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When The Moon Hit My Eye

March 17, 2009

On my way home everyday, I pass a gourmet pizzeria and often send them mental death rays, but so far to no discernible effect. Well, that’s not entirely true. They do seem to change their staff often, so perhaps I really am cutting a swathe of death and destruction through their workforce.

However on any given day the current staff don’t seem too grief-stricken. They hurry about their job with a busied gravitas. Or is it a sombre acceptance of their fate? Is it possible that my unrelenting telepathic carnage has reduced each new worker to a state of dutiful resignation? Like the lone man condemned to death who doesn’t feel the cold which torments his fellow prisoners.

The thought that this could be the case does not bring me any sense of happiness. Because on just as many days, I pass by and my spirits are given a lift of the type that only the combination of a doughy base, cured meats and melted cheese can bring.

Therein lies the problem. My attitude to this little place is ever-shifting. How can a man hold within him such opposing feelings without falling apart? As the forces of Good and Evil battle over me, let me take you back to simpler times…

just like I remember

just like I remember

During the golden days at my first university, the gods convened, and in return for the enjoyment I brought them from the exploits of my epic feats, they rewarded me in the second semester with a timetable so glorious that even now I can recall it with blissful clarity. A Monday with nothing that started before lunch. Sadly not even the gods could release Wednesday from its Hump Day distinction, though in concession it started at 10:00am and went solidly through to 4:00pm with an hour’s break, and each lecture was considerately placed closer to my home as the day went on.

Tuesdays and Thursdays, with their lectures in the morning when you were fresh and needed to think, and tutorials in the afternoon when you only needed to talk, or better still, merely to pretend to listen, formed comforting bookends around Wednesday, like the quick back-rub from your mother before you had to ingest some vile medicine, and then the half-spoonful of honey afterwards.

And then Friday. Oh, how my heart still soars! For on Friday, I had nothing. That’s right, a three day weekend for a whole semester. Well, technically that’s not true. I did have one lecture and one tutorial. The lecture was at 8:00 in the morning, so let’s face it – I would not have gone to that no matter on which day it had been scheduled.

And as for the tutorial: At the risk of sounding arrogant and immodest, the very first one which I attended was enough to convince me that any further attendance on my part was unnecessary. Not only that, but were I to attend them, repeatedly subjecting myself to the excruciating experience of pretending to take seriously the blathering moo-pinions of the lowing idiots there assembled, would in fact begin reducing the very intelligence which I possessed that rendered it possible for me to miss the tutorial in the first place.

A tip for those contemplating taking Philosophy at university: I am reliably informed that Philosophy, at the second and third year level, becomes fairly challenging. However the vast majority of people who show up for first year Philosophy papers think it is an easy subject. You soon find however, that there is a substantial proportion of students who struggle with it, even though first year Philosophy is an easy subject. Being in a tutorial full of these people is like forcing yourself to sit through the meandering, prolonged recounting of a dream by a dull witted child, knowing that there will be a test afterwards.

So if you’re continuing with Philosophy at a higher level, be prepared to give these initial tutorials a wide berth. The good stuff comes later on. Like me, you may be only taking a first year Phil paper as part of another degree, and chose it thinking that the tutorials will be a stimulating exchange of ideas concerning the nature of the world. They are not. Although to take a philosophical view, one could argue that perhaps they are, that the true nature of the world is in fact an endless switching between suffering and boredom.

If that doesn’t sound like your cup of hemlock, give the tutes a miss. In fact, give the whole paper a miss, and do a first year Art History one instead. More interesting than Phil at first year level, and with hotter chicks. (If you are a chick, it’s just more interesting. Although, seeing as you are taking Art History, you should be able to appreciate the aesthetics of such a situation anyway).

I had more than ample time to occupy myself with these and other such weighty musings on my free Fridays. And where did I mainly conduct such reveries? “Poppa’s Pizza”, located just opposite the main campus library, on the street that divided the campus from the city. Being suitably distanced to allow yourself to be cocooned in wood-fired isolation, yet close enough to be pleasantly aware of all the work going on from which you were exempted, you could (and I did) spend many an idle hour.

