Remembering Erv

Pizza

In the 1950s Erv owned a hole-in-the-wall take-out pizzeria a few blocks from our house in West Denver. He had owned a small bakery in an Italian neighborhood and learned to make pizza from Mrs. Caruso, who lived above the bakery. He opened Erv’s Pizza—not a very Italian sounding name—before pizza had really taken off as a fast food, at least in Denver. At first he sold pizza by the slice and later only whole pies.

When I was about 13, Erv hired me to wash pizza pans. He paid me 50 cents an hour. Eventually I graduated to helping him make pizzas. At one point he had me going into local bars with small pieces of pizza as samples, hoping it would boost late-night business.

Because my father had died when I was only four, and I lived with my mother and two of my sisters, I really needed a father figure. Erv definitely filled the bill. He and I became close friends. Long after I stopped working for him, I would often come by just to chat, play penny ante poker on slow winter evenings, or watch the Wednesday night fights on a small TV. He had been a Golden Gloves boxer.  He told me many stories about his youth riding the rails during the depression and working as a cook in the army during World War II.

Erv was an avid pipe smoker. Actually, he was an avid cigarette smoker, too, but cigarettes were an addiction he despised. Reader’s Digest was ahead of its time in warning about the link between smoking and cancer, and Erv read all the alarmist articles. Once, in a fit of disgust and resolve to give cigarettes up once and for all, he took his butcher knife and chopped his package of cigarettes into three parts and threw them into the trash. Later, he was fishing them out of the trash and lighting the stubs.

Erv thought pipe smoking was safe.  For one thing, you don’t have to inhale to enjoy a pipe. He introduced me to fine briars and specialty pipe tobaccos that were available only in specialty stores. The tobaccos had names like Balkan Sobranie, Three Nuns, and Plum Cake. We would smoke our pipes and compare notes. I bought a calabash pipe that Erv much admired. Eventually I traded him the calabash for a short-stemmed briar of his that I greatly admired. We were both very happy with the exchange.

In 1971 I moved from Denver to Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, to take a job at the University of Alberta library. One day Erv’s wife Della called to tell me that Erv was dying of liver cancer. I called Erv in the hospital a few times, and we talked about the old days. His voice grew weaker and weaker.  When Della called to tell me that Erv had died, I had no emotional reaction at all. I went for a walk and thought about the loss of such a close friend, but my emotions were flat.

A year or so later, I went to Rome in connection with my work at the library. One evening I had a delicious pizza in a little trattoria. I finished the pizza and pulled out my pipe. It was Erv’s short-stemmed briar that he had traded for the calabash. I looked at it and suddenly burst into tears. Seeing me sobbing, passers-by must have thought the pizza was really awful.

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