Last Thursday I burned the roof of my mouth eating a slice of $1 cheese pizza.
I didn’t care about how the cheese’s steam peeled off the skin of the roof of my mouth; as long as the tongue under it can taste the flour off the bottom crust, I kept on eating. I was famished. I had just finished re-reading Augustine’s Confessions for my literature midterm, locked myself up in my own room scrambling upon its biblical references and “key passages” (who created that term anyway? A text cannot be a text without its whole, and you do not need specific arbitrary parts of it to unlock the text’s meaning—it’s absurd), and nothing could be a better salve than the heat of a $1 New York cheese pizza.
I washed away the pain with orange juice, but it turned out to be salt in the wound. I can feel out which parts of my mouth are burnt and which ones aren’t—because the ones that are burnt hurt miserably as liquid washed away the grease. I cannot taste the orange juice on the parts that hurt, but I can still taste it on the parts that didn’t. However, the ability of my taste buds was overshadowed by the pain I was feeling. Being the dumb bitch I was, I scanned through the roof of my mouth with my tongue, trying to map out the damaged parts without going through the pain of the orange juice—just like a cartographer mapping out wildfires in a national forest.
Afterward, I kept on eating. I munched through the pain because my stomach wanted what my mouth didn’t want. As I bit through my last bite, I quickly whipped out my phone and opened its Browser app, typing in to search: “i burned the roof of my mouth.”
I was half expecting results from WebMD telling me that I’m going to die (yes WebMD, we’re all gonna die, what matters is WHEN death is going to take us—or does it matter?). I found out from a health website that what I experienced falls into the category of first-degree burns, equivalent to hurting yourself with a curling iron or a hot stove (ouch). I thought cheese pizza burns are not so severe to be formally defined under a medical category at all. What should I do then, Google, pad my mouth with an aloe vera ointment? Well, the most practical solution I found is to get yogurt or milk, since the lactose will build a protective layer on the roof of my mouth. I tossed my paper plate to the trash can and walked to a Trader Joe’s to buy a jug of yogurt.
I realized that I was doing all of this alone; if I had a friend, I’m pretty sure I’ll be more cared for. Before I walked out, I looked around the store; three other people were eating the same cheese slice, and the three of them were eating alone. We were all doing the same thing—except, perhaps, they were smart enough to repress their hunger and not let their mouths burn. Come to think of it, having a cheese slice is a great side dish to a New Yorker’s fast routine: you have a quick meal with a quick prep (served to you in under a minute), you could conveniently whip out a one dollar bill you have laying around, you don’t have to impress a friend on your culinary choices (since all cheese pizza taste the same), and with its paper plate, it is meant to be eaten on the go. However, you don’t always think about loneliness when you think about pizza. Sometimes, I feel like pizza is also meant to be eaten together, with a bunch of people you’re comfortable with.
The last time I had pizza from the same pizza place, I was in the company of thirty other people. We were having a mixer for people from the same nationality studying in my college; it was five minutes before the event, and around ten people showed up. We were talking about something really arbitrary—I can’t remember what it’s about, it’s something between law school admissions and different types of chili oil—as we waited for the latecomers to come. I’ve never met most of these people before, but the fact that we come from the same country is a comforting familiarity to the strangeness of the city. We were merely thirty people out of 33 thousand students from around the globe.
A few minutes later, the elevator dinged, and my friend walked out of it carrying three stacks of cheese pizza. She laid it down to a table, but no one bothered to eat until one of us shouted out “yuk, makan yuk!” (“guys, let’s eat!”). My friend opened up the first layer; in it, a circle of dough covered in cheese that looks like it’s made of gold, steam coming out from all directions. We distributed the paper plates, and our hands stretched out and claimed our slices, pulling the slices from each other and letting the cheese cut itself. A chunk of dough will pull out unevenly, resulting in an earnest discussion of who would get the extra chunk, something like “gapapa yang lebih buat lu aja” “gue gak gitu laper kok, lu aja” (“it’s okay, you get this extra” “I’m not that hungry, though, you get it”). It’s an exercise in humility and teamwork, while at the same time, strengthening the bonds of a minority nationality on campus, reminding us all from where we came from.
It is definitely ironic how the same slice of cheese pizza could be a beacon of loneliness and togetherness at the same time. These ironies manifest in other forms, too. A $1 cheese pizza slice could be universal—it’s (most likely) halal, it could be made kosher—but at the same time, it’s a gatekeeping food—it’s most definitely not gluten-free. I’ve heard stories about my friends studying abroad to Italy, where they trace pizza back to its ancient roots—even Aeneas ate a food resembling pizza and realized that it’s part of his prophecy towards the foundation of Rome—where pizza is viewed in such a glorified, deified way, having their cheese made from the milk of water buffalos and their tomatoes harvested from specific areas of Italy. And now, in the supposedly “greatest city in the world,” pizza is served for the commons: in a single slice, a low price, a short prep time, and even dragged down by the subway rats.
The cheese slice is such an indelible part of New York life, creeping into every corner of every borough, always there for a quick bite for lunch, a late night emergency plug, a trustful friend holding your hand through a bad hangover. New York is not New York without the cheese slice, and the cheese slice is not a cheese slice without New York. It’s a reciprocal relationship—and a paradoxical one, too. Everyone eats it; the slice does not view your socioeconomic status or your borough of residence. It is not like your fake friends—it does not judge whether you’re eating it alone or with 30 other people. It’s just sitting there, steam puffing out of its top layer, the cheese glimmering from the sun, the smell negating the stench of the storm drains. And when you’re alone, the fact that there are thousands of other New Yorkers spending their lunchtime alone with a cheese slice comforts you. The loneliness manifested in an urban landscape is in itself paradoxical; in a city that never sleeps, everyone expects New Yorkers to be fast-paced and outgoing, but sometimes it’s the opposite. Some days I find myself burning the roof of my mouth alone in a pizza shop, and I believe many have the same experience.
In the future, things are going to change. Someday, gentrification will hit this part of Manhattan, and the $1 slice won’t be $1 anymore—it will rise on a steady increase of 25 cents per two months until the Italian storeowners give up and hand in their keys to a mustachioed Brooklyn hipster, having to witness their basil-smelling hole-in-the-wall turning into yet another overpriced aesthetic $6 coffee shop we don’t need. The city might continuously be changing, but the paradox between loneliness and togetherness will always linger—between the skyscrapers lined neatly down 5th Avenue, squeezed among bodies of subway riders during rush hour, and most prevalently, in the pool of grease of a dollar slice.