Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Pizza Tourist

So when you’ve finished with the vasectomy consult, it’s not exactly surprising to need some time for yourself. I had gone over the diagrams, procedures and expectations for post-op discomfort with my friendly doctor, and was now fully versed on what to expect. As I left, I decided to take myself to the gym – I figured if I’m going to give away some of my manhood, I’d might as well do so with strong pectoral muscles.

But after I’d finished working out, I still needed something more as I tried to prepare for the impending sensation of a frozen bag of peas at waist-level. So I called my wife and told her I was going to get us some pizza. She said no problem. But this wasn’t going to be just any pizza, I told her. This time, I was finally going to drive 15 miles to a place I’d been wanting to try for years. She knew it was that kind of day, so she told me to take my time.

When Amy and I were first married, we’d often drive around New York City to sample the pizzas that received the highest rankings from Zagat and The Times and New York magazine. Now that we live in New Jersey, we keep an eye on the pizza rankings dished out by the Star-Ledger and New Jersey Monthly. But we notice that the best pizzas come from all over the state, so it’s a little more difficult to try these places.

But every time we see a list of New Jersey’s best pizzerias, we always see one place on the list every time – a little joint in the shadows of the Goethals Bridge named Al Santillo’s Brick Oven Pizza. Santillo’s is a tiny pizzeria located inside a side entrance of an unimpressive building on South Broad Street in Elizabeth. It has no seating; just takeout and delivery. And as you might imagine, they don’t deliver to houses 15 miles away. With the spot located in a bleak little patch of urban landscape between the New Jersey Turnpike, the Goethals and Route 1, it’s not an ideal spot for laying out a blanket and having a pizza picnic.

So the time was never right for our family of four to try Santillo’s – until this recent evening, when I had the cojones to make it happen. As I pulled up to the two-story gray building, I saw the sign, and the walkway up the side alleyway. I stepped into the little place, and there was Al himself behind the counter. As he brought me my pizza, he asked if this was my first time at Santillo’s. I told him I’d been reading about his place for years, and was driving from 10 towns away.

He smiled. “Oh, you’re a pizza tourist,” Al said. Then he waved for me to follow him. I did.

Al brought me back to the brick oven itself, with its narrow height and intense heat. He explained that his family had made the oven in 1904, and it’s been operating for three generations. He showed me the long-handled, wooden pizza peels hanging above us, and we stared at a large cheese pie cooking inside.

I told Al that we’re from Staten Island, and we’ve always taken pride in eating good pizza. He nodded. “That’s what being Italian is all about to me,” he said.

Al asked me to sign an e-mail list, which I did. Then he shook my hand, and wished me well. I drove the 15 miles back home, where the girls and Amy were waiting patiently. It was clear, as we started eating, that the Santillo family knows how to make a pie. We ate and talked together, and my pizza journey seemed like time well-spent.

A couple of weeks from now, I will be sitting on our couch, watching a ballgame in significant discomfort. That bag of peas will be nestled comfortably in my crotch, I will be achy and irritable, and I’ll try to find a way of explaining what’s going on to a 9- and 6-year-old who don’t really understand what precipitates the need for such a procedure. The gym won’t really be a good idea, and I won’t be in the mood for much driving.

So Amy, my dear, if you’re reading this blog post at any point, I’m just letting you know that a nice pizza from Santillo’s would go over real well during that recovery time. You can say it was your idea, and I’ll go along with it just fine. I’ll take one large cheese pie – nothing special. We pizza tourists just need a little delivery every once in awhile.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Springing Forth Lessons

It’s been a whirlwind of a spring, one that has kept me away from this blog for far too long. As the school year nears its end and my students turn in their finals, I’m finally seeing some daylight. I can’t overstate how much writing means to me, so it’s been tough not finding the time to post some blog entries. So it is time.

I usually use this space to write about life, with a little baseball mixed in, since the world as I see it is framed by diamonds, chalk lines and foul poles. So with a little baseball and a lot of details, I thought I’d share nine lessons learned over the past three months – one for each inning.

