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Delivery guy sweats rising gas prices, fickle tippers

by Jordan Green

Delivery drivers function as the canary in the coal mine in this auto-dominated sprawl, testing the unsteady pulse of consumer confidence and bearing up under the fluctuations of gas prices that appear to be trending upwards over the long term.

Justin Holt has been delivering pizzas for a corporate-owned restaurant in Greensboro for eight years, the better part of his twenties. When he started the job, he paid a dollar twenty-five a gallon. Now premium unleaded, the grade he uses to coax his late-model Ford Windstar minivan down the road, is hovering right above three dollars.

The restaurant covers the price of gas by compensating drivers with a dollar for every delivery, he says, sliding behind the wheel and glancing in the rearview mirror after chucking an insulated stack of pizzas into the vehicle’s cargo hatch. What many customers don’t understand, he contends, is that tips make the difference between scraping by and making a good living.

Lying in the console is a money clip with a wad of small bills next to a Styrofoam cup imprinted by ballpoint pen with the driver’s initials. A plastic bottle of Coca-Cola is also within reach. A plastic sleeve attached to the sun visor is stuffed full of music CDs.

Holt wears a tan cap and green shirt, each bearing his restaurant’s logo. He glances each way down the busy street through thick-framed glasses as he jockeys for an opportunity to join the stream of traffic. He wears his hair short, almost bald, and sports a Harley-Davidson eagle belt buckle that declares: ‘“Live to ride; ride to live.’”

He doesn’t wear it to celebrate motorcycles or his day job. He rides BMX bikes and supports the scene by organizing contests and maintaining a website devoted to the sport, but that’s another story.

‘“We’re headed for a rough part of town,’” Holt says.

We progress down Spring Garden Street, turn past the old Merritt Mill, and make a right on Hewitt Street. We turn into the Misty Creek apartment complex and Holt jumps out. He hands two pizzas to an African-American customer, who rewards him with a dollar tip for an $18 order.

The median-income customers tip the best, Holt says, with people at the high and low ends of the economic spectrum keeping a tight hold on their cash.

‘“You get the upper echelon people: no matter how big the order is or how early, they’ll just tip a dollar or a dollar-fifty,’” he says. Later, as if the thought has been nagging him, he adds: ‘“There are some businesses that don’t tip. I shouldn’t mention any names.’” Then he raises a hand to side of his mouth and discloses in a stage whisper: ‘“The Chamber of Commerce. If anybody should tip it should be them.’”

The median tipping amount is about 8 percent of every purchase. That helps account for the difference in Holt’s declared annual income of $22,000, and his real income, which he says is upwards of $30,000.

‘“I have seen an increase in tips, but just barely to keep up with inflation and the cost of living,’” Holt says. ‘“September eleventh ‘— I can honestly say there was a drop from that day on. I don’t know if that’s because people aren’t comfortable spending money, or they just use that as an excuse.’”

This is a three-delivery run, not bad for a Tuesday afternoon. Business has been significantly slower this week than the previous one at the beginning of the month, when final exams at UNCG and the carnival at the coliseum complex caused orders to spike.

Holt navigates the van down Holden Road and we veer into a neighborhood tucked into an obscure section of the city bounded by Florida Street, High Point Road and Interstate 40. As we creep up Clegg Street, Holt scans the house numbers. It turns out to be the one with the POW/MIA flag. He meets a blond-haired woman wearing a black knit jacket at the door, and returns with a smile on his face. The woman has given him a $4 tip for a $15 order.

‘“This is a good working-class neighborhood,’” he says. ‘“People are either at home for lunch, or they worked the overnight shift.’”

Holt possesses a sensitivity shared by many in the service industry.

‘“I tip well, very well,’” he says. ‘“I look at it like karma. It’s a brotherhood.’”

The restaurant’s territory runs from the intersection of Friendly Avenue and Muirs Chapel Road, almost to Guilford College, down to the crossroads of Holden and Meadowview, over to downtown and up into the tony precinct of Fisher Park, encompassing the campuses of UNCG and Greensboro College. Another restaurant in the same chain handles most of the business on Battleground Avenue and northward.

