Any pizza joint on any corner.

Y’all, I’m a writer. I don’t say that because you can go to your local bookstore and find a book written by me and pay too much for it only to let it gather dust on your nightstand. I say that because writing is how I process. How I live. Lose my parents? I’ll write about it. Face infertility–there’s blog posts. Angry at the world? Crumpled napkins stashed in my hope chest bear witness.

But, when this pandemic started, I stopped writing. Completely. For over a year I haven’t written a word. While my family, my country and my world spun out of control I had nothing to say. Nothing. No blog posts. No diary entries. Nothing. It scared me. I knew it was all there. I knew there were things to say. I just couldn’t say them.

What are the words you write about a world pandemic? What are the words you write about so many people dying? What words would ever do that justice? And, it wasn’t just the big things. It was the small. When my daughter called to say she had a cough. A cough. Small thing right? Not in the last year. Suddenly, that cough was huge. It meant we might become a family that others would be talking about. I don’t know anyone, but did you hear about their family? They lost someone. How could I assign words to that feeling? It was all too big. Too unmanageable, so I didn’t try.

I hunkered down. I ate ice cream. I grew tomatoes. I sold a house and bought an RV. I coped. But, I didn’t write. I felt like all the emotions and fears were stuck without an outlet. I was the ketchup bottle on the Heinz commercial. Pick me up. Turn me upside down. Shake me up. Nothing was coming out.

Then, something happened. It was a Friday night. The air was calm, the trees were green and my husband and I were hungry. And, we went to a restaurant. A pizza joint. Our local neighborhood pizza joint. We ordered from them a few times during the pandemic. Various paper bags, pizza boxes and little plastic cups of cheese lined up across my kitchen counter, but this was the first time we had gone there to eat. To sit down. To smile at people. And, if I’m being honest, it was amazing. Wonderful. Glorious.

I really mean that.

And, it wasn’t just the food. I mean, don’t get me wrong, the food was great. Pizza hot and steaming with just the right amount of cheese to sauce. A crisp salad served in a funny little sideways bowl. But, it wasn’t the food that made me cry. That made my husband stop eating and ask me if I was ok. That, finally, after a horrible year of horrible horrors made me feel like there was something I wanted to say.

It was the normalcy. It was the people. It was the air. It was life.

And, most of all, it was being a part of it. All of it. I watched the old couple make their way through the tables and stop to talk to every little person they saw. You’re such a big boy! Is that your airplane? Are you helping your mom? I listened to the table of college girls behind us laugh and visit. Did you pass that class? I think he’s cute. I can’t believe she called him. It was the family with four kids and a dad trying to navigate a dinner out without mom. Put your phone away. Does mom let you order that? Get your feet out of that chair. And, most of all, it was our waiter. I’m so glad to see you folks. How was your week. I have two more shifts to work before a day off. You’ll like that. It’s one of my favorites.

My words probably aren’t doing the moment justice. The sheer glory of it. Being at a restaurant on a Friday night with the sun just going down and people enjoying themselves.

But, that’s still not what made me cry if i’m being really, really honest.

What made me cry was thankfulness. To God? Sure. To the people who solved the vaccine riddle? Yep. But, mostly, in that moment, I was thankful to whomever owns my pizza joint. Thankful for so many, many reasons. That my favorite pizza was still on the menu. That, somehow, they still had workers who were pleasant and happy to be at their job. That they had made it. No locked doors and boarded up windows. My little place on the corner was just as I had left it twelve months earlier. They had, against all odds, hung in there.

For me. For my husband. For the old couple and the college girls and the family. They had hung on through shut-downs and canceled orders and lack of sales. They had had difficult meetings on the shiny steel counters of their kitchen trying to figure out a way to weather the storm and pay their workers and just be there with an open sign on their door.

I know they had their own reasons for doing it. Mortgages and car payments and employees they love, but I think they mostly did it for us. Their customers. They know there is nothing better than a meal out. Nothing better than the familiarity of a well-loved menu you have ordered from on many Friday nights when the air is calm and your loved one is across the table from you.

These pizza joints and coffee houses and steak places are serving food. They have ice tea and cheesecake and complimentary chips and salsa. But, right now they have so much more than that. They have normal with a heaping side of comfort and, best of all, they have people. Other faces besides our own. Friendly folks that love the same place you do. Folks that also made it through the last year and are looking for a little taste of everything is going to be ok. Just like you are.

So, if you are lucky enough to have a pizza place open on your corner, gather up your family and go. Go and order an appetizer and a specialty drink and dessert for the whole table. Smile a lot. Say hello to everyone and tip like you just won the lottery. And, if you are like me, cry. It’s ok.

This is a big thing that is happening. We are coming out of the last year. Slowly, but surely. A little worn out and frazzled and unsure, but hopeful.

And, our favorite restaurants, are there to help smooth the transition. So, to my pizza joint– Locatellis on the corner of Louetta and Grant in Houston Texas. Thank you for your delicious green chile and pepperoni pizza. For your Popeye salad–heavy on the blue cheese dressing and cranberries. For the pleasant outdoor eating area you created in your parking lot. For your helpful servers that you kept working through everything. Thank you for hanging on through this terrible year. And, thank you for giving me a Friday night with calm air and nothing but normalcy. An evening so perfect, I wanted to write about it.