Lesson No. 1: Don’t mix baseball getaway weekends with tattoo conventions. It was designed as a fun little chance for the guys to get together, drive around the Mid-Atlantic, and watch some games. My brother, our friend Neil and I braved the cold and rain of early April to catch a Rangers-Orioles doubleheader in Baltimore. While the games and the crab soup at Camden Yards were fabulous, we were a little surprised by the scene at the Sheraton Hotel that Neil had booked for us. We didn’t realize that (a) there was a tattoo convention in the hotel that weekend, (b) the convention took over the entire lobby, and (c) the elevator to our wing was at the end of the lobby, past every tattoo table. Now nothing against tattoos – I know plenty of people who have them. But when you’re dressed up for a ballgame, and you look the part – cap, jackets, souvenir cups – you kind of stick out when surrounded by body art. We made it through unscathed, though, and I managed to avoid the temptation to ask someone if they could ink an interlocking NY onto my shoulder. Wouldn’t have played well in Baltimore anyway.

Lesson No. 2: It’s OK to give away a foul ball. It is, of course, every child’s dream to catch a foul ball at a baseball game. When I was 16, I was lucky enough to catch a ball at Yankee Stadium. It was a foul tip off the bat of Yankees utility infielder Jerry Royster, and I caught it after it had bounced off the facade behind home plate, then off a few sets of hands, before settling into my right hand. The girl next to me told me she was impressed. I blushed. Some 24 years later, I was sitting in the stands at the aforementioned Orioles game, when Baltimore right fielder Nick Markakis knocked a foul ball my way. I tracked it, shifted to my left in the empty row in which I stood, and saw it land just over my head. But the man behind me couldn’t negotiate his beer and the ball, so it bounced off his hands and into my row. I picked it up quickly, sat down and studied the cowhide and red stitches. It looked fairly clean, and I thought of how much the girls would enjoy this souvenir. But then I thought about what had kept this ball out of the guy’s hands. He couldn’t two-hand it because he was trying to hold onto a beer that had probably cost half as much as the ticket he bought for the game. Could I blame him? Slowly, I stood up and walked over to the man. I handed him the ball. He thanked me, and I sat back down. Instead of handing the girls a ball when I got home, I told them my story. The moral, of course, is clear: Always treat Orioles fans better than Red Sox fans.

Lesson No. 3: You can speak to the enemy. In fact, you can even get him tickets to Fenway. A couple of weeks ago, our friend Tom had a 40th birthday party in his backyard. His wife, Kim, decorated the yard to look like Fenway Park, complete with a Green Monster made of tarp and tape, a cardboard Citgo sign and a spray-painted diamond on the grass. We were even asked to wear red. This is a difficult invitation for a Yankees fan to receive in the mail, and even more difficult to have to pay a babysitter for the opportunity to sit in a replica of my least favorite team’s home stadium. And yet, as we ate barbecue, listened to Irish music and chatted with friends, I handed Tom an envelope. Several of his friends had been e-mailing one another before the party about pooling their gift money for a larger present. As they discussed the options, the baseball fan in me kept coming back to the same idea. Tom is a wonderful guy – some Red Sox fans actually are, I have learned – and this year’s Boston team is one of the best that’s ever played in Fenway. So I recommended we all buy Tom and his father two tickets for a Red Sox game, with their seats atop the legendary Green Monster. All agreed, and we made this happen. And so, on a warm summer’s day, my friend will surely sit in the best seats he’s ever had for a ballgame. And aside from the design on the cap he’ll be wearing, I can’t imagine a much better way for him to spend the day.

Lesson No. 4: The tooth fairy works past dawn. It was 6:55 a.m., and Chelsea walked down the steps with sleep and bewilderment in her big brown eyes. “She didn’t come,” my 6-year-old said, holding her plastic tooth case, her baby tooth still snug inside the case and not a single greenback to be found. Think fast, I told myself. And so I did. “Chelsea,” I said, “that’s because the Tooth Fairy works until seven o’clock every morning. She doesn’t like it when curious little girls wake up early while she’s still making deliveries.” She nodded, as this seemed to make some sense to her. I saw the case in her hand, and added, “But, if you’d like me to place the case on the front steps to make it easier for her, I can do that.” Chelsea handed me the case, and this seemed to please the Tooth Fairy a lot. After a few frenetic moments involving a search of my wallet and a toss of glitter on the front steps, I was on my way to work. And I didn’t even notice the small child’s tooth in my back pocket all day.

