"Oh, for goodness sakes. I'll take it."
The instant I saw the pizza waiting in the heating racks I knew exactly why everyone was dubiously ignoring it. Pizzas rarely lingered there - a full bag meant a run, and a run meant a tip, and each tip added up.
I'd just come in from a delivery so I should have been the last on the list of drivers, but nobody argued with me as I clocked the run out. I grabbed the red insulated bag from the wire heating racks and stomped out the front door, tossing the bag haphazardly on the passenger seat of my car before speeding out of the parking lot.
I was fuming. What a bunch of jerks. Nobody ever wanted to take the TIL runs - pizza deliveries to the Transition To Independent Living section of our local college. The TIL section was a branch of dorms filled with high-functioning mentally disabled students in the process of learning how to live independently - how to live alone in an apartment, maintain a job, cook, pay the bills.... and even how to order the occasional pizza.
The problem with runs to the TIL section of the college is they always took twice or even three times as long as a regular run. More often than not you had to help the student count out the correct change. They could underpay or overpay by obscene amounts, and after all the extra time and help you rarely got a tip. I mean, you couldn't very well pull your own tip out of the money you were counting back to them.
TIL runs weren't my favorite runs, but they definitely didn't deserve to just sit there with the cheese congealing. Jerks. My coworkers were disgusting jerks.
Three minutes later I pulled the little blue Honda civic into the parking lot, tires squealing a little from the sudden stop.
I balanced the bag on my forearm as I jogged to the correct apartment, ignoring the heat as it scalded my forearm - after nearly a year delivering pizzas I'd learned how to tune it out. I used my free hand to knock sharply on the door, and did my best not to tap my foot impatiently as I mentally calculated the minutes and potential tips as they steadily ticked away.
The door opened up, and my eyes widened.
"PIZZAAAAAAA!" came the raucous cry, rising above the deep beat of the party music. The tiny dorm-like apartments were designed for a single person, but this particular room had somewhere around 10 people crammed into it, leaving it looking less like a room and more like an oversized clown car. Everyone was wearing party hats - flamboyant cardboard affairs strapped onto their heads with thin, elastic strings, perched at crazy angles above round, flushed, smiling faces.
The young man at the front of the door had a particularly festive hat - a red and gold cardboard crown with glittering streamers and "IT'S MY BIRTHDAY!" written in a particularly obnoxious font. His face was red with excitement, and the sandy brown hair beneath the hat was sticking to his forehead, damp with sweat.
"Heeeeeeey!" He leaned forward, and before I could defend myself I found myself enveloped in a large, happy, slightly sweaty hug. Despite the heat radiating off of him, he smelled oddly nice - maybe Axe Body spray, or some other kind familiar cologne. "It's my BIRTHDAY!" His voice was a little too loud, speaking right by my ear, but the joy in it was infectious. "MY BIRTHDAY!"
"Okay, uh... okay." I hugged him back awkwardly with one arm, struggling not to drop the pizza. "Happy Birthday."
He pulled back and turned around to the others in the room, who had fallen silent during the interaction, waiting with a strange, solid patience. "It's my BIRTHDAY!" he said, throwing his hands up in the air.
The room erupted in raucous, wordless cheers - the kind of happy melee they always show on TV at a college frat party, but that never seems to exist in real life. When the noise level seemed about to die down, Birthday Boy threw his hands up in the air again. "And the PIZZA IS HERE!" He worked the room with all the skill of a political orator, and his friends responded happily, right on cue.
The cheers erupted again, and one girl in the back stood up and began dancing with abandon, overcome by either frenzied happiness or the deep bass of the song in the background. What she lacked in rhythm she made up for with enthusiasm.
I laughed. Who wouldn't, when confronted with such deep, unapologetic joy? "Well, happy birthday, dude, and here's your pizza!" Reaching into the bag I pulled out the two large pizzas with a flourish. "That'll be $23.97."
Birthday Boy, flushed and sweating, grabbed the boxes from my hands and placed them on the table, returning to press two twenties into my hand. I palmed the two bills in one hand as I reached into my pouch to pull out change, but Birthday Boy waved his hand magnanimously.
"No, no, you need change," I explained patiently, as I dug around in my fanny pack. "You gave me two twenty dollar bills - that's forty dollars. Your change is over sixteen dollars."
He shook his head obstinately, ignoring a bead of sweat that slid down the side of his face. "No change. It's your tip."
I ignored him as I recounted his change, making sure I'd pulled out the correct amount before I began the process of counting it back to him. "See, a tip is the right thing to do, but that's too much. When you order a pizza you should only give about two dollars for a ti--"
I broke off as his hand clamped over my own, thick fingers covering mine as he curled my fingers over the change. I met his eyes in surprise. He had nice eyes - hazel and warm. Kind. Happy.
"No. No change," he repeated. "It's your tip."
"It's too much. I can't take this much. It would be wrong. You're not supposed to tip this much. It's only supposed to---"
"NO." His voice was firm, and he shook his head. "You keep it. No change." He looked at me smugly, taking his hand from mine, and pointed slowly at the towering crown on his head with its ridiculous display of streamers. "It's my birthday. You have to do what I say."
He broke eye contact to turn back to the room, and raised his hands. "IT'S MY BIRTHDAY!!!" Obediently, the room broke out in cheers.
I surprised myself by laughing. It was hot, I was tired, I'd pulled a double shift with some of my least-favorite coworkers.... and yet standing there, in that doorway, I felt happier than I had in weeks.
"Are you sure? This really is too much. I'd really prefer it if you didn't give me..."
He turned back, and pointed wordlessly at his hat again, his other arm still forgotten in the air.
"Alright, alright, I give up. It's too much, but thank you for the ti--" The door shut in my face, our transaction apparently complete.
From behind the door came the muffled sounds of continued celebration. As I stood there in the fading evening light, with the limp pizza bag dangling from my hand, I couldn't help but wonder if maybe they had their life more figured out than I did.