Poppa's Pizza

Poppa’s Pizza

The above pic was taken on a recent visit back to Dunedin. It was not only captured as a reminder of a Dunedin institution, but I also wanted to document Dunedin on a sunny day, in itself a rarity.

The place was tiny. Two booths and a couple of tables placed as an afterthought along one of the walls. Another couple of tables placed optimistically outside on the footpath, it being inside knowledge that the arctic conditions to be found there were actually rendered bearable if you were periodically ingesting warm slices of pizza which would serve as internal hot water bottles.

Whenever you hear words and phrases like “quaint”, “wholesome”, “rustic feel”, “traditional ambience”, “minimalist dining” and “Old World charm” it inevitably means an establishment which could only scare up enough starting capital for cutlery and tables, and almost enough chairs. In such places, the sawdust is not a heartwarmingly nostalgic feature of the decor, but an integral and functional part of a spillage management system.

Yet here was the exception. A beautiful and cosy place built in a time where timber did not need to be ‘distressed’ to be aesthetically pleasing. Being a student town, pizza was a staple food, and the large franchises had the usual widespread presence. Yet once you had eaten here, all other pizzas seemed woefully inadequate, incapable of reaching the gastronomic heights easily scaled by a two day old congealed Poppa’s pizza.

Sure it was a little more expensive, but there was no greater guarantee of camaraderie than all pitching in and getting a couple of slices of culinary heaven, rather than being able to afford a whole pizza from the commercial cheapies, and trying to convince yourself of obtaining greater value-for-money as you stoically shoved the soggy cardboard triangles down your throat.

Poppa’s Pizza was independently owned, a one-off. You could not find other Poppi dotted around the city with garish neon-coloured signs which served as a flame to which drunken insomniac student moths would be drawn to at all hours of the night, swaying on their feet as they inexplicably took a whole ten minutes to come up with the princely sum, composed entirely of small change, of $4.95 for what was in effect some circular cheese and unidentifiable meat which came from beasts no doubt once penned together in claustrophobic sheds almost as dispiriting as the pizza outlets themselves.

No, my Friday hang-out was a byword for standards, quality, excellence. As the semester wore on, I became a temporal fixture of this particular niche. Soon you began to recognize the same faces and bags shuffling along to their Friday lectures. On good weeks they would stride victoriously, conscious that each step took them closer to the weekend. On bad weeks they would march along with heads bowed, hands in pockets, weighed down by assignments which would not get appreciably lighter over the two day respite.

You could tell the different types of students. The organized ones who strolled assuredly to campus in the knowledge that they had more than enough time to spare, and their lovably hapless counterparts who would rush headlong at that awkward speed which is the fastest it is possible to walk without breaking into a run.

You began to be convinced that you could tell students apart by the subjects they took. The Science majors who walked firm in the certitudes of rational thought and the promises of the Experimental Method, but betrayed by an occasional misstep or twitchy gesture, presumably as the oddities of the stubbornly inexplicable ‘facts’ of quantum theory would briefly flit across their minds.

The uptight smugness of Law students, the hopefulness of Arts students for whom all the horrors of the world can by defeated by a single painting, the Management students who have already started hating their lives and are correspondingly always hung over as they try to escape the fact of their oblivion.

Often though, you are proved wrong. The beautiful brunette who must, absolutely must, be studying Music and who you can picture drawing forth soulful yearnings from a richly veneered cello, will pass you, offering a glimpse of a folder neatly labelled ‘ACC 115′ and you will weep over your pepperoni and mushrooms at the travesty.

And every Friday without fail, a student on their way to campus will catch a whiff of a fiery Mexican or the subtle symphony of a Supreme, and will pause, conduct a losing battle within themselves, then shrug and turn into Poppa’s. At the first bite however, they will realize that the battle had actually been won.

