10.12.21: A Slice of Life

“Oh my God,” I marveled as my coworker pulled the steaming, golden-brown chunk of dough out of the oven, the long metal paddle straining under the weight. “There’s no way that’s cooked through inside.”

“Only one way to find out,” she replied as four of us gathered around the table in the center of the front-of-house. After she hacked through the amalgamation of dough rendered useless by overproofing, the pizza cutter plowing through bits of charred crust, we each gingerly took a bite — that is, until the door opened and a pair of women on their lunch break from the nearby hospital entered. “Welcome in,” someone chimed obligatorily, and we scattered to our respective positions on the line, our midday reverie cut short.

This was how I spent over 30 hours a week this past summer at my local build-your-own pizza chain. When I wasn’t pressing out pizza dough, scattering pieces of pepperoni onto crusts by the handful, or managing the delicate arrangement of pizzas in the oven, taking care to avoid a specific patch of the oven that always ripped the crusts, my coworkers and I were left to our own devices. During the lulls in shifts, when time seemed to stretch out like chewing gum and even my most proactive coworkers ran out of things to wipe down or rearrange, we had to find a way to fill the emptiness. Sometimes, we’d go big: rolling together five pieces of overproofed dough deemed unfit for customers and cooking it until it resembled a warped loaf of artisan bread. But most of the time, we’d just talk and learn about each other, the passage of time punctuated only by the occasional customer.

In the 3 p.m. quiet, our conversations ranged from the mundane to deeply personal. Sometimes, we’d talk about work: someone’s horror story cleaning up the filthy bathroom at the Fremont location, that one regular who always demanded every possible topping and extra sauce, and the latest work gossip. Other times, we’d talk about cars, past jobs, our favorite ice cream flavors, or, if I was on shift with other students, what we were studying. But perhaps the conversations I enjoyed the most were the ones that dug deeper. In between restocking the toppings on the line and folding more pizza boxes for the dinner rush, I learned that one of my coworkers wanted to make enough money to buy his mother a house one day. Another coworker had a plan in place to move to Europe and become a nurse, and one spoke about the ups and downs of raising her children. I found myself opening up to people, and them opening up to me, in ways that I didn’t expect.

There was something refreshing about the way that the work served as an equalizer between people from various backgrounds and experiences. Regardless of those circumstances, we were all given a blank slate to define who we were within the store. Every day as I entered and exited the threshold, there was something freeing about being able to shed one version of myself and step into another for a few hours — not an inaccurate version, just different. Reflecting on the relationships that formed in the kitchen, I spent hours on end every day getting to know my coworkers, while simultaneously knowing very little about them outside of work. I wondered how my coworkers chose to construct their blank slates for others at work, and similarly, what side of myself I chose to show.

While my pizza making days are behind me for now, the community that I found, in a pizza chain store of all places, remains special to me. Community finds a way to thrive in unlikely circumstances, and manifests in unlikely ways — raw chunks of dough included.

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