New Orleans, La.

One of the Lucky Ones

By Missy Wilkinson

Last fall, a pizza delivery guy was fatally shot while delivering a pizza in New Orleans’ Mid-City. I didn’t know him — he was a friend of a friend, though, and the Domino’s where he worked is across the street from my office. It made me think back to 2002, when I delivered for Pizza Hut in the ragged, trailer park- and dollar store-studded outskirts of Baton Rouge.

I’d applied because my previous employer had quit paying me, though I hadn’t quit showing up for work. There in her garage, alongside an undocumented immigrant from Britain, I cut and foiled stained-glass angels and other trinkets she sold to local gift shops. She gave me a cell phone in lieu of a paycheck and promised my back wages would come with the next order. I fantasized about kidnapping her two terriers and extorting her for ransom money. When the check finally came, it bounced. I decided I’d be better off working in fast food. Plus, my friend Steven worked at a nearby Domino’s and said the tips were good. 

I had a reliable 1988 Volvo and a clean driving record. I was hired by a somber-faced woman who wore her hair in a black, glistening braid that hung to her tailbone. She had a long vertical scar across her eye and called me a baby when she found out I was only 22. She’d later be arrested and charged with embezzling from the franchise. 

It didn’t take long to get the hang of the job. I’d stand by the oven’s conveyor belt, assembling cardboard boxes and waiting for the pizzas to emerge, sizzling and greasy in their deep-dish pans. When my pizzas were ready, I’d slice them with a huge, crescent-shaped rocker knife, slide them into boxes and crown each with a small plastic pizza saver. Then I’d glance at the giant laminated map behind the soft drink refrigerators, crank my car’s AC and the techno rave jams and find the next address.

It wasn’t long before I knew this part of Baton Rouge like the back of my hand. I’d grown up nearby and was living with my grandmother in a neighborhood that counts roving pit bulls and meth-lab explosions among its woes. Kind of rural, but I was only paying her $200 in rent. 

Plus, it was close to Steven, so close that sometimes our paths crossed on our delivery routes. I mooned him at a stoplight once, but I otherwise tried not to distract him because he had a bad habit of totaling cars. His wife, Amanda, was sure he’d die when he brought home a motorcycle, and in fact it wasn’t long until he wrecked it. We listened to 911 calls made by concerned motorists — Steven did IT at the fire station in addition to his part-time job at Domino’s, so he had access to the recordings. “He just up and rolled down the highway,” said one woman. He walked away from the accident with only a bad case of road rash. Drinking 40s on Steven and Amanda’s stoop, we couldn’t stop laughing. Steven kept riding motorcycles. 

I didn’t take danger seriously, either. Lots of people told me delivering pizza was a risky job, that I shouldn’t do it. Sometimes I’d bring pizza to old ladies and they’d hand me their checks with a concerned look, say there was a serial killer on the loose, wasn’t I worried? (This was during the Derrick Todd Lee era in Baton Rouge. Everyone was a little on edge.) I said no, I was more worried about rising gas prices.

Once I had a delivery to Boulevard de Province, one of the sketchier areas Pizza Hut serviced. Drivers said they didn’t like delivering there because the black residents were bad tippers. Anyway, I’d just delivered the pie and was on my way out when I got pulled over. I felt a little jumpy because I was on probation at the time. Was my plate was expired? Did I have anything illegal in the car?

“You shouldn’t be out here. This is a bad part of town,” the officer said. 

I told him I’d had to deliver a pizza.

“Tell your manager the police told you not to deliver out here anymore,” he said. Then he followed me out of the neighborhood.

I was relieved that he didn’t bust me for anything, but I was also pissed at being pulled over for no reason. That cop should spend more time making the neighborhood safer and less time running off pizza delivery girls, I thought.

I still feel conflicted when I think about no-delivery zones, which in New Orleans are correlated almost precisely with predominantly black areas of town, at least for one locally owned pizza chain. When I pointed out the similarity on Facebook, I got a chorus of white voices telling me it wasn’t fair to expect drivers to deliver to high-crime areas. And I got a chorus of black voices saying it wasn’t fair that systemic racism prevents them from getting pizzas brought to their door. I agree with both sides. And I think it’s telling that something as simple as a pizza delivery map reveals the gross racial and economic disparity in New Orleans.

Years after I’d quit my Pizza Hut job, I heard Steven had joined a motorcycle gang. I asked him if the rumors were true. “It’s not a gang,” he said, pushing his thick Army-issued glasses up on his nose. “Well, the FBI considers it a gang. But it’s not a gang.” 

I accepted that. Hell, I was an Insane Clown Posse fan, and the FBI considered Juggalos a gang when I knew they were just outcast hicks who liked rap-rock and face paint. So it came as a shock when, in 2010, I heard Steven was in the intensive care unit with an armed guard. He’d been beaten and shot by four former gang members in a bar by the Amite River. Of course, everyone knows the Bandidos aren’t just a riding club these days.

For all these and other reasons, pizza delivery is inextricably linked to violence in my mind. Today, there’s a sign outside the Mid-City Domino’s promising drivers a $100 signing bonus, which is rare in fast food. And although the danger didn’t bother me when I was 22, now I think you’d have to be crazy to deliver pizza in cities as crime-ridden and impoverished as New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

I’m older and wiser, but I haven’t lost my taste for Pizza Hut’s brand of greasy pie. Even when I worked there, I never tired of it. Often, I’d eat it for dinner, and then make another pizza right before clocking out to share with a friend.

When my shift ended around 11 p.m., I usually had 30 or 40 dollars in tips wadded in the cargo pocket of my baggy khaki pants and spattered tomato sauce on my giant uniform polo shirt. I’d spend the last half hour of my shift washing dishes and pulling frozen crusts from the walk-in cooler, putting them in deep-dish platters to thaw overnight in three pumps of vegetable oil. Then I’d hop my Volvo and drive to a friend’s apartment to party until three or four in the morning. I know what I didn’t do, and that was get shot in the street. I guess you could say I’m one of the lucky ones.


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