(photo: J.J. Marley)
So this is the situation: You are famished and dead tired from your long day of widget-making. You can barely summon the energy to walk to the kitchen. The fridge is bereft of provisions except for a motley assortment of condiments. In the crisper, there is an ancient-looking Tupperware container. You detect streaks of color through the translucent plastic sickly hues of green and blue like the ones you see on a bruised ankle three days after a bad accident. You shudder, and very nearly lose your appetite. But the hunger won't let go. It never does with gluttons like you.
So you lunge for the phone, hit speed dial and order delivery from your favorite pizza place. Thirty minutes later a blink, really, just time for a toke, a Coke and a sitcom the pizza guy is banging at your door. He is holding a steaming-hot pizza bag. Soon you will be feasting, and the world's woes or at least your woes, which are really all you're worried about will recede like the tides. But wait. There is a problem. You must pay the delivery guy. Where is your wallet? You can't find it. You can't find your checkbook, either. So the pizza guy just stands there and waits.
Eventually, you discover your wallet wedged between the sofa cushions, right next to the missing TV remote. A two-for-one good for you. Now, finally, to the transaction. You notice that the pizza guy looks irritated. By the time you finally extract the portrait of Andrew Jackson from your wallet, you glance outside and spot the driver's vehicle. It's the usual jalopy a single blinking flasher, sputtering engine, side-view mirror dangling like an eye plucked from the socket. You experience a moment of compassion. You think: What a loser. There but for the grace of God go I. So you tip the guy a dollar. And by the time you've planted yourself in front of the TV, you have completely forgotten the delivery guy.
But the pizza guy hasn't forgotten you. In fact, as he wends his way back to the shop for the next run, he is mentally aggregating multiple aspects of your persona profiling you.
He knows more about you than you will ever know about him. There are the tangibles: your name, your address, your phone number. And there are the countless intangibles. If he has worked in the racket for a few years and a decade's labor on the pizza road is not so unusual he has glimpsed the insides of thousands of homes and apartments. He has borne witness to unimaginable squalor. He has breathed in the stink from your unemptied garbage and your beige urine-soaked carpets. He has made countless numbing visits to your bleak, ill-lit shithole apartment. He has even caught the scent of the hydroponic marijuana you furtively cultivate.
You should know this: If you stiff the pizza man, he will hate you. There are Nazis, there are baby rapers, and there is that vast class of indifferent, callous swine who stiff the pizza man. Same shit, different name. On the other hand, if you do him up right prompt exchange, $5 tip the pizza man will sing your praises to his fellow drivers. If you tip him extravagantly say, $20 or more on a large order he will personally arrange an audience with the Pope to make the case for your beatification. To the pizza man, the tip is the thing.
In the popular imagination, the pizza man is many things. He is the punch line to loser jokes; the pimply-faced teen working his first job; the reckless driver who mows down the glaucoma-stricken nun in the crosswalk; the stoner who has lost all ambition; the hapless crime victim whose sorry demise gets 30 seconds on the 10 p.m. news. Sometimes, though less commonly, the pizza man is celebrated. In Neal Stephenson's cult cyberpunk novel Snow Crash, he is the hero. The Deliverator, as he is called, works in a failing future America in which pizza delivery constitutes the last remaining arena of national competence.
As with so many stereotypes, there are nuggets of truth embedded in all of the above. Last month, I sat down with six pizza drivers to talk about their livelihood: the day-to-day realities of the work, the legendary customers, the rank indignities and, of course, drugs and sex. Over stiff drinks and on condition of anonymity, to keep these present-day deliverators from running afoul of their bosses or the law the pizza men shared their stories. One thing became apparent: The average pizza driver is the consummate profiler. All things considered, he is probably better at his job than the average cop, lawyer, psychiatrist or other professional profiler. When the pizza man fucks with you, he's playing for keeps.
Orlando Weekly: What's the worst thing you've seen while delivering pizzas?
Mr. Blue: I had one regular, an old woman. I'd always say, "So, how are you doing?" And she was like, "I'm dying. My lungs are failing. I just had my third dialysis." She had to pause between her words to spike up her life force. Then she'd say something like, "Oh, Jesus, I'm in rough shape."
Mr. Brown: I had one like that. I knew he was getting ill. There were all these empty, tipped-over vodka bottles. You could just smell death, a dying-animal smell. But God bless him, he kept on ordering.
