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It’s 9:45 PM and you forgot to eat. You’ll be working on a project, there’s nothing to cook quickly, and no time to go out and deal with the late-night dining selection. Who do you call?
An old friend comes over and both of you just want to sit around, catch up, and maybe have a few drinks. You’re both peckish but don’t want to bother with the time or effort needed for a full culinary production. Where do you turn?
There’s a meeting of several people, all with different tastes, and the last thing you need is to introduce the complication of food politics. Does a simple answer present itself, one that will likely be accepted for its traditional legacy as a mediating ritual as well as its convenient deliciousness?
The pizza delivery guy is an icon for everything that is beautiful about the market. I knew there were many unmentioned heroes in my article, "Some of my Favorite Public Servants," which was never meant to be comprehensive. I was reminded that truck drivers, given their dangerous work and tireless devotion to connect consumers and producers all throughout the country, are champions of civilization who are often forgotten at best. One reader pointed out the importance of electricians, carpenters, and other such laborers in the construction of the buildings that keep us safe, clean, warm, and dry. No doubt these people need more respect.
I was particularly struck by a request to write a tribute to the pizza delivery man. "Be it rain, sleet, snow or gloom of night, the pizza delivery guy will get you that pizza in 30 minutes or thereabouts. This unsung hero is far more likely to be killed on his appointed rounds then any shamelessly overweight fireman or cop," wrote Damian Smith, who suggested this piece. We are supposed to find postmen so admirable for doing their job. But what about the much less paid, less appreciated pizza man — a guy whose job requires a keener sense of timing and who, unlike mail delivery, has not yet been made nearly as anachronistic in the internet age?
The proposal to write a celebration of pizza delivery hit home for me, not because I view food deliverers as any more important than truckers and electricians, but because I interact with them fairly often, they are often denigrated despite their courageous work, and a number of my closest friends have served on the front lines in this most venerable role.
The pizza parlors themselves deserve much praise for their great flexibility and innovativeness. Almost any combination will be put in as an order, and they’ll usually do it. Pepperoni and extra cheese on one side, artichokes and anchovies on the other. These are great social institutions whose entire staffs deserve applause.
The vocation of the delivery guy, in particular, is most risky and highly unpredictable. The most pedestrian risk, and the least appreciated, is the entrepreneurial gamble that food deliverers shoulder. As a paragon of capitalism, serving the position of both entrepreneur and worker, the deliverer often invests his own capital — his personal vehicle — in the enterprise, and for each delivery dedicates the better part of an hour of his life and relies for his remuneration on an implicit contract that is almost impossible to enforce should something go wrong.
Crank calls and insatiable customers are not uncommon. The deliverer of delicious sustenance is used as a weapon in the juvenile pranks of his moral inferiors. We are supposed to laugh when we see the pizza guy in a movie relegated to the role of a pawn in someone’s sick game of ordering a ton of pizzas to be billed to someone with no intention to pay. The wasted time and difficulties incurred by this great public servant are dismissed as mere plot device. But it isn’t funny.
The risks get much more dramatic, however. Robberies are frighteningly common. Many pizza companies forbid the carrying of weapons. Surely, these deliverers, unlike police and firefighters, face an enormous threat of violent crime for every hour they work. In addition to this peril, delivery men confront the horrors of traffic, often during the worst of hours and with a strict time limit to navigate the maze and find places, often never before personally reached, without the benefit of a knowledgeable customer in the car.
"The biggest risks were traffic related. Navigating suburban streets in an old delivery car during rush hour and trying to make timely deliveries can be tricky," says Lewis Ames, my best friend who delivered pizzas in San Jose, California, during summer and winter breaks from 1999 to 2002. He reports the intimidation of driving alone, vulnerable to everyone who knows you're carrying money: "I was making a delivery downtown, and parked my car next to a group of young gentlemen who had their arms full of car stereos, and who were in the process of acquiring a few more. They all looked at me and started saying u2018Heeeeeeeey, it’s the pizza guy!' It was the end of the night and I had a few hundred bucks in my standard-issue fanny pack."
For all the risks they endure, the pizza man is insufficiently appreciated. Although not adjusted for inflation, Lewis reports an average tip of $2.50 from those days in the trenches. And while a nice neighborhood was more likely to yield a jackpot tip, on average "poorer neighborhoods tended to tip better and were more likely to tip consistently. My theory is that poorer neighborhoods more likely have people who work in the service industry, and they understand what it’s like have a job where you are paid with the assumption that you will be tipped.” Indeed, both the employers and the tax men go by this assumption — in the delivery world, tips are not gravy, they are your bread and butter.
For all the hardships in the life of distributing pizza pies, do you ever hear these people complain? No. They have tended to be very difficult to unionize and you’ll never see them agitate for more national recognition. They do their job for the modest money they make and do not puff themselves up as unappreciated public servants, although that’s what they are.
Not all pizza is created equal, and thank goodness for the competitive market. I do not much care for the largest pizza delivery chains, although their innovative work in this field must be hailed. (Thank goodness that, although some ornaments to the pizza box have been patented, the box itself remains a device anyone is free to adopt.) There are a couple places in my area that do very top-notch artisan pizza and bring it to my door. The balance between price and quality is, as usual, up to the customer.
There is something special about pizza — the favorite food of most kids of all ages — but of course I mean not to pass over the vehicular emissaries of other culinary traditions. Chinese and Thai delivery have an important place in my heart. Food delivery is not just a convenience; it is a great opportunity for cultural exchange and a reminder of the resplendent diversity in cuisine available in a market economy. Ethnic cuisine deliverers face another additional risk — difficulty in communication. One time I called for a big order of Thai food and something I mumbled must have sounded like a soup order, which was brought to me in addition to everything I wanted. I had to turn it away and the deliverer appeared a bit broken about it going to waste, but of course he accepted it as a cost to doing business. People ought to be thankful there are folks out there who will put up with all this to get you your food.
Surely all men and women involved in the delivery of commerce — groceries, packages sent by private carrier, furniture, electronics, or a million other things — are also public servants who deserve more ink devoted to their heroism.
But for me, the pizza delivery guy perhaps best symbolizes what is right about America and capitalism. Support your local pizza guy. Without sirens and legal immunity, he can’t flout the rules of the road as freely as the local fuzz. But unlike the police, he will never show up and harass or threaten you while you’re minding your own business, and when you do need him, chances are he’ll actually be there well within the hour.