This essay appears in Afterness: Literature from the New Transnational Asia.
This essay appears in Afterness: Literature from the New Transnational Asia.
I was standing in my kitchen eating a cold slice of pizza when I thought of you on the Daily Show a few months back dissing Chicago-style deep-dish. I wasn’t eating deep-dish pizza. I was eating the scraps of some wretched chain-store pie. But it was Sunday morning, I didn’t feel like cooking and I was happy to have it. Which made me think: gee, why get bent out of shape over who’s got the best pizza anyhow?
Now Jon, don’t get me wrong. I know you were just doing a bit. I know you know that no one can actually know what is or isn’t the best pizza in the world, and that all taste is subjective, and that some people don’t even really like tomato sauce all that much, you know, in general, and when it comes right down to it, damnit, pizza is as pizza does on a Sunday morning. I know you know that. Everybody knows that.
That was the joke, right? How we all know it right up until some sauce-tart somewhere gets to talking about how they have the best pizza in the country. Because then it’s on. Then the fists come up. That was your gag that night on the Daily Show — that fragile peace we all live with only so long as no one utters that phrase: the best. Because once they do, we hit back with the full thermo-nuclear “you call that a f-ing pizza I wouldn’t feed that to Mussolini my dog’s ass looks better than your busted-ass pizza f-you f-your pizza your pizza ain’t nothin”.
All they have to do is say the words “we’re better” and we throw out civilization like its the fall of Rome. We’ll salt their tomato fields. We’ll pull down the pillars of their pizzarias. We can only stand so much, after all. Because then it’s a question of pride.
And that’s the word that fills my mind as I eat my pizza, the one real American word, the word we really mean when we say all those other nice words at podiums and mall openings. Pride. None of that namby-pamby kind of “pride in a job well done” either, that United Nations, “everyone’s a winner” sort of pride. It’s pride in having the biggest, swinging-ist dick around. And everyone knows New York City has the biggest pizza dick in dick-town.
So, here we are, knowing there can be no best pizza in the whole world, really, but at the same time knowing that if anyone’s got the best pizza, goddamnit, its us. I’m eating my cold slice of supreme when I start thinking about those words, the best. We do it in so many ways, Jon. It’s not just pizza. It’s BBQ sauce. It’s clam bakes. It’s muffins. Muffins! The grandmotherly sweaters of the baker’s basket. I know people who will fight to the last man sooner than accept the tyranny of another state’s muffins.
But what do those words mean, really, the best? You don’t have to be the best to be proud, after all. You could be proud of having the oldest pizzas in the country, or in being the originals. You could take pride in having the most vibrant pizza community. But as I bite into a cold pepperoni I think, yeah, right, like anyone’s going to walk around bragging about being the mostvibrant. That just sounds conciliatory. That sounds like admitting someone else is the best. Those words are always there, even when they’re left unspoken. The best. The best. In America, we’ve gotten so used to saying “the best” and “the greatest” the words just fall, plop, onto our plates whether we say them or not.
But what do they mean? I’m chewing and thinking and chewing and thinking and I can’t figure it out, really. It’s like staring at your face in the mirror so long you don’t recognize your own features anymore.
It occurs to me that one thing being best means is to not change. The best pizza is New York style pizza, and New York style pizza is a certain way. It’s big and foldable. The sauce goes UNDER the cheese, not on TOP. It’s hand tossed. It’s got mushroom or sausage, but it sure as hell doesn’t have avocado or whatever else those maniacs in California are throwing around. New York style pizza is one way and no other, and if it’s not that way then it’s not the best.
It’s the same way with clam bakes and BBQ sauce. They’re a certain way and the best or they’re not. So that’s one thing saying “the best” does: fixes things. To call something “the best” is to try to capture it, to freeze it, as if under museum glass.
So I’m chewing my cold pizza and thinking about museums and those trays of flint arrowheads and the hundred rainbow butterflies each with a pin through it and my mind begins to wander over to the Egyptian exhibit, the one with hieroglyphics on the exit signs. I’m imagining the Anubis statues and the sarcophaguses, and then I see you, Jon. I see you in the Ancient Egypt section, laid out like an entombed pharaoh of old. I see you, arms folded across your chest, and heaped around you all your worldly riches that you might keep them just as they’d been, ready for your use across eternity.
I saw many things inside your tomb. There, with wall-mount included: the best TV. Here: the retractable hood ornament from the best car. And there in a corner, I saw the best pizza, preserved uneaten, folded into a little hawk-head jar.
I’m talking about a vision here, Jon. The more I looked, the more I saw. I saw arrayed around you in neat circles all the best things in the world. Field after field of the very best. And past them, I could see you’d brought with you even the best places: the best mid-town bistro, the best familia restaurante, the best all-night donut shop. All your life you’d been compiling your list, all for the day you’d when bring them along across the night shores and into the afterlife. You’d assembled a veritable Who-ville of smug, secret triumphs. The best, the best, the best.
And I saw more, even more, Jon. I saw the best beach studded with neon parasols, and the best Fall colors crowding gently a quiet South Hampton road. I saw, curving skyward, a cloud-strewn landscape made up of all the very best things. There in your cell you’d enclosed the best country in all the world.
Now I’m almost done with my pizza. My mouth is lined with cold grease and I’m beginning to get that heavy feeling in my stomach that means my kidneys and liver are getting ready to crank it up a notch. But in my mind, I am far away. I’m with you in the Egyptian wing at the Met and looking across the aisle at another prince of his age and all the best things he’d gathered for his voyage into eternity. There’s not much to write home about now, though. Some pots, I guess, and some wobbly gold chains. A dead cat. Nothing you’d call “the best” by today’s standards. Not so much as a remote control in the whole lot.
