Planes, Trains and Chuck & Eddie
by Kerrie Flanagan
In Planes, Trains and Chuck & Eddie, Kerrie Flanagan's lighthearted essays remind us that time spent with family is always an adventure!
From growing up in the shadows of her younger twin brothers, to a three-decade cross-country search for the perfect pizza to learning the unwritten rules of marrying into a "game" family, Flanagan shares entertaining snapshots of her life through the lens of family.
—A beacon of light in a dark pizza world
by Kerrie Flanagan
Back in the summer of 1975, when I was almost seven years old and my brothers Chuck and Eddie were four, my parents decided it was time to head west. If it was good enough for the Pioneers, it was good enough for us. While packing up the house, Mom played her John Denver album over and over. By the time we said our good-byes to grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, my brothers and I knew every word to “Rocky Mountain High.” We left Long Island behind and traveled to Colorado where my mom’s brother and a cousin had already moved.
We settled in a suburb outside of Denver. We all loved the mountains, especially my mom, and we adjusted pretty quickly to calling soda “pop” and referring to our sneakers as “tennis shoes.” But the biggest culture shock for my parents was the food. Colorado did not have a high Jewish population, so finding good bagels and a kosher deli was like trying to find good Mexican food in New York. Mom always complained that there were no good bakeries, in fact there were no bakeries at all and my dad suffered from severe pizza withdrawal.
It’s not like Colorado didn’t have pizza, but we quickly learned there was a difference between Colorado and New York pizza—a big difference. Our first western pizza experience happened at a place called Shaky’s. This precursor to Chuck E. Cheese had arcade games scattered throughout and to liven the place up, a banjo player provided the music. Dad, a professional guitar player, had only two instruments he loathed: one was the bagpipes and the other was the banjo. So, for my dad, this was an instant strike against the establishment.
Regardless of the Deliverance ambiance, we stayed, hoping the pizza would save us. My brothers, who never sat still, immediately badgered Mom and Dad for quarters for the arcade games. Dad dug to the depths of his pockets and Mom to the bottom of her purse. The more quarters they could find, the more peace it would bring them. They handed their offering to Chuck and Eddie knowing it wouldn’t last long and ordered the pizza. I was content to sit at the table and wait.
It wasn’t long before the boys returned full force.
“Mom, can I have more quarters? Can I?” Chuck jumped up and down. “There’s this one game that I really like. Mom? Do you have any quarters?”
Eddie went straight to Dad. “Do you have any quarters, Dad? I want to play that one game over there again. Dad?”
Thankfully the pizza arrived. Food always had the power to quiet my brothers, even if only for a short time.
“Sit down, boys,” Mom said.
They sat and we all looked at the pizza.
“Maybe it tastes better than it looks,” Dad joked.
Mom picked up a slice and tried to fold it in half (like all New Yorkers do). It snapped. She dropped it like it had some contagious disease and spewed a string of expletives we were used to hearing. Mom could hold her own in a roomful of sailors.
Dad cautiously took a bite and by the look on his face, you would have thought he just bit into a lemon. He dropped his piece back onto the plate. “This isn’t pizza. This is cardboard with cheese. I can’t eat this.”
I tried it and because I really only had about four years of pizza-eating experience behind me, I didn’t really mind. My brothers had already each finished one piece and were working on their seconds, but their opinion didn’t count at all. They would eat anything. When they were two, I caught them sitting on the kitchen floor with a bag of dog food between them, eating it like it was cereal.
We waited for the boys to finish and then left.
My parents, clearly disgusted, vowed to never inflict bad Colorado pizza on us again. And thus my dad’s quest for good pizza began.
After months of searching and a few close calls, Dad announced that his quest was over. He found the Holy Grail: a pizza place owned by a guy from Brooklyn. We loaded into the VW Bus and drove the 30 minutes to Pizza Alley.
On the outside, it wasn’t anything spectacular—a small building with a glass storefront and we could see about 10 small tables. But when we went in, you would have thought my parents had just passed the Pearly Gates in Heaven.
Mom stopped and inhaled the aroma. “Ed, you may have found it.” She pointed behind the counter. “Look, they even have real pizza ovens.”
The guy behind the counter looked at Dad. “How ya doin’? What can I get ya?”
He sounded like our relatives back east. The other guy next to him tossed the flat pizza dough into the air and caught it. My brothers ran over to where he was to get a closer look and to start their usual string of questions that they really didn’t want the answer to—they just liked hearing themselves talk.
Dad smiled. “One large cheese for here and five sodas.”
We all sat down at a table that was covered with a red and white checkered table cloth. Mom and Dad were like kids at Christmas. They smiled and reminisced about the pizza places of their youth and my brothers’ nonstop chatter and bounciness didn’t even faze them.
