It’s probably slightly north of coincidental that the best pizza I can ever remember tasting in my life is associated with a last-day-of-school memory.
I was 11 years old.
And within minutes of the #12 black and yellow bus spitting us out for the last time as sixth graders at Hatfield Elementary, my buddies and I were mounted on our bikes … report cards in our back pockets and the whole of summer laid out before us (exactly) like an open road.
We left the neighborhood by way of Dawson Street (the sweetest, straightest avenue on our hill) down to Jamison, to minimize our time on busy Dixon Boulevard. Then, practicing a patience paid for in countless quarters at the Frogger table, we waited for the traffic to quiet enough on Dixon to allow us to skooch across the short bridge over Jamison Creek so we could hug the right side of Lebanon before ducking into its calm side streets. From there, it was just one single traffic light across Morgantown and a handful of stop signs before sneaking up behind the Uniontown Shopping Center and our pilgrimage’s DUAL destinations.
We locked our bikes together outside the Station Arcade and opened its door to let the glorious 8-bit symphony of all those beepy soundtracks wash over us. Without a hint of hyperbole, it was the 11-year-old, early-80’s equivalent of the Pearly Gate’s trumpets.
Pulled our report cards from our back pockets and presented them to the owner for inspection. He was a tall, black t-shirt wearing middle-aged mustachioed man with a receding hairline and a fat jangly ring dangling from his back pocket that held the keys to The Kingdom. As far as we were concerned, he was also The Most Powerful Man In The Universe.
Get this: for every single A on our report card, he rewarded us with a token. Doing the math, four nine weeks + a final grade = 5 possible tokens per class. So, a conscientious, black-and-gold-with-Mag-Wheels-Huffy-riding-straight-A-student could fill both front pockets of his (proly) Ocean Pacific shorts with 40 or so tokens.
To this day, I’m not sure I’ve come across a more powerful illustration of the importance of hitting the books than the sweet jingle of two pocketfulls of Station Arcade tokens.
Far from amateurs on the arcade circuit, we could more than make those tokens stretch across an entire afternoon. Galaga and Dig Dug were among my drugs of choice. I’d camp out at one until I wearied of it, lining up quarters on the bottom left of the screen to secure my spot for the next ½ hour or more. In my 11-year-old-prime, leveling up was as much memorization as hand-eye coordination.
After a few hours carving our initials across more than a few leaderboards, we pressed pause on our assaults and made the short walk across the alley (location, location, location) to the day’s other main destination: Pizza Town.
Owned by an Italian husband and wife who spoke broken English and exquisite pie, the humble establishment was little more than a counter, a handful of non-descript tables and a wise-old pizza oven that breathed piping hot crusty truth by the slice.
New York-style. Generous triangles served on tiny paper plates that made the pizza seem bigger and more appetizing. They made the pizza in advance, then added the toppings fresh before the husband slid the slices into that magic oven on The Big Wooden Paddle with a whoosh followed by the reverberating smack of the oven door closing behind.
I was and remain such a sucker for the human mastery of actions performed in daily repetition. (Washington peeps … tell me there’s a more mesmerizing sequence than the lunch guy at Shorty’s dropping toppings in perfect measure onto the hot dogs lining the length of his forearm).
As an 11-year-old, I remember marveling at how the owner didn’t need a timer to know the precise moment to pull the pizza so the cheese was bubbly perfect, never burnt. And how he wielded his paddle like a ninja — sliding it one-armed under the pizza to rescue it from the oven and then, in the same motion, yanking it from under the crust to leave a single triangle perfectly squared on its tiny paper plate. Evidently, the owner knew from memorization and hand-eye coordination, too.
I can recall my exact order that day: two slices with pepperoni and the anchovies my parents would never let me get; large Coke served in an eponymous paper cup (the kind that always made the Coke taste better) with the tiny, chewable, kind of ice-machine ice chunks. Paid for with allowance money pulled from my back pocket, since both fronts were still token-stuffed.
While decades have fogged my recollection of the precise flavor profile of that exquisite pie, I can tell you with 100% certainty exactly what it tasted like to my 11-year-old self: freedom.
Achieved only via riding our bikes across town. Earning an afternoon’s worth of tokens. Paid for from money pulled from my own pocket. With toppings of my own choosing.
The experience is as vivid in my memory as it is incongruous with the present moment … Peter and Emma’s last day of 10th and 6th grades, respectively.
When I shared the above recollection with my wife Karry, she couldn’t believe our parents would ever allow us to do such a thing. I could’ve explained it a million different ways, but I just told her that we feared our parents exponentially more than any evil that might have befallen us on a cross-town bike ride to the Shopping Center.
I’m not sure we were any safer in those days. We just didn’t have as many digital media sources scaring us into believing we were in any appreciable danger.
Ignorance as bliss? I’ll order it off the menu every day.
I don’t spend much time wishing my kids could have experienced my childhood (really I don’t).
But, if I could give them just a taste … I’m pretty sure I’d offer up a slice of Last-Day-of-Sixth-Grade-Biking-to-The Station Arcade-With-Your-Best-Friends-From-the-Neighborhood-To–Spend-a-Report-Card-Earned-Afternoon-Topped-Off-With-Paid-From-My-Pocket-Pizza-Town-Pizza.
To summer vacation.
And hoping the present generation carves their initials on its leaderboard as indelibly as their parents did.