I’m halfway through the now soggy pizza crust, and I’m thinking, that’s what pride in having the best gets you: a roomful of dead cats. Pride is a fading photograph. A fresco on your tomb wall growing dimmer every year. Pride is a false promise. The real princes of Egypt only stopped time for them, inside their locked cells. Outside the Great Pyramids the world kept turning. And Jon. Jon. Outside is where someone was inventing pizza.
And with my last bite I think suddenly how small a pleasure it is to delight in being the best in the world. You focus on “the best” but forget about “the world”. Sure, you could go on thinking you’ve already eaten the best pizza of your life, you could believe only in the pizza you’ve seen with your own two eyes and tasted with your own pink tongue. But consider the pleasure that comes from wondering whether the best pizza of your life is still somewhere out there. Not moldering in a corner of your memory, but waiting for you, maybe at the end of a long and exhausting journey, maybe hidden at the bend of an neglected cobble-stone road. I’m talking about the impossible pizza, Jon. I’m talking about the pizza that says: you ain’t seen nothing yet. The best is yet to come. As pride is a sort-of death in life, surely the impossible pizza is an eternity we can hold within our small span of years.
So Jon, I’m writing to ask you to choose again. To not choose pride, that dead man’s hoard, that American affliction. We’re sick, Jon. Sick from pride in being best. We’re sick to death. If our satirists can’t rise above, who will?
I keep writing endings for a piece about my Dad and his painting. Every time I round out an idea, I think: yes, that’s it. That’s how I can put a cap on this whole thing. But when I read them over again, I realize they’re just hopeful volleys. They are the sorts of things you say to a person when you can see they’re waiting for you to say something, waiting for some certain set of words from your mouth. Most of the time, what you come up with only confirms to the needy party that you really don’t get it after all. In the same way, the endings I keep writing all seem to me like missed opportunities.
One memory: I was home from school for the summer and had gotten it into my head to go out and put my poems where people could read them. I was working in the slide library at MIAD, the fine arts college at which both parents worked. It was my summer project to organize a collection of public art slides. So it was natural that I’d start think what we really need in this country was site-specific poetry.
But Dad hated the idea. I’d mentioned it to him after dinner, when he sat in the living room (doing what, a crossword? Only, that doesn’t seem right). I was in the throws of the idea, feeling the passion for it rising up in me when I realized he was sitting very stiff, waiting for me to finish. That stopped me short. Dad and I always went along with one another’s sermonizing when the mood hit. “What is it?” I asked.
“Son, why would you want to do something like that?”
“It will put poetry back in people’s lives, Dad.”
“And what makes you think those people even want that?” I wasn’t sure what to make of the question. I just looked on dumbly as he spoke. He didn’t think I should be striving for mass appeal, and anyways poetry sure wouldn’t be the way to get it. He spoke casually, in the patient voice he had (I’m sure) for students but when he saw I still wasn’t hearing him, he sat upright on the couch and looked at me curiously. “I mean, why not stand outside Walmart and hand them out while you’re at it?”
Then, for whatever reason, in my memory we’re both standing, not angry, but both ready to leave the room anyways. We weren’t used to disagreeing. We stood in front of the two paintings of his in the living room, two of his early successes in the Flowers series. I could read in his body language that he’d thought he’d made an argument-ending point. Walmart. That had to make me see.
But instead it sounded like a fine idea. “Yeah! Maybe I will!” I was filled again with excitement; what a novel idea. The Walmart Poet – I could probably make the local paper. Already I could see opportunities present themselves: a poem about being handed a poem by a stranger. Poems of transaction. It would be a reverse in direction; outside the store you’d be handed paper, while inside you’d just forked it over. “That’s a good idea!” I shouted happily, happy with discovery and with dissidence. Dad just dropped his arms and shook his head in a slow ‘kids these days’ way. That was the end of the conversation.
He was upset about it, though. I couldn’t guess totally why – maybe he was afraid I’d run up against unfeeling public? I thought maybe I’d offended his sensibilities – a “No son of mine is going to hustle on the streets” sort of thing. It didn’t occur to me that he thought it missed the point of poetry in some way; that all art needed to find its proper audience.
I didn’t believe then in proper audiences. I thought I could make people get it. I believed, somehow, in a moment of transcendence where, suddenly confronted with just the right word, the right image, a door would open in the minds of every man and every woman. I suppose I never thought about what it was like to actually be these minds, what this door I thought existed was, why it was closed. I imagined handing a poem out; I didn’t imagine receiving one.
The same went for the writing, too. My faith in poetry was more of a superstition. I thought that, if the right steps were observed, the proper omens tracked, the right charms gathered and fixed together, then the incantation would go on to cast itself. I set to work searching, like an alchemist, for combinations and waiting for the reaction to happen there on the page.
I wasn’t aware of these beliefs while I held them. Like all superstitions, I both performed the rituals and turned a blind eye to my performance – like a child who imagines others can’t see what he’s doing if he looks away. Maybe that was the point of Dad’s and my dispute; that he could see me willfully shutting my eyes of what I was actually doing.
But he didn’t push me on it. He didn’t discourage me when I did put a public poem up, just one, outside a loading dock near to MIAD. I wanted the reader to stand under a telephone pole to read it. Looking up, he’d see how the transformer’s ribbed sides looked almost like the rayed branches of a tree from below. The poem ended with falling leaves. When I went back the next day to check on it, it was gone.