Lesson No. 5: I have accepted my wife’s boyfriend. It took some time before I was willing to share Amy with another, but I have decided I can live with it. It’s still not much fun, watching them cuddle together on the couch, but we all make concessions. They commiserate over Facebook, weather updates and angry birds, and it seems to make her happy. I am speaking, of course, of Amy’s iPhone, which I have written about before. I’m not a big smartphone guy, and I’ve voiced concerns that too much of our society is becoming devoted to the tiny computers in our midst. And yet, we’re driving together, and trying to find a movie theater or a restaurant, and she just presses a button and finds the answer. I don’t have a response for why that kind of help is bad for me. As long as no one’s looking at that information while they’re driving, it’s actually pretty great. And so far, she has never denied my own requests for cuddling on the couch. Of course, sometimes it’s the three of us, and I say OK. She gets the best of both worlds.

Lesson No. 6: There’s always time in the day to create beauty. We had just returned from the unveiling of our friend Roy Chambers’ found-metal sculpture “Don Quixote,” outside the Raconteur Bookstore in Metuchen. This artistic wonder had captivated the girls and I both, and it certainly inspired Katie. So as our 9-year-old sat down to create an artistic rendering of Charlotte’s Web for her third-grade book project, she fed off of Roy’s inspiration and crafted the characters from E.B. White’s story out of clay. By the time she finished, Katie had completed her most impressive piece of artwork so far. She knew it, and she felt proud of it. Of course, she had Roy to thank. (See more of Roy’s artwork at

Lesson No. 7: One man’s stadium theme song is another girl’s kindergarten swan song. If you’ve ever been to a ballgame at Yankee Stadium, you’ve heard Frank Sinatra’s voice. It booms out of the potent stadium speakers after the final out is made, and the Yankee fans love to sing along with Ol’ Blue Eyes, especially after a New York victory. The song, of course, is “New York, New York,” and it’s become a part of Gotham sports culture, even finding its way into Knicks and Rangers games. But last week, in a little auditorium in Central Jersey, a group of little boys and girls stood up and stole Sinatra’s – and Yankee fans’ – thunder as the piano began to play: “Start spreadin’ the news, I’m leaving today / I want to be a part of it: First grade, first grade.” And as they sang their way out of kindergarten, the little 5- and 6-year-olds sounded more lovely than 50,000 baseball fans ever could.

Lesson No. 8: It is possible to mix punk rock, mini golf and trapeze lessons. If you were in a certain part of New York City today, you would have seen adults swinging on a trapeze near a giant Mark di Suvero sculpture. And you would have seen families playing mini-golf with the Staten Island Ferry and Statue of Liberty as their backdrop. Oh, and you also would have seen moms, dads and kids bicycling their surreys past mosh pits. Only in New York, for sure, but more specifically – only on Governor’s Island. For years, this tiny island just off the southern tip of Manhattan has been in a sort of limbo, waiting for its next raison d’etre. And wow, has the city ever fulfilled its role of using its resources to create community, art and opportunities for wonder. We spent this Father’s Day biking around an island with panoramic views of New York Harbor, all the while experiencing other pieces of culture we never would have encountered. If you live anywhere near the New York City area and haven’t checked this place out, it’s time.

Lesson No. 9: There are fathers, and then there are fathers. My friend and colleague Darren lost his wife, Kelly, to cancer nearly two months ago. She was 32 years old and, like her husband, was a tremendous person. Darren is celebrating his Father’s Day with Elliot, their 2-year-old daughter who is obviously adjusting to a much different childhood than she had at first. My cousin, Tim, has a wife named Lauren who, a few months ago, developed bacterial meningitis while nine months pregnant with her daughter. The baby was delivered safe and sound, but Lauren fell into a coma and experienced severe swelling in the brain. She has been unable to walk or talk ever since, and has been fighting off infections for much of these past four months. As Lauren has bravely fought for her life and her health, Tim has cared for his 2-year-old son, Cohen, and his newborn daughter, Claire. As we send out our many Father’s Day greetings today, I think especially of my friend and my cousin, who have fulfilled the role of father in ways that surpass description. They are heroes in every sense of the word. Happy Father’s Day to them, and to all the dads out there.

As for me, it’s been a great day, and a very busy spring. A lot has been learned, with so much more yet to come. That’s what summer is for.