"Crazy for Pizza"
During the months of build-out prior to opening the store, we’d often walk down the block and have lunch at the pizza place. Jimmy, the owner, followed his brother up here from Long Island to open up the place, and we've been friends from the get go. His is the only business on the block that’s still open from those early days, other than the adult book store (do those ever go out of business?). I still stop in weekly to catch up with Jimmy.
There’s an autographed picture of the “Soup Nazi” hanging behind the counter and the resemblance to Jimmy is striking. He’s about 6’ tall and slender with a thick mustache, the kind that looks like it’s been there since his teenage years. He has a dark complexion and somehow has kept his dark course hair. The similarities don’t stop there. Jimmy also has a quick temper and a protective demeanor. His family was in the pizza business downstate and his two sons work with him at the shop. Family business just touches the surface here as a descriptor.
Our relationship grew over the years based not just on our friendship, but also on our shared issues with our block of State Street in the city. It truly felt like having a family member you could count on rather than someone competing for the same customers. One thing I loved about having Jimmy on the block was that his antics made mine look tame by comparison. Most often he was polite in his own curt manner, but he had a fire in him that led to rants few others could match.
One of his wildest explosions could have easily turned out to be a disaster for him and his business, if not for the intervention of a friend of ours on the police department. It was around 11:15 on a summer day; I know this because I was sitting at a sidewalk table taking in the calm of the city before the noon rush. Even when relaxing, there is an alertness required for survival. We all get accustomed to our surroundings and develop some level of awareness of what is and what isn't expected. In a city retail environment, this alertness is heightened and those expectations are quite expanded as well. However, some days can still surprise you.
I glanced down the sidewalk and noticed a familiar sight, so didn't pay much attention. The delivery guy from the pizza shop was heading my way, probably walking lunch down to Kodak. My business occupied two of the last three storefronts on the block. The last had been vacant for many years, but currently it was home to Kim’s Nail Salon run by a middle-aged Korean man. We were on polite terms and I trusted the guy even though the language barrier kept us from getting closer. He looked and acted much tougher than the stereotype of a Korean, and I liked the idea that this rough-looking immigrant ran a nail salon.
I smiled as the deliver guy passed, said hello, and closed my eyes to take in the sun. That moment of peace lasted about 4 seconds before some loud conversation erupted as he reached the corner in front of the salon. I turned my head and saw that three high-school-aged boys had come around the side of the building and almost run into the delivery guy. They all seemed to know each other, so I didn't think much of it.
But that all changed in an instant. The boys started grabbing at the pizza boxes and a struggle ensued that included a few punches thrown by the intruders. Most missed, but not all. By the time I stood up, the pizza and the delivery guy were on the ground, and the boys were laughing as they quickly crossed the street.
In the moment it took me to come to the delivery guy’s aid, my neighbor had emerged and we both were checking on his well-being. I think we were both ready to go into action, but as I said, my Korean is pretty limited. But this was our block and things like this were bad for all of us. The delivery guy tried to calm us down, saying he knew them and that everything was fine. I could tell my neighbor understood as we both looked confused and concerned.
The delivery guy quickly started walking back to the store but not fast enough to cause either of us concern. I could see the three boys still laughing on the other side of the street, and the pizza was all over the sidewalk. My neighbor and I looked at each other and tried to communicate as we both started cleaning up the mess. It looks bad in front of his store, and, selfishly, I just don’t want people smelling pizza and deciding to go to Jimmy’s for lunch instead of my place.
What happened next I know because of the extensive conversations afterward among all of us on the block. The delivery guy walked back into the store and Jimmy, surprised, asked why he was back so fast. This was immediately followed by a barrage of other questions. “Where’s the Pizza? What happened? What’s wrong with your face?” Jimmy’s voice elevated with each question and his temper wasn't far behind. His guy told him that he’d been robbed, contrary to what he told us minutes ago. When asked by whom, the delivery guy looked out the window and pointed to the three boys walking directly across the street at the intersection of Andrews and State.
Andrews ends at a “T” on our street, State. On the corners are two buildings set back from the road. The one closer to my store is raised with large concrete barriers that act as walls around its moat of a parking lot. On the other corner is the federal building, which had a light fence around the grass surrounding the property. This was all prior to the 9/11 tragedy and there was still a daycare center within the building. On nice days like this one, the kids would be out on the grass and one of the security guards would be out there along with the daycare staff.
I could see all of this as my Korean neighbor and I watched the would-be thieves while we attempted to communicate. The next sight has stayed with me for many years and I don’t think it will ever fade. It was a familiar figure, but in a very unfamiliar act. Jimmy, in his white shorts, white half apron, white sneakers, white t-shirt, and calf-high white socks, sprinted out of his front door. There’s a traffic signal at the intersection right outside his door, but he had no concern for the red and green as he bolted into the road. Cars screeched as they slammed on their brakes, attempting to avoid the white streak. Jimmy was screaming at the three boys, and they started sprinting across Andrews Street toward the back of the federal building. Jimmy was yelling at the security guard to stop them, but the guard was justifiably distracted by the shiny pistol in Jimmy’s right hand. I looked at his gun later on, but still have no idea what size or type he legally carries. I can tell you this, though: I could see the gun in his hand and I was about 100 yards away. There was no doubt that the people in the stopped cars saw not just the crazy man in white, but the weapon as well. He didn't appear to be lining up for a shot, but was using it to point at the boys as they ran to the lot behind all the children.
If I hadn't been in shock, I’m sure I would have been thinking that this couldn't end well. Jimmy was so pissed off that the guard wasn't helping him that he ignored anything the guard was saying. He was in full stride and cars were twisted all over the street as they avoided each other and him. Faster than you can imagine, no fewer than 10 police cars came from every direction in response to the “Man with Gun” call.
Jimmy was nowhere to be seen as he was determined to find those kids and, I assume, exact his own justice. The first cop on the scene was the sergeant of our section. When he saw Jimmy, he grabbed him and stuffed him in his car. He knew Jimmy well, fortunately, and quickly figured out what was going on. The other cops grabbed two of the kids, but the third got away. Well, the way I see it, they all got away when the cops grabbed Jimmy before he got to them!
The sergeant settled everything down and the two kids that got caught were arrested. Jimmy was sent back to his store to calm down and make more pizza. As usual, I went back to work and waited for the lunch rush as the rush of what had just happened started to dissipate.
I asked Jimmy for permission to post this story before I even started writing. Not only do I want to avoid any trouble for him, I’m also not interested in pissing him off. This was a definite stretching of expectations for our neighborhood and one that I am glad never became the norm.