January 21, 2002

Why I Am Late

I noticed immediately that the guy at Mister Pizza had a new rash. It was on his right temple. Purplish and large, it reminded me, in shape, of Alabama. He also limped, which he had not done previously, and in a way that indicated hip pain.

I felt sad. Even before the rash and the limp, this man has always made me sad. He confuses orders and struggles when calculating change. Because of this, I usually avoid Mister Pizza. However, on this day, needing something quick before jumping on the train to meet you, I thought I’d pick up a slice and eat it on the platform.

Two customers were ahead of me, waiting for their food. Since this was a pizza parlor, where the fare is simple and easy to prepare, I figured I’d be out of there, slice in hand, in a few minutes.

I was wrong. My order didn’t get taken for at least five minutes as the proprietor struggled to wrap two hero sandwiches in tin foil. There seemed to be a problem with his right hand which made it difficult for him to open and close his fingers.

To give the man his due, he makes a good faith effort to serve his customers, and he devotes himself to doing it right. And this is what makes it so painful to watch him: he is doing his very best.

I placed my order, and then he cut a slice and carried it, limping, to the oven.

“To go or stay,” he asked.

“Stay,” I said, not wanting to put him through the business with the take-out box.

I was concerned about time. A J train had passed as I reached Broadway. The J comes every ten minutes or so, which meant that if I stayed too long in Mister Pizza, I would miss the next train and show up late for our meeting.

The proprietor placed a paper plate before him and tried to separate the plate from the one beneath it, but again his fingers wouldn’t cooperate, so the two plates remained stuck together.

I said nothing. My chest felt heavy. I studied the soft drink dispenser.

The man limped to the oven, scooped up my slice with a big metal spatula, then limped back to the counter and placed it on the plate – or rather, plates – adding a clump of napkins on the side.

“A dollar fifty,” he said. I handed him two bills. He rang up the order, then stared into the open cash register drawer.

What was this? Why wasn’t he giving me my change?

Suddenly he turned and hobbled toward the back room. Now I understood: he was out of quarters and had gone to get a new roll.

Then I heard the approaching train.

My first thought was to run – there was still time if I ran – but what would I say to the proprietor? I could have yelled something like “That’s my train; keep the change,” but had I done this, he would have known that I had been hoping to get out of there quickly because I had a train to catch, and that he had failed me, as he fails others, all day long, day after day, despite his best efforts.

I couldn’t bear it. I stayed and waited for my change. This is why I am late.