Make Mine With Mushrooms

A Mass Ave passerby on any evening might say that the Harvard House of Pizza, located near Radcliffe, is a standard hangout.

It has a predictable cast of characters and they go through standard performances. For example, the anguish of decision: "Anchovies leave a fishy taste in my mouth," says one of a duo. "But pepperoni gives me acid," says the other. "Well, you don't come to Frank's for pizza and get one without anything on it," the first returns. "Well, all right. Mushrooms," they decide.

But then they turn to Frank, who stands poised for action beside the cash register. Short and slight with a round, boyish face, he flashes a timid smile at a student whose face he recognizes from a previous evening. Beads of sweat along Frank's forehead glisten in the fluorescent light from the price board above him. He lightly touches the forehead that is growing at the expense of his receding hairline. "Very good. Mushroom pizza, for here or go?" he asks in a quiet, heavily accented voice.

Frank moves with the cat-like precision of a man who fears that the slightest delay, the faintest sign of tarry, will be interpreted as sloth by those who so impatiently await their pizza.

It's been nine months since Frank opened the Harvard House of Pizza and almost 2 1/2 years since he came to the U.S. "I miss my town," Frank says. "It is 17 years since I live there." Frank is nervous when he talks, and his small hairy arms constantly gesture across the plastic tabletop to help express what his limited English finds so elusive. "I live past 12 years in other town in Greece." Frank finished high school in Thessalonika, Greece's second largest city, and then spent two years in college, where he studied to be a helicopter mechanic. "And after, 34 months in the air force. And then--no job." Frank gives a quick smile when he sees that he is understood.

On a Saturday night, a lone young man, very plain-looking with nearly-combed black hair and dark-frame glasses, sits at one of the four tables in the small store. He stares down at the steaming anchovy-and-onion pizza. With a slow, deliberate move he tugs at a piece of pizza, lifts it to his mouth, and begins to chew it, savoring his solitude with each melancholy bite.

Frank lets him eat in peace as he moves from behind the counter to clear off the clutter of greasy pizza plates, crumpled napkins, and empty soda bottles that has piled up in the last ten minutes. His scenery the flimsy wood panelling on the walls, his stage lights the neon sign on the storefront that glares "Harvard House of Pizza" in red and green, Frank performs without an audience.

Frank decided his future while in the Greek air force. "One day I was in..." He stops and turns to his brother-in-law behind the counter and asks him something in Greek. The brother-in-law shrugs his shoulders in response. Frank turns back and asks, "What is it when many books in one place?...Yes, a library. One day I was in air force library. I take an atlas to see where I want go. I look at Sweden, Europe, United States, South America."

Forced to leave Greece in order to find work, Frank wanted to remain in Europe to be close to his parents. But when the ruling military junta made it very difficult to obtain exit papers to European countries, he decided on the U.S. It was only after Frank was here a year, that his parents could arrange passage to join him. At first Frank worked for his uncle at a Medford pizza parlor. Now he has his own place and his parents are here with him.

It is 1:45 a.m. The old woman with the sad eyes and soft complexion sits in the entranceway to the kitchen, framed by the doorway. But the tranquility of this picture of Frank's mother shatters when a raucous voice on the radio blares out, "Gonna' have some fun tonight, gonna' have some fun tonight..." Three meticulously-dressed students walk into the House a bit sluggishly. Two of them slink over to the one empty table, next to the Coke machine, and sit down with a weary thud. The other, wearing purpletinted glasses and a long crimson scarf, goes up to the counter and, yawning, tells Frank what he wants. He then joins his buddies at the table, which is too low for their long frames. They have to extend their legs out onto the floor.

"I have only three days away from here since I start," Frank says, allowing a note of pride to creep into his voice. "And that when I sick. I like it here. Am working all the time." Frank's day begins at 9 a.m., and the last pizza is usually served around 3 a.m. Frank is in the store all 18 hours, seven days a week. "Sometimes I sleep to 9:30," he feels compelled to add. Frank does like to work, but not 18 hours a day. "Maybe 10 hours be good," he thinks aloud a bit dreamily. "Maybe I work five more years here, and then start high-class restaurant."

Now, however, Frank feels locked into his job because of his problems with the English language. "I come here, take a dictionary, talk with people, and learn speak English. But no read, no write. Very hard to find job." If he could, he would like to take a year off from work to learn English thoroughly. "One, two hours a week--nothing. I want to study ten hours a day, very hard. Then I learn English. But I no have time. Much work."

It is 2 a.m.--closing time. Two women dressed in blue jeans float in and begin perusing the price list on the wall. Frank stands behind the counter waiting to take their order. "Good, onion pizza, please, sit down." The women, seated at the table, chat away, about Dick and Robert and Jordan Marsh. One is tall and black, with an expansive Afro hairdo. Her companion is white, with long black hair that sags onto her short leather jacket. They are oblivious to the group that has just walked in the door, to the conversation at the next table, to Frank's acrobatics behind the counter. In a few minutes they have their pizza in hand, wrapped to go, and they walk out into the cool night air, not once breaking the flow of their gossip.

Frank's ambitions are modest. Soon he would like to open another pizza place, and maybe even a restaurant in the more distant future. But his real ambition is to return to Greece. He becomes animated and talks rapidly, hoping the listener understands exactly what he wants to say: "Someday I going to live in Greece. Maybe 45, 50 years old. Going to town where I was born, and stay there. Don't want work there. I like to think, to talk to people. I want to have children, get family."

It's three in the morning, or maybe even four. The neon light that has worked for the last 18 hours finally goes off. Frank and his family walk out of the store and lock the door behind them. Mass Ave is desolate, and Cambridge has been sleeping for hours. Frank, too, needs his sleep. People will want pizza tomorrow.