Mr. Blue: At a certain point you do see death coming for some of the customers. There was this other regular … she was notorious. She always stiffed you and she smelled like a dog that rolled in a dead raccoon. I think she died from a meatball lodged in her aorta.
Mr. Orange: I used to really fear this guy. … He lived with his mom and had a real Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer aspect about him the blunted affect, the monotone delivery. The minute you picked up the phone, you'd hear his voice and think, "Oh no, I'm going to get stuck with this run." He'd call back three or four times every time he ordered, asking some question about extra sauce or something.
Mr. Pink: I don't know. Sometimes, I kind of like the deliveries where there's something really freaky going on.
Mr. Blue: You mean like the guy who had the piles of Charmin everywhere? I think he was very worried about running out of toilet paper.
Mr. White: For three nights in a row, I had this side-door delivery. … They were just really tweaked-out dudes. One guy was always shirtless, and he was just fucking skeletal. It was like you could see his skull. The other guy seemed a little more together. The kitchen had a shitload of dishes and reeked of rotten food. You see that once in a while young guys living alone who are super-depressed.
OW: What are the worst deliveries?
Mr. White: Public housing, because of the fear of getting knocked over the head. And hospitals. I don't have much fear there, but I just get a terrible feeling. Especially the children's hospital. What can you say? "Enjoy the pizza. Hope those tubes don't fall out of your kid tonight." And you can't even bitch about a shitty tip.
OW: Driving jobs often make people a little crazy, and on top of that you guys also have to deal with bad customers. Is rage a problem for you?
Mr. Brown: It was for me. After a while, I couldn't let anything go. After nearly getting killed a couple of times in weird traffic situations, I would just get really fucking angry. For me, it was always traffic-related.
Mr. White: Just recently, I delivered to this woman. She seemed nice enough, but I could tell right away she was very particular. She had very neat handwriting. Anyway, she tried to give me an out-of-state check. I said, "Sorry, I cannot take that check." She said, "Fine, I don't want the pizza," and snapped the check back. Then she turned around and made a grab for the goods. We wrestled over that pizza long enough for me to think, "This is my life. I'm in my early 30s and I'm wrestling with some fucking woman over a pizza."
OW: Have any of you been robbed?
Mr. Blond: I got mugged four months ago. Not for cash. For pizza. These three kids were milling around. One of them was pretending to ring the doorbell. All of a sudden the older kid rips the whole bag out of my hand and starts running down the block. I chased him, shouting, "Come on! There's three fucking orders in there! Let me have the other two!" I couldn't catch him.
Mr. White: Not when I've been on duty, but in my delivery area. And there have been people who shorted me money, and people who have given me counterfeit money.
PIZZA MAN PAYBACK
OW: Describe the ways a pizza man gets back at a hated customer.
Mr. White: Right before I quit delivering pizzas the first time, I went to this one apartment of real assholes fratty, hip-hoppy guys who never tipped worth a shit and wrote checks from their mom's house or wherever. They had this fucked-up door. Sometimes the knob would fall off, and if they couldn't find it, they couldn't open the door. On my last delivery, the doorknob came out on my end. And I just said, "Fuck this," and took it. I keep it as a trophy in my apartment.
Mr. Blue: The most common thing is that you just shake the pizza box. I had a regular customer who was just a total fuck. He would always order at horrible times and he was at the far reaches of the delivery area. He had a few other behaviors that were annoying to the pizza man: He would take forever to come to the door. After he'd finally answer, he would go back inside to get the money and dillydally. He looked ashamed of his meager 40-cent tip. You know, some customers are clueless about the concept of tipping. It's just not on their radar. And then there are other customers who know they're stiffing you. So when I pick up that guy's delivery, I get in my car and go straight to the grocery store. I clip coupons and compare prices. I really take my time with that delivery.
OW: Who are the best tippers?
Mr. White: Waitresses, of course. They come home from work, and they've been on their feet all day and have made a load of money. They're the best. I've found the new condo people are shitty tippers, and getting to the door can be a pain in the ass because of the weird layouts. Doctors are a real crapshoot. Sometimes you get the hip young doctor and he tips great. Sometimes the doctor stiffs you. I know one particular lawyer who always always tipped one dollar. I said, "You only tip the pizza man a buck?" From my point of view, being a good tipper is one of the greatest virtues a person can have.
Mr. Brown: I once got $80 on a big downtown order. But from just a normal, goodhearted person, 20 bucks is my personal best.
Mr. White: A decent tip is three dollars. If someone orders something that costs eight bucks, maybe two. But three bucks as a general rule. And if it's a big order, or it's cold outside, you have to treat me right. A four-dollar tip makes me feel good. A five-dollar tip says you care.
