Back in grad school, I delivered pizzas in a Midwestern college town. As a cheerful journalism student who needed money, I figured, Hey, I like pizza. I like driving. I can blast my stereo and have adventures and put some dollars in my pocket.
Of course, it didn’t work out like that. The job—for which I earned $4.25 an hour, plus about $11 in tips a shift and maybe a few slices of room-temperature pizza—was thankless in pretty much every way a job can be. My manager was a bilious skeezemaster who gave free slices at the counter to coeds who lifted up their shirts. My coworkers were miserable. And the customers were steaming, hungry sacks of entitlement who were stingy with tips. But for a year and a half, I double-parked and hustled and dodged alley rats the size of footballs, and every time I punched the clock, the parade of indignities ground my naive enthusiasm down to a callused nub of cynicism.
Delivering pizzas afforded me my first glimpse of the fabled “real world,” which turned out to be a testy and indifferent place. No one held my hand, or lent a hand, or gave a damn about my hand, unless there was a pizza in it. And I hardened accordingly.
After a few months on the job, lazy 15-cent tips did not affect me, nor did endless disputes over coupons and specials or how I’d screwed up the order. When dopes gave the wrong address and sent me driving around for an hour to find them, then refused to pay for the lukewarm pies that finally arrived at their doorstep, it barely moved the needle, emotionally speaking.
What really bothered me was how everyone referred to my car as a “piece of shit.” Because it wasn’t a piece of shit. It was a reliable beige Volvo that had seat warmers and got good mileage. But some people are living, breathing trash bags, and the pizza delivery guy is the easiest target on earth, so it was open season on my car.
“You’re driving that piece of shit?”
“That piece of shit better not leave oil stains in the driveway.”
“Get this piece of shit out of here!”
The low point? Tough to say. A girl I liked told me my clothes smelled like armpits and olive oil. A fraternity ordered $240 worth of pizza for a party and made me go upstairs and wake up their treasurer, who had passed out on the toilet. An epically stoned customer insisted I smoke a bowl with him in lieu of payment. (I didn’t.) A group of drunk kids playing Twister wouldn’t pay me until I played too. (I did. “Right hand on red, pizza guy,” “Left foot on blue, pizza guy,” “Your car’s a piece of shit, pizza guy.”)
In a year on the job, I packed on 15 greasy pounds and decided to stop eating pizza. But after ignoring my growling stomach for one particularly grueling eight-hour shift, I got home at 1 a.m., opened my freezer, and found only one option: Tombstone pizza. Which I ate.
One January night, my brakes failed. As my car barreled down a hill at 40 miles an hour into a busy intersection, my foot pumping a pedal that suddenly felt like it belonged on a plastic Playskool car, I thought, This is how it ends. Not with glory. Not surrounded by loved ones. With two medium pepperoni pizzas and an order of garlic twists. Somehow, I survived. (Got stiffed on the tip, though.)
The next morning, a mechanic took one look under the hood and said gently, “What have you done to this car?” I told him I delivered pizzas, and he informed me that all the stopping, starting, idling, and speeding around on pockmarked roads had made my car a piece of shit. That was it for me.
I quit the job, told my manager to eat it, and sold the Volvo for $800 to a man on a grimy cul-de-sac at the edge of town. My existential collapse was complete. A month or so later, I saw the car in a grocery store parking lot, with a bumper sticker that read, “Honk If You Collect Airline Barf Bags.” I couldn’t stop laughing. It wasn’t much, but somehow, after my 18 months in the delivery abyss, that sentiment seemed like a step in the right direction.