“Ok… let ‘em in.”
Somebody moved to unlock the outside doors. It was precisely 10:00 and I was standing next to the oven folding boxes as the bricks began to turn a hot white, almost to temp. As the doors were unlatched and swung open, a slow stream of curious tourists and tired locals flooded the lobby, filling up every conceivable space. The ones at the head of the torrent filed around to the front of the line where the new hire stood prepared to greet them, marker and order sheet in hand, presenting a plastic smile that displayed all too many teeth. The quiet before the storm was now replaced with the chattering of children accompanied by strung out adults and the collective sighs of half a dozen employees—overly caffeinated, hungover, and underpaid. It was another day working under the Space Needle.
I floated between folding boxes and manning the oven, the damp starch of my flour powdered jeans just beginning to crisp up next to its growing heat. The distance between Capitol Hill and the Seattle Center was nothing extraordinary yet in the eight months of constant rain and biting cold, it had certainly begun to feel that way. I told myself again that I should buy some proper rain gear but my bank account argued otherwise. The warmth of the pizza oven would have to do for now.
The first of many pies for the day was slid across the table to me from the end of the line. Removing it from the mesh wire plate and sliding it into the oven, I used the metal spatula to shift it around in place, all too aware of the district manager hovering nearby with his clipboard and pen at the ready.
As another was placed on the table ready for me, I snatched it up and deftly tossed it in the oven next to the first. I was trying to look smooth for the corporate suit nearby, busy marking up all of my shortcomings in bright red ink to discuss in his next meeting with our store manager.
Two more on the table. I rotated the half cooked pies around to make room before grabbing the newcomers and placing them carefully in the row. Taking a sip of my cheap coffee while I still had a chance, I winced at the electric pain that shot up from my molars as they were engulfed in hot liquid.
When this pain had first cropped up, dull and growing in intensity, I’d thought there was just a bit of food stuck between my teeth and had vigorously flossed until I was spitting globs of red. Yet with the pain failing to subside and with no health insurance nor any money for a dentist, I’d resorted to beer and weed—the anesthetics of poverty.
Yet another pie was placed on the table. Placing it in the oven and rotating the others, I clenched my jaw to ease the pain shooting through my skull.
There are few things you need to master when working a pizza oven. The first is to understand heat distribution. Those white hot bricks in the center of the oven will burn your pies. Unless you want to deal with being accosted by an unsympathetic customer during a rush—the silent threats of management just behind them—you’ll usually want to avoid this section. The heat you want collects around the outside of this space where the bricks are that heated color white to black, clearly dividing the two spaces.
The second: rotate your pies, constantly. In an industrial sized pizza oven, you can typically fit around a dozen personal pies, give or take a few. I like to work from left to right, but this will depend on you and your workspace. As the pies cook, always keep the most undercooked sides towards the center while never quite touching those white hot bricks. If you stay organized, you’ll know when to rotate and you’ll always be pulling one out and placing a new one in. Proper rotation means optimal usage and content management.
The third and, to corporate, the most important thing to master is timing. Leave a pie in for a few seconds too long and it’s burnt; leave it in for not long enough and it’s doughy. Either way, the customer and management is unhappy. This will vary from oven to oven, but as long as it’s up to temp, there should be a standard timing that you’ll eventually get down to a science. If not from your own ambition, then from corporate’s. For us, it was exactly eight minutes—480 seconds if you’re counting—this number likely decided on during one of their plush office meetings.
If you can master all three of these things, not to mention the exhaustion of working an oven during a rush, the constant blazing heat on your face and skin, the burn marks from the spatula that got too hot while you were moving too fast, standing on your feet for hours at a time in one place, then maybe management will offer you a raise. They didn’t for me, but hey, maybe your hard work could convince them where mine failed.
“Eighty-six Italian sausage!”
“And get some more spinach to the line.”
“Spinach to the line!”
“I fuckin’ heard him the first time!”
The rush was now in full force and our well-oiled minimum wage machine was chugging along with minimal hiccups. The oven was blazing hot and spitting out cooked pizzas at the precisely calculated time of eight minutes per pie.
I was doing the tarried dance that cooks are known for. Grab a pie from the left, spin, put it in the open space of the oven, rotate, grab the last one or two that are ready to be served, spin, deposit them on the cutting table for someone else to deal with, spin, repeat, repeat, repeat.
The aching between my molars then became unbearable. The pain, or maybe the caffeine or whisky last night, was building to a sharp headache.
Between pies I placed the metal spatula in its holster and dug at the gum between the teeth. As I did something broke loose in my mouth—the bitter taste of amalgam on my tongue like a thousand dust particles.
I looked around in distress. My gaze was met with chaos: a packed line of hungry customers trailing off and around the corner of the store; all my coworkers frantically trying to keep up with an order count that was clearly meant for a much larger restaurant; the eyeballing of an inauspicious corporate manager who was looking forward to dealing out some write ups.
If I were to step away from the oven, someone would need to replace my position. Seeing as we were constantly understaffed, this would throw a wrench into our machinery. So I did what I felt was being demanded of me, vocally or otherwise: I swallowed the bitter fragments of tooth that stained my tongue and got back to work.
“We’re closed, man.”
An older guy wearing a colorful Seattle Center shirt had wandered up to the half shuttered storefront, a toddler clutching his hand beside him. Despite the late hour, the metal shutter, and one of my coworkers out front mopping the floors, he somehow needed someone to explain to him that we were closed.
With a look of confusion, he kept walking towards the other closing restaurants in the building.
“Some fuckin’ people, am I right?” asked my friend sitting across from me counting the day’s till.
I took a sip of beer and washed it around the right side of my mouth, trying to dull the pain sprouting from the hole between my teeth, and mumbled something affirmative before placing my glass back on top of the fresh write up sheet with my name scribbled across it.
“How’s that tooth doing?” he asked, never looking up from the money laid out in front of him.
“What tooth?” I asked in return.
With a chuckle he fell silent, mouthing numbers between crooked and jagged teeth that slightly whistled as he spoke. Corporate was stringent about exact change counts down to the penny. Almost as if they knew that poor people steal out of desperation.
Without insurance and with no savings in my bank account, I wasn’t sure what I’d do, if anything. For now, the alcohol was slowly diluting the pain and after we were done closing up, I was hoping that the joint in my pocket would finish it off. Occasionally tonguing the teeth in question where sharp edges of bone bordered a hole previously occupied by a filling, I cursed myself for not being more on top of my dental health over the years and took another swig of the lukewarm beer, clearing the dregs.
I wondered how long it would be before an infection set in or another of my fillings popped out. If it would happen on the clock or in the comfort of our cluttered apartment, an apartment that cost most of my income despite being closet sized. Nobody I knew here could afford health insurance, let alone serious dental work. Many of my coworkers’ mouths were damaged beyond repair from too much drink, too much cheap food, and not enough toothpaste.
Here, my story was normalized.
“You want another beer, mate?”
I looked down at the glass in my hand, empty and sad, and again felt the throbbing pain of my exposed gum.