OW: How much do you make on an average night?
Mr. Brown: Eighty to 120 dollars.
Mr. Orange: If you average four bucks a run, that's pretty good. Thirty runs is OK. Sometimes you get 42 and you can walk out the door with $150 in cash.
A STEEL HORSE
OW: There's a major hidden cost of business in the pizza-delivery game keeping your car running. Talk about your car histories.
Mr. Orange: I went through about 12 cars over five years. That's why I always liked the old dinosaurs. They're like Tinkertoys easy to put together, easy to take apart.
Mr. Pink: I'm in my second pizza car ever. Both were Mazdas.
Mr. Brown: I had about five or six, but some were total junkers. So realistically, I'd say four. Two of them were totaled in accidents that were by no means my fault.
Mr. Blue: If you work as a pizza driver long enough, you become an armchair mechanic. The main thing that destroys you on the pizza road is just basic physics. You need to drive a small car.
Mr. Brown: And at a minimum, you have to learn how to replace radiators, alternators, starters, brakes. Most of us can do that shit in half an hour.
Mr. Blue: I avoided fixing my rotors for so long because I have four-wheel drive. It was just a massive job, $800. So for a while, the shuddering was pretty incredible. My passengers clutched the rearview mirror like rosary beads.
Mr. Orange: I had a Chevy truck that was just toxic. It had mice. I don't know how they survived, because I got dizzy just driving the thing.
JOHN LAW VS. PIZZA MAN
OW: Do you have run-ins with the police? Are your vehicles legally registered? For instance, I have heard stories of various forms of chicanery when it comes to expired tabs.
Mr. Pink: I made some tabs on my computer using a digital camera. It was easy. You need the good-quality shiny paper. We did it for a friend's boat, my motorcycle and I used it on my car for a while, too. You just have to get the right color photo paper. It's not identical to the real tabs. But at a glance you can't tell the difference.
OW: Have you been pulled over on the pizza road?
Mr. Brown: One driver told me a story about how he was delivering pizza, and he had a beer in his lap. And he drives by this old gas station, and he's taking a swig when he notices a cop looking directly at him. So his response was to gun it, turn up an alley, and whip his beer bottle into the wall. He tried to cut through a parking lot, but it was a dead end. So he just waited for the cop. The cop was saying, "What were you doing? I should give you a breathalyzer." The driver says, "Well, I don't want to do that right now because I'm working." And the cop says, "Who do you work for?" So the driver tells him, and the cop let him go.
Mr. Orange: The police are always insisting there are no quotas, but it is belied by their behaviors. I've always found a lot of vehicle profiling. I had an old Cutlass that was totally ghetto, and I would get pulled over for no reason at all except that they thought I was black. When the cops would get to the window, there would be a look of surprise, like "Oh, a honky." Other vehicles never got a second look.
OW: Let's discuss car insurance.
Mr. Blue: Well, I have heard of car insurance. Currently, I am in the midst of my longest period without it, three years.
Mr. Blond: Well, I've always been insured. It's a good thing because I've been in three or four accidents. None were my fault. I'm a good driver. I got a new car out of one. The other guy went through a stop sign and totaled my Neon. But, no, I don't tell my insurance company that I drive pizzas for a living.
Mr. Blue: You know, none of the accidents I've been in have ever been my fault. We pizza men need to close ranks on this one.
OW: How have you guys lasted in this racket for so long?
Mr. Blond: Personally, I'm trying to get out of driving. I'm tired of being by myself so much.
Mr. Blue: I like the illusion of freedom. Sometimes it is true freedom. I can tell my manager, "I'm going to the bar to play a video game. Give me a call on the cell when a delivery comes up." So honestly, I rarely dread going to work. That was a new experience for me with this gig. I don't take any shit home with me. And at the end of the night, I've got a fistful of cash. Not to breathe an artificial level of nobility to it, but I've liked what pizza delivery has enabled me to become. I stay in touch with a street-level reality. Seriously. Think about some of the fuckers you deliver to who have their heads so deeply embedded in their asses.
OW: The Onion once ran a story with the headline "Everyone Involved in Pizza's Preparation, Delivery, Purchase Extremely High." What do you say to that?
