.”
I spread my feet and flexed my knees, both forefingers wrapped around the trigger. “I could kill you,” I said.
“I understand,” he said, and I could see that he did, the wonderful language of the eyes.
My hands were shaking. I said, “I’m just trying to do my job, man.”
He said, “I just got out of the joint. Chuckawalla, man.”
I said, “That’s no excuse for being rude.”
He said, “I’m hip.”
“Pay me,” I said.
He gave me ten dollars for an eight-dollar pizza and told me to keep the change.
The other time, three drunk sailors in a motel room in Golden Hills ordered an extra-large number 15: a pizza with the works plus whole green olives and provolone and cappicola. Most sailors are cheap green boys from small towns; I can count the times I’ve been tipped by a sailor on one hand. When they looked at the bill they thought it was a mistake. I told them there was no mistake. They decided they would fight me for it. I said OK, and did Aladdin and his magic lamp.
I believe that people are basically good; sometimes we just have to help each other along. I am waiting for the day when the other guy has a gun, too. I keep five bullets in the left pocket of my air-force-surplus jacket just in case.
My car is charmed. It was covered with seagull excrement and parking tickets when I bought it for almost nothing. I thought it might last three months, a disposable car, but it must have been built by elves. You just put in gas and it goes, glides like a grinning bear leaping on soft paws down the dark velvet roads, and there is nothing but me and the radio and my pack of smokes up on the dash. It has taken me a long time to master these streets, but now I know the city like fish know the sea, all the dead ends and canyons and cutoffs, the best places for coffee, fresh doughnuts, cheap gas, a roast-beef sandwich, the liquor stores that sell to minors. I drive by my landmarks and memorized routes and make good time. They give me the choice runs: Mission Valley, the north beaches, the hospitals, Point Loma.
Because of Dick’s remarkable aptitude for failure, everyone calls him Wonderboy. His eyes are perennially red from smoking pot; he is always bandaged, splinted, braced, late for work, lost, stoned, forgetful of something, coming off a disastrous relationship with a woman no one ever sees. He is on his fourth car since I’ve known him: The Dart was stolen. The Gremlin lasted one night. His Fiat Spider with 128,000 miles on it caught fire out on southbound 163. Now he has a 1945 Willys, an army jeep without a top. I don’t know how he pays for them. They are always lost or destroyed in a way that insurance doesn’t cover, as if some special depraved angel were jealously guarding his fate.
One night, Dick comes to deliver pizzas on a motorcycle. His jeep has two flat tires, he says. Randy chews him out for it: How could anyone expect to deliver pizzas on a motorcycle? What kind of ding-dong would even presume to show up on a motorcycle to deliver pizzas? What if it rains? How can you stack five pizzas, two orders of manicotti, three sausage-and-pepper sandwiches, and a side of garlic bread on the back of a goddamn motorcycle? How would you keep them hot? Dick listens with head lowered, long hairy arms limp at his sides. Someone has been yelling at him like this since the very beginning. The preacher will probably yell like this at his funeral: What are you dead for, Dick? Don’t you know that dying is wrong? Dick promises as always that he will quit messing up. Randy says not to make promises he can’t keep. Dick calls Randy an asshole. Randy says that anybody who calls him an asshole had better be able to back it up. Dick says there is nothing worse than a backed-up asshole. I lean against the counter and enjoy the argument. Dick has a purpose in nature: you look at him and, no matter what your life is like, no matter how badly or how often you have failed, you can feel good about yourself. Randy points to the door and tells Dick to take his crappy claptrap motorcycle and hit the road. Dick stomps out on the verge of tears. I think to myself: God bless Dick.
A pimply suburbanite with a pizza can go anywhere. A white magnetic sign on the side of my car proclaims PAPA ROMA’S in big red letters. I stop at the gate or the security booth or the desk and the guard takes a whiff, smiles, and waves me on through. I go to Anti-Submarine Warfare and the deepest recesses of Ballast Point; I get automatic clearance in any federal building; I deliver pizzas to the FBI. I can go to any hospital, any police station, any military installation. I have been to the mayor’s house twice. If I were a terrorist, I would put a bomb in a greasy white box, wear a stupid grin, and go straight in. I would be the first terrorist in history to get tipped by the enemy: Thank you, and good night.
