Today at work, the Senior Vice President of our company ordered pizza for the participants of a meeting, and I was lucky enough to be one of those participants.
I've begun to think that when you live in New York, it's somewhat of an obligation to talk about the best pizza you've ever eaten while eating pizza. Everyone talks of Grimaldi's in DUMBO, Brooklyn and then the various other pizza eateries throughout the city. And it never fails to raise a few eyebrows and conjure some doubtful glances when I say that the best pizza I've ever eaten was in Lawrence, Kansas.
Most people have no opinion of Kansas, which is both a good and bad thing. Outsiders see it as boring, a place where nothing happens. Some see it as the Bible Belt of America, while others think the entire population is made up of farmers. Considering that the state is smack dab in the middle of the United States, it's essentially a foreign territory, much like the rest of the Midwest to people not born and raised there, but I digress...
Lawrence, Kansas was my home for four of the greatest years of my life thus far. The University of Kansas is there, my leap from teenager to adult was made there, and more importantly, it's the city where I first started to figure out who I was, or at least who I wanted to be in the future. And in the middle of all of this was Rudy's Pizza.
Rudy's was this little hole in the wall eatery off of Mass. and 7th Street. You had to walk downstairs to get to the place, and it was very easy to walk by without noticing. However, it had a sort of local legend behind it, and on Wednesday nights the place was packed wall to wall with a line all the way to the front door. On Wednesdays, the management marked down the prices to $3 for a small pizza, $5 for medium pizza, and $7 for a large. It was a great deal, and have I mentioned how good that pizza is?
I'm a fan of simple pizza. By this I mean I like plain old cheese pizza. No frills. But Rudy's had the ability to make no frills pizza deliciously "frilly." They had almost anything you could imagine putting on pizza on the toppings menu, and the front counter staff was always pleasant when people requested weird orders. I believe it was mandatory to be an avid fan of marijuana in order to work in the kitchen at Rudy's. I think this stemmed from the fact that the owner was a devoted Grateful Dead fan, adoring the walls of the restaurant with his Grateful Dead ticket stubs and other memorabilia. There was a wall that ALWAYS had the fliers for the best shows coming to Lawrence (which arguably has one of the best music scenes in the United States), as well as various posters for debut albums, yoga classes, and art gallery openings. It was warm in the winter and cool in the summer, and quite honestly, you couldn't say anything bad about the place.
For me, Rudy's was a social outlet. I briefly dated one of the cooks there (Hi Aaron...hope you are still enjoying China). I had a Wednesday night dinner date there with my good friend Bryan Anderson (Hi Bryan, hope married life is treating you well), and every week or so, I would meet up with my long time friend Wood for an after-class late lunch. Diane and I would occasionally pick up some pizza for dinner, and if someone was visiting me from out of town, I made sure they always got to try Rudy's.
Rudy's was the site that Diane and reconciled after a two month long fight, and it was the site where we agreed that dancing on stage in animal costumes at a Flaming Lips show was actually a good idea. Rudy's was the place we went to cry over break ups, and it was the restaurant of choice to cure hang overs.
In that tiny restaurant, I moaned about relationships, about college life, not having any money, hoping to graduate in four years, why I liked summer school, how I missed Scotland and how I missed someone there, and what waited for me and all of my friends after May of 2004: The day we all knew meant we would no longer have our close knit friends, our romanticized downtown life that took place essentially between New Hampshire Street to Iowa Street, from 23rd Street to 6th Street. Rudy's was a safe haven, a place we were guaranteed good music, good times, and really fucking good pizza.
My last day in Lawrence was May 22, 2004. I had graduated the day before, and I was leaving for Edinburgh, Scotland with a one-way ticket at 4:12 p.m. My parents were still in town and were planning on driving me to the airport, and one of my best friends, Laurel, wanted to have one last lunch together. Obviously, I chose Rudy's. It had been the site of so many good times during my life in Lawrence that it only seemed fitting to wrap everything up there. But Rudy's was closed that day. I guess that "Closed for repairs" sign hung in their window was pretty prolific in regards to what was to become of the next almost two years of my life. My entire being was "closed for repairs" for the next two years. It was the time where I realized how hard it was to be that far away from home and growing up in ways I wasn't quite ready to. It was a time period where I learned how much I needed my friends and family, and a time where I realized just how much I love those two groups of people in my life. It was a time where I realized what I wanted and what I was capable of giving. And it was a time where I learned how it felt to have a broken heart. I had to repair the confidence I had lost, the space left in my heart, and it was the beginning of me having to find myself again.
I was back in Lawrence, Kansas for the first time this past June. It was just over two years since I had left, and I have to say I had mixed feelings about the visit. Most of my close friends had moved on, scattered across the country, keeping in touch at times, others disappearing for good. My usual haunts were still there and hadn't changed one bit. The Replay was still the Replay, just with a bigger beer garden. The Bourgeois Pig was still the Pig, and it's still my most favorite bar in Lawrence. But the highlight of my trip was my dinner at Rudy's. Four of my closest friends came out to see me, and it was as if we had never split up in the first place. We talked about what each of us was up to, how we were adjusting to working life, who was dating who, and other usual stuff. We continued the reunion down to the Pig where we sat out front all night, smoking cigarettes, drinking Boulevard Wheat, and talking about how each of us has changed in the past two years. Diane had moved to Kansas City and had a new job, Mike B. was getting ready to move to Minneapolis to pursue his dream of working in the recording industry, Jeff was in Kansas City trying to make a difference in the world, and Wood was a few weeks shy of moving to Brooklyn, New York. Out of all of us, I think I had the most hodge podge story: Moved to Scotland, had my whole plan fall apart in front of me, moved to New York, floundered for a year, and am now on track again, happy with where I am and with what I'm doing for the first time in almost two years.
So when people raise their eyebrows about the best pizza in the world being in Lawrence, Kansas, I just remember that I was one of the lucky ones that got to experience that life for four years in a hidden city in northeast Kansas, downstairs in a hole in the wall pizza joint.