Mr. Blue: I'd say 30 to 40 percent of our customer base is high. Cooks, maybe 60 percent. Personally, I've just had three times where I went to work high.…
Mr. Pink: Pot has never caused me any trouble. Sometimes I space out a little and keep driving beyond the delivery area, but that's the worst thing about it. One time I delivered to this regular at a mansion by one of the lakes. I think he was a Realtor or something who made it big in the boom. But he was a regular guy. So I see that his wife and kids were gone, and he is hanging out with some friend, and they have these huge bottles of ultra-expensive scotch and enormous bags of marijuana and hash spread on the bar. So I spent about half an hour there. It was my greatest delivery.
Mr. Brown: For me, it's a waste of a fucking buzz. It makes the shift go on too long. You've got to sit and listen to the people at work, asking all these weird questions. Being high around that sort of stuff is too much for me. But if I worked at Domino's, I'd have to get fucking high just to put the outfit on.
Mr. Blue: I would have to get drunk and high. You know, there is this total caste system in pizza delivery. I'm 34 years old now, but when I pull up next to a Domino's driver, I'm always like, "Oh, you poor fucker."
Mr. White: I've been tipped in pot. One time I delivered to this girl … and she said, "Wanna come upstairs and smoke some pot and do some whip-its?" So I said OK, and hung out with her for about half an hour. But I get dyslexic when I smoke pot, so it's not very good for me. My math skills get poor.
Mr. Blond: I have never done it `smoked pot on the job`. I'm pretty straight. Someone asked me, "How did you get this job? You're so normal."
OW: Let's talk about customers and sex.
Mr. Pink: Over the years, I've come across a lot of naked people. Unfortunately, they have mostly been guys. Sometimes it is just a pathetic situation. I vividly remember this one guy. … He came to the door in the wheelchair, wearing a filthy white T-shirt and nothing else.
Mr. Brown: I think a lot of people get their kicks from being half-naked in front of the pizza man. There was a gay couple I delivered to the guy who answered the door was fully clothed. But then this other guy came dancing around the corner, wearing nothing but a T-shirt. He had money in his hand. And he was holding it down there `gestures to crotch` so I could get a good look. He was getting his kicks out of it.
Mr. Blond: Once I answered the phone at the restaurant to take an order. I could tell right away the caller was kind of drunk, but we were getting along. So I said, "I'm getting off pretty soon," and she said, "So am I." I thought to myself, I have got to make this run. When I finally get there, she's wearing a bathrobe that's open. She's completely naked underneath. So she pays for the pizza and says, "Do you want to come up?" I followed her into her apartment and she starts kissing me, nibbling on my ear and grabbing my ass.
Then she pulls me back into another, much darker room. I said, "Where are the lights? Turn on the lights!" I thought I was about to get robbed. All of a sudden, I hear two other voices in the bedroom a guy and a girl. I guess they wanted a foursome.
Mr. White: I once took a delivery to a … girl who ordered and specifically asked for me to make the delivery. So I pounded on the door, and it turns out it was this girl who I had delivered pizza to a half-dozen times at about four different addresses. I also used to see her at rock shows. One time I got her into a show for free. I never knew her name, but somehow she knew mine. Anyway, she had a towel on, like she had been in the shower. She was super-cute, and I'm thinking, "Oh, my God, this is it, this is it." You know the part, when the porn music comes on. Gung-ch-ch, gung-ch-ch. Then I looked at the shower, and I see this dude step out big naked hairy hippie dude with his crank hanging out. And then I was like, "Oh, I see what's going on here." He came to the door and said, "What's up?"
OW: Have any of you guys ever gotten laid on the job?
Mr. Pink: Yes. I was 19, working at this little joint near my mom's house. It was the last run of the night, to this kind of low-rent apartment complex in the suburbs. I knock, and this chick in her early 30s opens this door. She was kind of good-looking but kind of trashy. And she was totally naked. She goes through this little bead wall, and says, "Come in for a second. I've got to get the money." So I walked through the bead wall, and she's sitting on the couch, and says, "Want a drink?" By then it's clear what's going on. She made me some kind of drink, and we smoked some pot. She's totally naked and I'm in my little pizza shirt, and she says, exact words, "Do you have time for a quickie?" I told her, "I've got to go back to close the shop, but I could come back."
She says sure, so I went to the store, shut down and came back. So I'm fucking her and then all of a sudden she says really loudly, "Hey, come on out." And this fat dude comes stumbling through the bead door, stark naked, stroking his hard-on. I got the hell out of there. Then I went home and took a long shower.
Mr. Brown: There is always someone waiting in the wings. The perverted puppeteer. It is an icky, icky world.