The booths at Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder Company on Clark Street are small. But the six of us jammed in well enough last Thursday night. True, when my napkin slid off my knee and onto the floor I only momentarily considered trying to somehow snake my hand down and reach for it — a physical impossibility — before simply asking the waiter for another.
If you are unfamiliar with the Lincoln Park fixture, that’s because it’s not one of the behemoths of the Chicago pizza world, no Lou Malnati’s or Giordano’s. Here, you purchase not deep dish or thin crust pizza, but a sui generis concoction of cheese and dough baked into a bowl and flipped over. We usually skip it and make a meal out of just a salad and the parmesan-dusted Mediterranean bread — it’s that good. There aren’t many restaurants where you eagerly anticipate the salad dressing; this is one of them.
But we had newcomers — our sons’ girlfriends — who of course had to try the pizza pot pie to achieve the Full Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder Experience. Of the six, I was the odd man out. The professional status of the others were: one assistant attorney general for the state of Illinois, aka my wife; three recent law school graduates studying eight hours a day for the bar exam next week, otherwise known as my sons and Girlfriend B, plus Girlfriend A, still in her third year at NYU Law.
You’d think at some point, while conversation flowed around the Rule Against Perpetuities, post-bar-exam trips and the tax benefits of living in New Jersey that somebody would turn to me and say, “What, are you not a lawyer?” But that would require more attention than a dad typically receives in these situations. I knew my job here was to keep my mouth shut and pay for everything, a task I performed admirably, if I say so myself. Although I did slip up once and begin to speak about reading literature, prompting my wife to immediately manage, somehow, to reach under the table and tap my knee, the international signal for, “You’re talking. Why are you talking? Don’t talk.”
Otherwise, I was on my best behavior. Girlfriend A has been around for over a year, but Girlfriend B, a recent development, had never met us before. I withheld my natural question: “Why are you here? Are you crazy?” and instead asked, “Where did you go, undergraduate?” When she answered, “University of Southern California,” I nodded sagely and said the first thing to pop into mind: “Trojans.” Their mascot. That’s what I meant, anyway, not Trojans the brand of prophylactics, though I did instantly worry about my comment being interpreted that way, that I’d inadvertently said an off-color remark that would be joyfully seized by my sons and dangled in my face for the next decade. They didn’t seem to notice.
You know what I didn’t worry about? Not once in the two-hour dinner? Not from the first tongful of salad to the final spoonful of tortoni and the farewell chocolate-covered toffee that Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder distributes with the bill because they’re great? Dying. The whole COVID nightmare which began in February 2020 has receded enough, for me, that I no longer automatically feel for the bulge of a mask in my pocket when I go out the door into the vast and glorious world. Yes, there is still a sheet of plastic running along the bar here, like a salad bar sneeze guard. But that has to be on its way out.
As for the half of the country who won’t get vaccinated because Fox News told them not to, or they don’t believe in science, or whatever, well, I wish I could offer insight. But I can’t. I can’t explain how they can shun a pair of simple shots and imperil themselves and their children. I don’t even like to think about it.
They aren’t the first to throw away their lives out of ignorance, and I needn’t be so rude as to observe that thousands will die because they’re dupes in thrall to a fraud. Be that way; I’m not going to argue with you. This life business, it’s a good thing. You shouldn’t need me to tell you to hold fast to it with both hands.