The third delivery takes us up to Cornell Avenue, in a modest neighborhood tucked away between the Pomona Park Industrial Center and West Market Street. The next handful of orders will come from UNCG, where students are moving out of their dorms today.

The first student order comes from Cone Hall, which Holt labels ‘“notorious for not tipping.’”

Although it’s not marked off on the 8 by 11 inch street map he carries with him, Holt says the restaurant doesn’t take orders from the area east of Randleman Road and south of Lee Street.

‘“The shade factor is real high,’” he says. ‘“We don’t make deliveries out there.’”

Robberies are a hazard of the job.

A delivery driver was robbed south of the coliseum early one Thursday morning in March as he attempted to deliver a pizza at a residence on Maywood Street, according to a police report. Two armed men, who reportedly wore ski masks or toboggans, took the driver’s cash, and a third unarmed man took the pizza. It’s an area that Holt is certainly familiar with.

The restaurant where Holt works forbids employees from carrying weapons, the rationale being that it would scare off customers.’“If you get caught with a weapon you’re fired,’” he says. ‘“Even postal workers are allowed to carry mace in case they get attacked by a dog. We deal with exactly the same thing. If I see a dog in the yard I’m going to call in and say, ‘You’re going to have to walk out to meet me.””

So far Holt has been lucky.

‘“I’ve had two accidents, neither of which were my fault,’” he says. ‘“I’ve never had any crime. Oh wait: I did have a car-topper.’”

Someone stole the plastic sign advertising his restaurant when he left it on top of his van overnight.

The accidents were minor scrapes. Once he got rear-ended on Lee Street partly because he braked too fast. Another time, a woman drove her car into his driver-side door when he opened it in front of the restaurant. He had to watch the other drivers handle a lucrative rush while he waited for the police.

Holt got into delivering pizza the same way he imagines he might get out: through his passion for BMX cycling.

‘“Ironically, it seems like BMXers end up in delivery all the time,’” he says. ‘“I guess it’s a flexible job. I know one BMXer, it’s his career.’”

He refers to Jason Morton, the rider from King, NC.

‘“I was like, ‘He’s always got weekends off. He’s always got a little money in his pocket. I should do that too.””

But the rising cost of gas gives him pause.

‘“Last year when it went up to three-fifty I started to worry; I started wondering about my career,’” Holt says. ‘“I still wonder. I’m always keeping my eye out for something more steady.’”

He maintains a website for North Carolina BMX riders that displays his talent for computer graphic design. He’s thinking about going back to UNCG to study that.

‘“I went to UNCG for a computer science degree, but I got burnt out on that,’” he says. ‘“Being from a small town, I came to the big city ‘— college was not my first priority. Experiencing life ‘— the good and the bad ‘— was.’”

He’s hosting a BMX contest the following weekend in Brevard, an evening affair called ‘“After Dark.’”

‘“I’m not the greatest rider,’” he says. ‘“I’ve been fortunate to meet some great people through the BMX scene. I put together the website, carolinabmx.com, and I do a magazine. I’ve built a possible career in graphic design. I’ve made great friends and I haven’t had to pay for bike parts in years.’”

Holt carries himself with a sense of purpose and the slightest bit of restlessness. He plans to marry his partner this summer. His parents are getting older. He talks about doing something more serious than delivering pizzas and supporting the BMX scene.

Holt’s parents live in Albemarle down near Charlotte, where he grew up. His brother manages a restaurant for the same chain in Raleigh. He wishes they were closer to home because his parents and his paternal grandfather have been in poor health lately.

‘“I hate that I live so far away,’” Holt says. ‘“You know that time is coming when you got to take care of your parents. I just didn’t know it would be so soon.’”

The cell phone rings around 2 p.m. just before the Cornell Avenue delivery. It’s his father.

‘“I’m going to be getting off early to help you,’” Holt tells him. ‘“I heard you might need a little weight off your back. I’ve been working real hard. They’ve got somebody to cover for me if you need me tomorrow.’”

Then he tells his father goodbye as he pulls the van to the curb and hops out with the last pizza.

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com

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