At nineteen, I don’t exactly drive women into estrus, but I knock on their doors late at night and into the early mornings, and sometimes they are lonely and invite me in. There was one named Bonnie who called every two weeks or so and asked that I deliver her order. I didn’t find out she was married until her husband came home while I was there. I spent the night under the bed listening to them, my jacket with the gun in the pocket draped over the couch in the front room. I lay on the cold floor until he left at nine the next morning. I thought he would find my jacket on his way out and it would be my last morning on earth. When she called again two weeks later I let Dick take the run.
With tips I make thirty or forty cash every night. A tank of gas costs me ten, and the rest is mine. My shift is up at three in the morning, and I walk down Fourth Avenue to my car. The hookers wriggle by, and the Shore Patrol is shoving some wild sailor into a van. The porno parlors blaze all around. Some of the card rooms are still going. The steam lifts from the manhole covers, and the drunks crouch along the sidewalks like arctic explorers; the nuts and preachers keep their tireless vigil. The cops go round and round, filling their cars and emptying them, filling and emptying; the lonely queers sneak down into the underground restrooms; the homeless pay a dollar to see an all-night triple feature at the California or the Balboa; a wino with scabbed elephant ankles lies sleeping on a bus-stop bench.
I live in Mission Beach on the bay side, in a little bungalow in a row of other little bungalows a hundred yards from the ocean. The rent is two hundred a month, and I can buy the place if I want for twenty-five thousand, but that seems a little high for two rooms, a tiny kitchen, and a four-foot strip of sand for a side yard. When I get home, I park on Santa Clara Point along Mission Bay, where I won’t get a ticket, and walk the six or seven blocks. My dog, Shae, is waiting for me on the stoop. She is half collie and half shepherd. Her green eyes flash in the darkness as she bounds toward me and pounces with her big feet up on my chest. She wags her tail and her whole back end swings so hard her feet slip on the walk. I bring her leftovers from the restaurant — a piece of pizza or a meatball sandwich or one of Guido’s sausages — but she doesn’t care too much about food, the only dog I’ve ever known who doesn’t seem to care about food. Running free comes first, then walks with the humans along the beach, then meatball sandwiches a little farther down the list. That seems about right: freedom, then love, then dinner. Tonight, I’ve got a meatball sandwich for her, and I sit down and watch her eat it. She has a slow, deliberate way of eating, her big ears twitching around on her head.
We wander down to the beach, and she gallops low along the skimming waves and scatters the terns. There is no one out, and the sky is faintly lit over the dark ocean. The waves tumble in like little barrels spilling chrome. Belmont Amusement Park shoulders out of the mist like some old forgotten mansion; there is talk of closing the park down because it is obsolete, with a wooden roller coaster that some old lady fell off twenty years ago. Trash swirls along its tall graffiti-scrawled fences. Little strips of mist creep in and out of the rusting struts of the Wild Mouse.
I walk along the beach and Shae runs far ahead. If there were a voice from the future, it would say: You are young; nothing lasts; you will never be here again. And it is true that, before long, Papa Roma’s Italian Restaurant will be driven out of business by a franchise with red plastic roofs; that the people who work there will drift away, one by one; that my sandy little bungalow will be sold to an attorney from New Jersey for a hundred thousand dollars; that my car will be wrecked and crushed into a cube with a last whiff of pizza curling out of it like a soul; that I will give away that gun after I almost kill someone with it; that the green-eyed dog will hop into the back of a family station wagon bound for Nebraska because I can no longer keep her; that the whole city will be taken down and resurrected with condos and red plastic roofs and palm trees for the dreamers who will pour in, until I no longer recognize this city, until it is no longer mine. And it is true that I am young, that nothing lasts, that I will never be here again. The waves rush in, glitter, and fold. The green-eyed dog runs far ahead, scattering the terns.