In 1978, my mother retired her well-worn copy of Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumors” and re-married, giving her hand to a professional wrestler who was also a high school football coach and whose mission in life seemed to be to confirm every stereotype anyone had ever heard about New York Italians. Flaws aside, he had an Erik Estrada smile, and so mere months after we’d run into him at a matinee of “Darby O’Gill and the Little People,” they said their vows in a small backyard ceremony and moved us to the only neighborhood where they could afford a four-bedroom house.
It was a cookie-cutter subdivision aptly and depressingly named Four Winds. Even at a young age, I always imagined it signified that by moving there, your hopes and dreams for the future were officially scattered to the four winds. Our new house was located in Brandon, Fla., a shitty little cowtown that was a suburb of Tampa, and it was in Brandon that I went on to spend many of what they call your “formative years.” I say this because when I finally left there 10 years later, I felt completely unformed as a human being.
Like many small towns across the country — perhaps the world — it was devoid of culture. We had a two-screen movie theater and a dilapidated bowling alley, but otherwise the landscape was an endless grid of cow pastures and churches and identical housing subdivisions (three of my best friends during this time lived in the exact same house a few blocks from each other). Essentially, it was “Pleasant Valley Sunday” only without the killer guitar riff and sweet vocal harmonies. Driving through Brandon in 1978 felt eerily like watching Fred Flintstone run through his house, as the exact same background passed by again and again and again.
Aside from a single McDonald’s and one of the last remaining Burger Chefs (look it up), there was just one restaurant in town. Recently opened, Babe’s was a no-frills pizza parlor with a super-creepy logo featuring a hollow-eyed toddler in a diaper tossing a pizza. Defying decades of marketing wisdom, it quickly became the de facto post-game destination for Little League teams.
For years, every Saturday after soccer, my parents and I — and occasionally my sister — would crowd into black vinyl booths alongside teammates and other parents to munch on Babe’s signature Double-Decker pizza while the kids marveled at the model train cars chugging around the ceiling and the adults held trial for whoever hadn’t mowed their lawn in more than a week.
That was some 25 to 30 years ago.
Tonight, for the first time in ages, I went to Babe’s. I have no idea why. As I was leaving the parking garage at work, I decided I would eat out and Babe’s, inexplicably, was the first place that popped into my head.
So I drove, roughly 15 miles — past the tuxedo shop I managed in high school, past the strip mall where I got arrested for shoplifting, past the apartment complex where I first kissed a girl, through the intersection where I had my first car accident — and parked in the back, just like we always did back when I was a passenger and the idea of driving a car still seemed like the most glorious freedom in the world. (It is, you guys. It is.)
The twentysomething waitress pointed me to a table in the corner and asked if I’d ever been there before. I smiled, maybe just to myself, and said, “Yes, thanks.” I ordered a medium double-decker with pepperoni, green pepper and black olives, which I’m pretty sure is the only thing I’ve ever ordered at Babe’s in 32 years.
When I was a kid, my stepdad and I would split a double-decker. Four slices each. He usually couldn’t finish his half, but I always did. It was a point of pride for me. I couldn’t outdo him at much of anything, but when it came to eating, I was the king of the castle.
After two slices tonight, I was stuffed. That’s when I posted this:
Twenty-two years ago, I scored 780 out of 800 on the math section of the SAT.
Tonight, I couldn’t figure out why I was so full after just two slices of double-decker pizza.
Moments later, a friend who’d seen the post texted me — coincidentally, she’d gotten the exact same math score. We started discussing SAT performance and I admitted to her that my score on the reading and writing portions (back then, they were called “Verbal”) was embarrassingly low.
Mainly I confessed this because I thought I’d already mentioned it to her before. (Apparently not.) It’s always a difficult thing to explain.
I’m an editor. I’m a writer. I got a liberal arts degree. I chose this path, despite — and probably in spite of — the fact that it led me away from my natural gifts.
“You love a stuggle,” my friend texted. “Correction,” I replied. “I *used* to love a struggle.”
In 10th grade Geometry class, my teacher wrote out an “extra credit” problem on the board — I’m pretty sure it was something about defining the curvature of a projection using a Lie bracket, but it’s hard to remember exactly — and told us that anyone who could come up with the solution would get an A for the semester. I spent the rest of the period scribbling in my notebook and, just before the bell rang, raised my hand with the answer.
When the teacher responded with nothing but a wide-eyed look of shock, a classmate named Scott — the biggest bully at my school, a guy who wasn’t friendly to anyone, a guy who I’d watched break the nose of the second-biggest bully at my school in 6th grade, resulting in a geyser of blood that covered the lunch room floor — turned to me and shouted, “Man! I wish I had your brain!”
These days when the subject of intellect comes up, I often tell people, “I’ve never been smart; I’ve just always worn glasses.” I started saying it to be humble, but over the years I’ve come to believe it.
But you know what? I think I was probably pretty damn smart at one point.
And maybe that’s why it killed me to discover, via the SAT, that I was a profoundly mediocre English student. Maybe that’s why I chose to turn my back on math, which came naturally to me, in favor of language, which seemed to elude me entirely.
Or maybe I just wanted to piss off my dad, the accountant.
Either way, here I am. Forty years old, stuffed full of pizza and working as a mid-level editor at a fading publication in a dying industry. It would be extremely convenient if I still loved a struggle.
When you’re young, running around soccer fields and scarfing down pizza with your family, you just assume that as you get older you’ll also get better.
And once you finally get older, you realize you don’t even know what “better” means.
I’m kinder at 40 than I was at 15. I’m more generous. I’m more autonomous, certainly. More open-minded. More compassionate. Honest. Forgiving. Patient. Sincere. Appreciative.
Does that make me better?
I have no idea. I do know this: I’m nowhere near as smart as I used to be. I’m not as friendly or funny, either. I’m way more tired, and slower of mind and body. I’m almost devoid of energy or enthusiasm. And, also (this is a big one), hope.
Also, I can’t eat nearly as much pizza.
Does that make me worse?
Again, no idea.
Maybe it does. Maybe I peaked at 15. Maybe that was the best I’ll ever be, and the 25 years since have been nothing but a long, slow decline.
But at least I can drive now. And the pizza was fucking phenomenal.