I received my second dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine this past Saturday, and having refamiliarized myself with the terrain of Hudson Yards and Midtown Manhattan when I’d received the first dose three weeks prior, I knew exactly how I wanted to celebrate. I walked the three blocks east from the Javits Center to 8th Avenue, then north to the southeast corner of 39th Street. There sits a modest appearing pizza joint named Upside Pizza – if you haven’t been in the city for a while the name might not be familiar, since it only opened in 2019, but it’s the rare eatery in that generally desolate area to have genuine respect from foodies and pizza snobs. After all, there aren’t many slice joints that receive a glowing news item in the New York Times.
Because that is what I did, Constant Reader. I walked up to the counter and ordered two slices. Something I haven’t done at all during these thirteen months of the Quarantimes.
It’s not like I haven’t eaten pizza, of course. I’ve periodically ordered a full pie from my corner store here in South Brooklyn, bagging fractions of it to stash in my fridge to last me through a week. Other times, I’ve made do with commercial frozen pizzas, adding pitiful smidges of turkey pepperoni and chicken sausage in an attempt to liven them up. But purchasing a slice of pizza by itself, the most fundamentally New York of dining options, has been denied to me this entire time – or at least, I’ve felt obligated to deny it to myself. It doesn’t make sense to grab a slice on the run, after all, if you’re not presently able to run anywhere.
The New York slice is a significant part of our mythology, our self-image; it occupies that rare place in the discourse where the popular image of the thing isn’t simply identical to the real thing, but the two blend into each other like a good mixture of mozzarella and parmesan. By way of example: the stretch of road between the two closest subway stations to me is the exact same street that John Travolta is strutting down in the opening credit sequence of Saturday Night Fever. A mere six tenths of a mile from my apartment, you will find the exact same pizzeria he frequents in that sequence. Lenny’s is still there, at the exact same address, all manner of publicity photos and news clippings attesting to its place in pop culture from (shudder) forty-five years ago. Anytime I want, I can theoretically march up to that same window and get that same order. (Well, I wouldn’t, because stacking your slices double-decker style is weird to me, but you get the diea). Anytime I want, I can theoretically become Tony Manero.
Except I can’t, because I’m trying to be conscientious during this pandemic, and so I’m not going anywhere. Even for a slice.
As more and more of us are getting vaccinated – as of this weekend, a fifth of New Yorkers are now fully inoculated – we’re starting to figure out what getting “back to normal” might look like. The plans discussed are all grandiose things, involving the return of Broadway productions and the like. But it’s important to remember that for most of us, the “normal” we’ve been missing for over a year involves walking up to a counter, plonking down a few crumpled dollar bills, walking off with a slice of pizza, and silently judging whether the taste is worth all the hype.
(Is Upside Pizza worth the hype? Honestly, it doesn’t matter – as it turns out, the new location for the soon-to-reopen Drama Book Shop is a few doors down from them. In a few months, their business is bound to spike thanks to the renewed traffic to the area from eager theater folk – but that’s another blog post for another day.)