Why A Pizza Mogul Left Pies At Memorials To 4 Homeless Men
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.