Ryan loves pizza. He’s not real picky about it either, as long as it’s plain cheese. Frozen Target pizzas are a regular treat. He makes his own, rolling out the pop-can dough, baking the crust, adding the cheese, sauce and spices, and placing in the oven.
But his most favorite pizza comes from a small take-out place that is just down the street from our house. We’ve gone there for years. Sometimes Ryan and I will walk down on weekends for a few slices, sitting on two of the four bar stools at the small counter. More often, we pick up a pie on our way home from somewhere. Over the years, we’ve gotten to know Jim, the owner and chef.
His is the type of business — small, independent and local — that we go out of our way to patronize. We’ve had him cater birthday parties and school events. He’s usually closed on Sundays but has opened just to make food for Ryan’s birthday celebration. Jim is a hockey fan — a Rangers fan — and he and Ryan often tease each other about their favorite teams. He once left a surprise “go Rangers” note inside the pizza box for Ryan.
We have been working with Ryan on the social interaction of ordering, paying for, and receiving his food — one of those life skills it’s important for him to master. We try to have him call in his orders. Jim recognizes his voice, and is always patient with Ryan’s sometimes clipped phone or in-person conversational skills.
I don’t know if Jim has any concept of Ryan’s differences. I do know that he always greets us with a smile and some friendly banter. He’s patient when Ryan pays and sometimes forgets things like waiting for his change or to say thank you. If he has any thoughts about why Ryan’s social interactions are different from those of most 13-year-old boys, he does not betray them.
A few years ago, my sister-in-law was hosting the family Thanksgiving and wanted to make sure Ryan — who doesn’t eat any traditional Thanksgiving foods — felt included, so she got him a pizza. She passed not one ounce of judgement as he happily ate it at the kids’ table, securing favored-aunt status in the process.
Since then, pizzas have become as much a part of our family holiday traditions as anything. If we’re going somewhere to celebrate with family, we pick up a pizza the day before from Jim’s restaurant to take with us. After a few years of this, Jim asked. He was thrilled for the business, but was curious why we were always picking up pizzas on Dec. 23 or the day before Thanksgiving. So we explained that his pizzas allowed Ryan to take part in our family holiday celebrations.
We celebrated Easter at my parents’ house yesterday with many traditional foods, and a pizza baked by Jim. Ryan paid for it, remembered to thank him, and waited for his change when we picked it up Saturday evening. Ryan told Jim he was rooting for the Rangers against the Philadelphia Flyers in the playoffs. As we were walking out, I told Jim “this is the Easter pizza, to go with the Thanksgiving pizza and the Christmas pizza.”
He smiled and wished us a happy holiday. No judgement. No impatience. Just like always.
Just like Joe the barber, Jim the pizza guy is one of the people who make us feel part of a community, who make our lives just a little easier. His food has become an important part of our family traditions. He is one of the people who matter.