A Slice of Life

Author: Reggie Henke ’12

My car pulls into the driveway as a stranger peeks through the blinds eagerly awaiting my arrival. She doesn’t know me, but she’s friendly and welcoming at the door. If I do my job right our interaction is brief, businesslike and satisfying. Should she bother to watch me go, the Fighting Irish sticker on my rear bumper is the last she’ll see of me until the craving returns.

Every May, moments after their mortarboards spin back to earth, a class of wide-eyed graduates files out through Notre Dame Stadium’s hallowed north tunnel. The occasion proclaims, “They’re ready, throw open the gates, loose them unto the world!” Without fail, these young men and women quickly spread themselves across the globe, moving on to all manner of impressive positions in hot pursuit of their dreams. It should be of no shock to anyone familiar with Our Lady’s reputation that her children accomplish so much, so soon. The remarkable achievements of my own classmates are no exception. Seemingly across the board, graduates of the University of Notre Dame grow up fast and go on to do extraordinary things.

But not me. No, not me. My situation feels unnervingly unique. What I do at night won’t be found in any university marketing pamphlet, and for good reason.

“I’m still young,” I used to remind myself. “It’s only temporary. It pays surprisingly well. It’s a means to an end.” The rationalization was never-ending. Managing the daily doses of self-imposed shame and guilt was difficult. “I’m better than this,” was my humiliating mantra. None of it changed the simple facts. There is no euphemism for what I do. I deliver pizza.

Phew, now that’s out of the way. I’m a ‘pizza guy.’ It’s out in the open and I almost wish it wasn’t. After all, no child has ever dreamed of delivering pizza when they grow up. Certainly no Notre Dame graduate has ever majored in Pizza Studies (although my friends and I certainly put in enough work to merit honorary minors).

In catch-up conversations with my family and friends I used to tip-toe around the saucy subject of how I made my dough. If it felt like I was letting myself down, then surely I must have been letting them down, too. To be fair, not one person has ever attempted to shame me for delivering pizza. My issues with the job came from within. I regularly found myself getting off work at four in the morning, soaked in grease and sweat, yearning for an ephemeral “something more.”

I based my assessments of self-worth on the exaggerated disparity between the “University of Notre Dame” and “Pizza Delivery Expert” sections of my curriculum vitae. “Underachiever, Underachiever, Underachiever,” I often caught myself chanting during unguarded moments. My peers’ success cast a humiliating shadow. From beneath it I sulked.

I experienced a turning point when I began to reminisce about the plethora of pizza I ate in college. If I were to put into print the obscene number of pies my friends and I devoured during senior year alone it would look like a typo. People delivered all those pizzas. In my stale memories they are only faceless agents of sustenance. Nevertheless, those were real human beings hidden behind the fast-food name tags.

As fate would have it, now I’m the one making the thankless treks to confusingly numbered apartment complexes. I’ve joined ranks with the countless hardworking individuals that I’d taken for granted over the course of my life as a mindless consumer. Seeing things from the “other side” made me question a lot of dumb assumptions I’d been holding on to.

First I needed to address the roots of my raw disappointment. Why was I so adamant that a certain kind of labor was beneath me? When did I get it in my head that some jobs were only for other people? I have great pride in my Notre Dame degree, but how did I let that shift into blind arrogance? Getting hung up on the implied meaning of my degree meant ignoring four years’ worth of personal growth and learning. No amount of education could make me intrinsically better or more special than another human soul. I was sorely mistaken about what, if anything, I was entitled to. My attitude was doing my alma mater a far greater disservice than my job choice.

The truth is I chose this job. I applied and interviewed on my own accord. Continuing to deny this required exhausting and unnecessary mental gymnastics. Owning my decisions was crucial. I am a Notre Dame graduate. I do deliver pizza. So what? “Get over it,” I told my prideful ego. Feeling sorry for myself was insulting to those who didn’t have the luxury of opportunity. Dignity should be universally accessible, but by wallowing in self-pity, I had been implying that low wage service work didn’t have value or deserve my respect.

In fact, all labor has dignity. Every human, whether custodian or CEO, has an innate right to be regarded with kindness. The phenomena of status and power are ultimately meaningless. So often we let some sort of superiority complex prevent us from seeing someone like a pizza delivery driver as an equal. I never tried to imagine myself in their shoes until I laced them up myself, and was it ever illuminating. I learned self-respect is not assigned, it is asserted. Value is subjective, and therefore, a choice. I chose to be a Domer delivery driver, and I could just as easily choose to relish it.

Isn’t getting paid to cruise around town, windows down and tunes cranked, a privilege? Isn’t being the guy who puts piping hot delicious food directly into hungry people’s hands a pretty sweet gig? In any case, it could be a lot worse.

I’ve adjusted my whole perspective. Right now, I’m a pizza-delivery guy and I’m trying my darnedest to be the nicest, fastest, best pizza-delivery gentleman I can be. I’ve started to legitimately love my job and its perks. These days, when I’m at work, I’m grinning. It’s really not too hard with all the free ’za around.

Still, delivering pizzas is not my dream. I found myself doing it for lack of one. My brain was full of only the most nebulous notions of who I wanted to be and what I wanted to do back when I turned my tassel. On graduation day I was set loose with a piece of paper, and unfortunately it wasn’t a map. I thought Notre Dame alumni just had great things happen to them. Now, I’ve realized that there are no free passes and worrying about made up expectations is harmful self-indulgence.

In the meantime, my ambitions have crystallized. I’m finally confident about what I want for my future and I’ve begun the very fun process of earning it. I’ve worked with wonderful people, shared moments with thousands of smiling strangers, and saved up enough money and self-confidence to take a risk in the right direction. This job, while not what I might have wanted, was what I desperately needed.

The end of my time delivering pizzas is nigh, but I will never forget it. Which reminds me, please don’t forget to tip the pizza guy.

This essay received honorable mention in this magazine’s 2013 Young Alumni Essay contest. To see the winners, visit magazine.nd.edu/news/45034/.