The pizza and the moment of truth arrived. We all watched as Mom took a piece and folded it in half. She grinned. The end part of the slice flopped a little and grease dripped onto the paper plate.
“Oh, Ed, this looks perfect.”
She took a bite and savored it before releasing a string of expletives, but this time they were all good.
Dad took a slice, properly folded it and took a bite. He seemed to be having an out of body experience.
After taking another bite, Mom gave us each a slice.
“Now this is real pizza, kids. This is what pizza is supposed to be like.” She handed it to us like it was pure gold.
Trips to Pizza Alley soon became a regular part of our lives. Whenever Mom and Dad were craving pizza, which was at least once a month, we loaded into the green Nova and drove 30 minutes to the little piece of New York dropped into Denver. We all enjoyed these outings because it meant time together as a whole family. Dad worked a 9-5 job at Blue Cross and Blue Shield and then on many evenings he had gigs playing his guitar, so getting to do something all together was great. My brothers’ incessant talking and lack of awareness for others’ personal space didn’t bother me as much on Pizza Alley nights.
This went on for years and during that time my brothers and I were being primed to be East Coast pizza aficionados. This was a time before Dominos became too popular, so Mom and Dad were able to shield us from the horrors of Colorado pizza. It became engrained, deep within us, what real pizza looked, smelled and tasted like.
One fateful fall evening, we loaded into the Chevy Vega. Mom made me sit in between Chuck and Eddie because they had been driving her crazy all afternoon. This was not a good sign because the boys were usually better behaved on Pizza Alley nights and I hated the job of human buffer zone. In the ’70s nobody wore seatbelts, so the backseat of a car could become a war zone.
As we neared our destination, Mom and Dad’s gasp interrupted the boys trying to hit each other around me in the back seat. Chuck and Eddie stopped and we all looked out the front window. We couldn’t believe our eyes. Dad pulled into the parking lot, we all got out and stood there in a line, staring at what used to be Pizza Alley. Now it was burnt remnants of a building. A building that linked us to our past lives 1,800 miles away. A building that had become an extension of our family and the only place we knew where to get REAL pizza. If this were a scene in a movie, my parents would have fallen to their knees and cursed the heavens, screaming, “How could you let this happen?!”
But this wasn’t the movies. Instead, my mom just cursed and we all got back into the car. The 30-minute ride home was silent.
We all mourned the loss of our beloved Pizza Alley, but Dad was hit the hardest by it. His determination to find good pizza remained intact for a few months, but then it began to wane when his searches came up empty. Eventually he resigned himself to the fact that we were doomed to eat Colorado pizza for the rest of our lives and he lowered his standards in order to fulfill his craving.
But all of us continued to search for another oasis in this western pizza desert.
It has been 34 years since we lost Pizza Alley. Over the decades, more and more food comforts from the east infiltrated Colorado. We found good bagel places, occasionally Mom and Dad came across a Kosher deli and more decent pizza places popped up. My brothers and I are all married and have families now, but I have always been on a quest to reconnect with my childhood and my roots.
One summer afternoon, Mom and Dad made the 30-minute drive to our house for a visit. I had a big surprise for them when they arrived.
“Mom, Dad, you know all the restaurants and stores that have been built behind us?”
They nodded, not sure where this conversation was going.
“Well, there’s a pizza place and I think you’re going to like it. Plus we can walk there from here.”
“Really?” Mom seemed to be getting excited.
“Are you sure it’s good?” Dad didn’t seem to want to get his hopes up.
I laughed. “I’m sure. I have been trained by the best.”
The minute we walked into the restaurant, Mom stopped to inhale the almost forgotten aromas. My parents watched the dough being tossed into the air and saw that the pizza was sold by the slice and they smiled. We ordered a large cheese and sodas. When the pizza arrived, the scene from our first visit to Pizza Alley replayed in my mind and in front of me.
I watched as Mom took a piece and folded it in half. She grinned. The end part of the slice flopped a little and grease dripped onto the paper plate. “Oh, Kerrie, this looks perfect.”
She took a bite and savored it before releasing a more refined string of expletives that indicated she was ecstatic.
Dad took a slice, properly folded it and took a bite.
From the look on his face, I had a feeling I had found our new Pizza Alley.
Three weeks later I called my parents.
“Hey, Mom, do you guys want to join us at the new pizza place for dinner tonight?”
She laughed. “We would love to, except that we were just there last night. Maybe next time?”
Paperback: 102 pages
Publisher: Hot Chocolate Press (November 21, 2013)
Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.2 x 8 inches