Erv got into the pizza business before it really took off, at least in Denver. Supposedly, the 1952 song “That’s Amore” with the line “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore” really gave pizza a boost. But in 1956, when Erv opened his little hole-in-the-wall take-out pizzeria in West Denver, pizza was still a bit of a novelty. Erv sold it by the slice at first, but later just the whole pizzas. His place had a neon sign that said “Erv’s Pizza,” not very Italian sounding.
In 1956 when I was 12, Erv hired me to wash pizza pans. I was an odd kid with no father, an alcoholic mother, and a lot of trouble with my peers at school. Erv very soon became a father figure to me and my best friend.
Erv told me many entertaining stories about riding the rails during the depression, serving as a cook in the army during World War II, and boxing as a bantam weight in the Golden Gloves. I started hanging out at Erv’s even when I wasn’t working.
One snowy winter night when business was slow, we were playing penny ante poker in the back. The telephone rang and Erv went to answer. Assuming he would be on the phone for a minute taking the order, I lifted his cards up to take a peek. Suddenly Erv came crawling back on his hands and knees. For a brief minute I thought he was going to bite me on the leg for looking at his cards.
“Get down!” he shouted.
I hesitated, and he stood up and pulled me down. I was desperately trying to think of a reason I would be looking at his cards other than trying to cheat, but before I could say anything, Erv said “Stay down. Don’t move. I’m going over to Rocky Built.” “Stay down,” Erv said as he scrambled out the back door.
Rocky Built was a hamburger joint two doors away. Sometimes, when we were tired of pizza, we got hamburgers there for dinner. Once when Erv walked into Rocky Built, a guy was holding a gun on the woman behind the counter. He looked at Erv and said “I’m holding the place up.” Then the woman behind the counter said, “I’m being held up.” Erv said, “Okay, I’ll come back.” He turned around, walked back to the pizzeria, and called the police. Of course, the hold-up man got caught.
When Erv got back, I was still on the floor clutching my own cards. Erv explained that the telephone call wasn’t a pizza order. The guy on the other end of the line had told Erv he had a high-powered rifle trained on him from across the street and if he wanted to stay alive, he should put all the money in the cash register in a paper bag and put it just outside the door. It was not something Erv was about to do.
He had gone to the back of Rocky Built and banged on the door. When they let him in, he called the police.
Two Denver cops came and questioned us. They checked the building across the street. They said the whole thing was probably a prank and left. Erv was a bit shaken and closed early.
A couple of days later, the police informed Erv that they had arrested a guy who had just got out of prison for trying the same thing on a Safeway several years earlier. He had a kid on a bike ready to ride by and get the bag of money. Our neighborhood desperately needed smarter hold-up men.