Candles, flowers and handwritten tributes flow onto the sidewalk like surf filling a void in the sand, replacing the body just taken away. Memorials in Chinatown this week marked the spots where four homeless men were killed on Saturday, their heads smashed while they slept by an attacker wielding a metal bar.
But something else was left at the sites. Fresh boxes of hot pizza were stacked at each memorial. And with them, a note. “I wish with all my heart,” it read, “that I could have been there at that very moment to protect all of you guys.”
The author added, “You know me as the pizza guy.” Then he revealed something from his own past:
“As a former homeless man, I know the struggle
that all of you guys went through every day.”
The pizzas and notes came from Hakki Akdeniz, a 39-year-old immigrant who has built a small chain of pizza shops in the city and, with it, something of an unofficial, but solid, support network for the homeless in Manhattan. His visits to the memorials this week, each time lugging a stack of pizzas that reached his chin, follow a remarkable journey even in a city built on rags-to-riches tales.
Mr. Akdeniz is Kurdish, was raised in Turkey and emigrated to Canada as a young man. Back in Turkey, he had worked in cafes making lahmacun, flattened dough topped with spiced meat, and he aspired to make its Western cousin, pizza, in the United States.
He arrived by bus in New York in 2001 with $240 in his pocket and a promise of a bed at a friend’s apartment. When the friend changed his mind, Mr. Akdeniz moved into a dingy motel on 42nd Street and watched his meagre savings dribble away at $30 a night.
Broke, he spent a few nights huddled with his bags in Grand Central Terminal. Someone pointed him to the Bowery Mission, one of the city’s most well-known homeless shelters, in the heart of the city’s skid row.
“I stayed there for 96 nights,” Mr. Akdeniz said. He busied himself in the kitchen, chopping onions and washing dishes, and he looked for work making pizza. His English was poor. He noticed a woman at the mission reading a Turkish language newspaper, and she helped him find a listing for a job at a Mediterranean pizza shop in Hoboken, N.J., near the PATH station.
He showed up in New Jersey in unwashed clothes. The owner was skeptical. “He thought I was so dirty, unclean,” recalled Mr. Akdeniz. Desperate, he asked, “Can I make a pizza?”
“I was shaking, so nervous,” he said. “It came out no good. I said, ‘Can I make another one?’”
After a few failed attempts, the owner hired him — to wash dishes. That night Mr. Akdeniz slept on a bench across from the restaurant, returning early the next day. The next night, he slept in the basement of the pizza shop’s building.
Later that week, the cook gave him a tip. There was a building in Sunnyside, Queens, where the super had an assistant who did odd jobs and lived rent-free in the basement. The assistant was looking for an assistant — same perks. “The boiler room, you can sleep in the corner,” Mr. Akdeniz was told.
A year later, he had saved enough to move into an apartment with a roommate. He got a new job in early 2003 washing dishes at a restaurant on Ninth Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen. On St. Patrick’s Day, the regular pizza maker didn’t show up to work, and Mr. Akdeniz was promoted on the spot.
He spent five years there, improving his skills. In 2009, he found a tiny pizza shop in the Lower East Side that was for sale. He had saved up $40,000 by then, and the shop — just an oven with a counter in front of it — cost twice that, but the owner agreed to sell, setting up monthly payments.
Mr. Akdeniz immediately fell behind in his first month, then his second and third. The man he owed told him, “Pay me, or I’ll put you in the oven.” Little did the man know that, to save money, Mr. Akdeniz was already sleeping under that oven, locked inside the shop every night until another worker opened a padlocked gate the next day.
Then, a breakthrough. Mr. Akdeniz entered a pizza-making contest in 2010 at the Javits Center. To stand out, he threw and spun his pizza dough after setting it on fire. He won first place.
“It became just busy — busy, busy, busy,” he said.
He paid off the shop. He heard of another one for sale nearby, on Rivington Street, and he made an offer that was accepted. Now with two places, he figured he needed a brand name, and he thought of the nickname the teenagers had given him. He named his two shops Champion Pizza.
He bought a third place, then a fourth. He improved his ingredients, making his dough extra light and importing organic sauce from Naples. He bought a fifth place, then a sixth, stretching out to Soho, Union Square and Columbus Circle. His seventh, which opened last year, is near the building in Queens and his old corner in the basement.
Along the way, he became something of a pizza celebrity, known for his flashy acrobatics in tossing and twirling dough, flaming or otherwise, and for building giant pizzas. He has won international pizza making competitions, and his Instagram account has 3.5 million followers.
While building this small pizza empire, Mr. Akdeniz never forgot his time among the homeless. He passed out free slices to street people who came around asking. Eventually he started a weekly food and clothing handout on a stretch of sidewalk on West 34th Street.
His outreach extended beyond pizza. He found a nearby barbershop that agreed to cut homeless men’s hair, and a gymnasium that was willing to let them use its showers. He paid both for their services. He also regularly distributed pizzas to the homeless in Chinatown and the Lower East Side, becoming known among them as the “pizza guy.”
Last weekend, he was having a meal with friends when he learned that four men had been bludgeoned to death in Chinatown and that the police believed the killer was another homeless man. Deeply shaken, he had to excuse himself.
“How could you?” he asked in the interview. He pointed to a man sleeping on the sidewalk nearby. “That guy over there, how could you kill him?”
On Wednesday, Mr. Akdeniz and one of his employees carried 16 small boxes of pizza to a waiting Uber, and placed them in the trunk, before making the short journey to 2 Bowery, where one of the victims, Chuen Kwoc, 83, was killed.
He placed several boxes on the ground next to a row of candles, removing the empty ones from his previous visits. A passing man pushing a shopping cart stopped, and Mr. Akdeniz handed him a pizza box.
In large letters, its cover read “Champion Pizza,” and below, in smaller print, “Made in New York With Love.”
I Know The Struggle
By Michael Wilson, the New York Times
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