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Strangers all around
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
There was this guy, a comical guy, who worked at the local pizza place I used to frequent. The first time he waited on me I couldn't help but notice him because he was, well, noticeable — a big guy, 6'5 or so, about my age, with blonde curly hair, dark eyes, and a very distinct, pleasant Southern accent. What was most noticeable, though, was the patter he would use when going through the transaction with me — he had one of those perfectly modulated voices that could go through the whole spiel without seemingly taking a breath and it was almost impossible not to be in awe of the mini-performance:
"All right Mr. Colcord that's a large pepperoni pizza with tomatoes and extra cheese and I see you're not interested in any Pepsi products today so your total will be $13.11 and I see you got your debit card ready so I'll just go ahead and run that through and we'll make sure to get you out of here just as quick as possible and let you enjoy the rest of your weekend, it's nice tonight, isn't it, so if you'll just sign here, thank you, and here's a copy or your receipt and come back and see us real soon now and be careful on your way home and please have a good night, alright? Alright. . . "
I got such a kick out of the spiel and his breezily efficient manner that I had to smile a bit — it really was like an aria of salesmanship — but I didn't want to seem condescending, like I was laughing at him, so I thanked him sincerely for his service and got out of there. It's so rare now to find anybody in the service industry who's professional and pleasant, and I certainly didn't want to inject anything negative into a positive experience. Back in my car, though, I did allow myself to chuckle at his goofy charisma, especially when I remembered a little flourish he added when presenting the pizza: after opening the box and showing me the product, and after I quickly nodded my approval, he sort of clicked his heels together and simultaneously did a little head bow, like: "And there we are." It was a little odd, a little formal, but it certainly wasn't out of whack with the rest of his service style.
Back home I told my wife about the guy and after a few moments I couldn't help but do a complete lampoon of the guy's voice and mannerisms, including the head bow. I'd like to pretend I did this because I'm an actor and a "student of human nature" but the truth is I often like to make fun of people, even benign creatures who did nothing to me other than treat me well. After a few takes, I got the thing down pat, and I found myself occasionally doing my "Chuck" imitation (his name was Chuck) for friends and family at various get togethers, as a comic bit.
Anyway, we went through a big pizza kick back then, and so I saw quite a lot of Chuck. Friday was Pizza Night for us, and Chuck was always there, as you'd expect, for pizza places would always want their best "Front of House" guy working the counter on their busiest days. Curiously, though I was a "regular" customer, we never engaged in any "regular" banter — no joshing, no "Hey, Chuck!" or other familiarities. Just the transaction, the spiel, the head bow. Each time I got the same unflappable, charismatic service, even when you could tell the kitchen was on the verge of melting down.
It's not an overstatement for me to say that I started to look forward to seeing Chuck on Friday nights. It's nothing I'd ever articulate, to myself or anyone else, but it would suddenly jump into my head as I started the drive to the pizza place. Sometime we would take a break from pizza for a week or two, but when we got back, Chuck was there. I tried hard to remember the exact particulars of my transactions with him, so I could reproduce them later, refining the comic bits. I told myself it was an affectionate impersonation.
After eight months or so of regular interactions--I bet I saw Chuck 20-25 times in that period — I called my usual pizza order on a Friday night. My wife, now well-acquainted with my Chuck routine, asked me when I hung up if Chuck took the order. "No. But he'll probably be at the counter when I get there," I said, and I did a little head bow for effect.
But when I got there there was no Chuck. What there was, though, on the counter, was an 8 x 11 picture of Chuck and the words "In Loving Memory" printed on the clear plastic frame. The picture was a fuzzy reproduction that looked like it came from an old resume. I had to study it for a few seconds, to be sure, but there were the dark eyes, the curly hair. . . "What happened to Chuck?" I asked the counterman.
He looked at me hesitatingly. Then he said, lowly, "Chuck passed away last weekend."
"That's all we know."
I didn't ask anymore. I got my pizza and got out of there. I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe it. I sat in my car for five minutes. I couldn't believe that I was starting to cry. I ridiculed myself for starting to cry. I called myself every name in the book, sham, fraud, creep, liar, poser, fake but after a while I stopped berating myself because I knew it was pointless. I knew the tears were real.
Later that night I tried to articulate my particular grief but it was hard: how do you grieve for someone you don't know? I started to remember other abject strangers from my life that have always stayed in my memory, powerfully, for years and years: the woman on the plane, 1990, her husband died while she was away (I learned from the flight attendant), I sat next to her, I didn't say a word, yet I heard her measure her breaths, I felt her arms quaking through our shared arm rests. Twenty-five years now; we never spoke, yet I remember. Or that kid, just last year, in a crowded coffee shop, he calmed down my shrieking infant just by being sweet, by smiling, by talking in that heartbreaking, pre-teen, almost girlish voice. I saw that kid for 30 seconds, tops, and I'll never see him again, but I'll love him always for what he did for my girl. I think of the dozens, hundreds of other strangers who've left similar marks on me, good marks, deep marks, and I wish I could give them something, anything in return. Something better than a head bow, at least.