You become aware of the same Poppa’s regulars. If they came with so much familiarity to the fatherly Poppa’s, they must accordingly be termed ‘Bambinos’. Often a quick frown of frustration would knit a v-shaped scarf across their foreheads if ‘their’ booth or seat was taken. You realized that the booths were in fact ‘owned’ by hundreds of students, each of them calling it home. They would take their place, wait and talk while the magic took place inside the stone walls and then take that first glorious bite. No matter how many times you ate there, you always heard the question pouring from your lips “How good is Poppa’s?” as your mate took a bite with neck hunched forward like a vulture and eyes closed, and nodded his answer while similarly plunged in ecstasy.

the-good-old-days

When writing this entry, I was amazed to find that I didn’t have a photo of a genuine Poppa’s Pizza. I have many pics of nights that either started or ended at Poppa’s, but not of the food itself. How could I have spent all that time in  Dunedin without setting into digital posterity such a vital part of my life experience? While searching on the net, I wanted to find a pic that wasn’t advertising, but taken as a genuine form of appreciation for such great food. There were plenty of grateful written testimonials, but it seems no-one else had taken a photo, until I finally did find the above pic of a real Poppa’s pizza, taken from this blog .

It’s hard to describe how forcefully this took me back to all those magical Fridays. The wood of the table, the beer, garlic bread wrapping and of course the pizza itself. Proust had his madeleine, I have my Poppa’s to take me back to those afternoons at my booth literally tasting a slice of perfection . And if that memory serves me correctly, I would say that the above photo is of a pair of sweet chilli Poppa’s pizzas. Doesn’t it make your mouth water?

So with all this in mind, let us now travel back to the present. When I walk home these days, and pass this pale imitation of a pizzeria, I hope you can understand my mixed feelings. The small building is similar. As are the small tables outside. But there is no magic. The pizzas are good, but ‘good’ is not ‘sublime’. The view of a shopping mall carpark entrance is hardly inspiring or conducive to great thoughts.

People in suits hurrying by become visual nausea. You hardly ever see the same person twice. Instead of a character-filled door, the entire front is opened out to the sidewalk. Eating hot pizza in the blazing heat now seems like a crime. Being a gourmet place, it is still better than the franchise pizza murderers, but whereas those places could never even be considered in the same divinely capers garlic and olive-scented breath as Poppa’s, this place consistently disappoints by continually promising a similar experience.

Usually I just order a pizza to go. And as often as not, when I get home, the slices haven’t been properly cut all the way through, and stick to each other. Not the biggest obstacle in life, but after paying $20 for a gourmet pizza, you expect better. As you pull up a slice and drag along another hanging segment along with it, you watch with a sinking heart as it sheds its toppings back into the box, leaving you with a bare, sauce-covered triangle, looking like some horrible atrocity has occurred.

a pale imitation

a pale imitation

At times like these, I can’t help but think back to better days. In my mind’s eye I can see ‘my’ booth, the glass-fronted facade, the glowing oven mouths. I can hear the low buzz of conversation, frequently stopped for hungry bites. And if I can recreate enough of the mental picture, I can also remember a fragment of taste, a wisp of flavour, a ripple of deliciousness.

Every now and then a Bambino alumnus would stop by the old stomping grounds. They would always pause outside on the pavement, wondering at how incredibly small it seemed, even when fondly remembered for its underdog proportions. The first wave of that complex mixed aroma would bring back a torrent of memories, not only of Poppas but I suspect of youth in general. Bright young things who had gone forth, travelled to the four corners of this earth, seen things, done things, would tell their younger student versions, slice in hand, with a knowing tone: “Nowhere else comes close”. I am sadly beginning to understand exactly what they meant.

[EDIT] Since I wrote the above entry on the old blog, I have received a few e-mails which bring troubling rumours from distant shores. While the standard of the pizzas remain faultless, it seems there has been a gradual change in the Poppa’s “vibe”. The place has apparently changed owners, and I was also sent a link to a site which is eliciting interest from those wishing to start up their own Poppa’s franchise. The store now even has its own Facebook profile.

For my own part, when I returned to Dunedin it was during the summer holidays, so I put down the dip in energy to the fact that there were no students in town, something you can hardly blame Poppa’s for. But it seems that they may be heading in a different direction, which is both understandable (they are after all, a business) but also saddening. If this stalwart of an institution can head down such a road, is nothing sacred?

It seems unreasonable to expect such things to stay in the straightjackets that our memories place them in. But there was once a place where such concerns didn’t exist, where you could make a home away from home and where happiness was guaranteed, and I suppose I should consider myself blessed to have been able to spend so much time in such a place.

~<>~

viva minutiae,

-sillionshine.

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