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Monday, Nov. 5, 2007 | When he’s at home in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s epicenter of business and commerce, Gustavo Biccolo fits right in. He works in finance for a bank, a gig he landed with his business administration degree from the Universidade de Sao Paulo.

In San Diego, Biccolo delivers pizza.

The 24-year-old arrived to take English classes at an academy downtown about six months ago. His boss gave him a year to learn English; it’s the key to climbing to a higher rank at the bank, he says. Biccolo plans to return in March or April, he says, and to study for an MBA.

He knew no English when he came. Five months later, he’s blown through four levels at the academy. When he’s not studying, he delivers pizza for two New York-style joints in town, loading pies and soda in his dingy white Mazda 626 just about every night of the week.

It’s a job that usually requires just a handful of skills to do well — pick up, drive, navigate, make change. But Biccolo’s unfamiliarity with English and San Diego’s backstreets puts him just a little ways up a steep learning curve. When he arrives late to a delivery, he has only a few words in his arsenal to explain why.

In San Diego, it’s also a job that might get you in trouble. The region’s seen a string of attacks on pizza deliverymen in the last two years: Chollas Creek, City Heights, Chula Vista, National City. Two men beat up a pizza deliveryman in El Cajon three weeks ago. Police said they took his car, a pizza and cash.

In this job, it’s easy to stay anonymous, reserved. For being the guy who bridges the gap between tired families and dinner, the thanks Biccolo gets is often a handful of coins hastily deposited in his palm as he’s leaving.

To the customers in those brief exchanges, he’s likely little more than the young brown-haired pizza guy, dressed in a t-shirt and wearing tennis shoes, speaking with an accent. Let alone a buttoned-up businessman from Brazil on a language-learning pilgrimage to the United States.

Biccolo is just passing through San Diego, bound for home in a few months. But while he’s here, working and meeting people and navigating these neighborhoods, his story yields a glimpse into the population of temporary San Diegans.

One of the joints where Biccolo works is A Brooklyn Pizzeria, a storefront in a strip mall in Grantville where photos of regulars hang on the green walls. On a recent evening around 5 p.m., while Biccolo is out on a delivery, manager Steve Rieber is working the counter. A black-haired Italian from Brooklyn, Rieber wears diamond stud earrings, a red apron and a white chef-style buttoned uniform.

“People come in here and they feel welcome,” he says. “You know, I had a lady call me and order and say, ‘I call Domino’s and they piss me off within the first 30 seconds, you know?’ I said, ‘Fuhgeddaboudit.’ I’m trying to make people smile. You know, ‘How you doin’?’”

The owner, Joseph Bariz, stops in. He also owns a few other pizza joints in town, he says. Where he grew up in Algeria, he says, his family bakes French bread and croissants in a cafe. This is his version of the family business.

“This is good crust,” he says, poking the side of a pie being slid into a box. “See that? It’s fluffy and crispy.”

It’s a geographic oddity, a New York-style pizza place in Southern California, owned by a North African. Throw in Rieber’s Brooklyn accent and Biccolo’s Brazilian one, and the place starts to look like homesickness medication in the shape of a pizza slice.

Soon, Biccolo returns from a delivery and picks up a pizza and a tattered copy of the 2005 Thomas Guide. In his car, the radio blares 90.3 FM, hip hop. Biccolo sings along, under his breath, to the jingle for Mossy Nissan. He introduces himself to his passenger visitor, immediately following his name with an apology for his English.

It’s just after 6 p.m.: rush hour in the College Area, a traffic snarl that is prone to devour not only entire afternoons of public outrage at a City Council meeting, but Biccolo’s tips, as he waits in a swarm of cars to unite a pie with the person who ordered it.

Biccolo winds his car through the hills of the neighborhoods surrounding San Diego State University. He stops at an intersection where each direction bears a bright yellow “no outlet” sign. He spins the wheel and heads back the other way. Getting lost is part of the job, he says, and it’s compounded by the fact that he’s not always able to understand directions even if he were to ask someone out raking leaves.

“OK, wrong way,” he mutters before spinning the wheel and heading back the other way, whistling through his teeth and scanning the addresses with his eyes. “You were asking me, are you ever lost? Yes, now I’m lost. I get lost sometimes.”

He’s looking for 4740, but the numbers stop and the streets change names and it doesn’t appear he’ll find it. Finally, he makes a last turn around the bend and sees a family out in front of the house — a mom and a dad and a little blond toddler. Another blond boy pokes his head out from a front window.

He hands over the pizzas, they pay and he gets back in the car to go pick up another order.

A portion of the time in this job, he helps wash dishes, cut cheese and make dough, he says. It comes as a surprise to him that there have been a string of attacks on pizza deliverymen around the county in the last few years.

“Yeah?” he says. “It’s never happened with me. I’ve never heard that.”

Biccolo gestures to the pizzas, to the dashboard of the car, to the road. This is his favorite part of his job: delivery. The chance to be outside of a store, the chance for time to pass quickly.

“I never in my life, in my country, think I do this,” he says, in his improving English. “But I need the money to pay my rent and for gas. I don’t like that, ‘Hey, hey, Dad, give me money.’ Because, I have 24 years.”

He’s the youngest of three brothers. One’s a dentist; the other’s an architect. His dad runs a large food-related business, he says. His parents didn’t think it necessary for him to come to the United States.

Still, he phones them every day.

“My mother, every day, she cries,” he says. “But I need to do English because of my future.”

The adjustment to life here has been about more than just a breadwinning paradigm shift. Biccolo lives with two older, cleanliness-inclined Brazilian students in Point Loma.

“I never in my life sweep my own house,” he says. “We have employees (in Brazil). I did not ever organize my bed — never in my life. Today, I clean the bathroom; my house is very clean.”

He’s been learning to cook for himself for lunch — beans, rice, vegetables. For dinner, he eats pizza or sandwiches at the restaurants. He says he misses feijoada — a stew of black beans, meats, rice, tomatoes and onions that his mom makes.

Biccolo stops back in at the pizzeria. Sitting down to two slices of pizza and a Coke, no ice, is a regular, Neal Ross.

“This is the best-tasting New York pizza in town,” Ross says. “I grew up in Brooklyn. It’s the sauce. It’s the consistency. It’s how they make it. I defy you to find anyone who grew up in New York who doesn’t feel at home here.”

Biccolo comes out from behind the counter with another order bound for the nearby Kaiser hospital in Grantville and loads it in his backseat.

“All the time, we have deliveries here,” he says, searching for a parking spot when he gets to the hospital. “This is problem for deliveries — where do you park your car?”

He parks in a handicapped spot and turns on his flashers. He walks in to the hospital and asks a nearby nurse how to get to the room number written on his order sheet. Exiting the elevator on the fourth floor, he pushes an automatic door button and enters the delivery ward. He knocks on the door a few times until a woman comes to pay for the pizza.

“Did you bring plates?” she asks. “We told the guy we didn’t have anything here. Did you bring plates or napkins or anything?”

“No, I —” Biccolo starts, interrupted by a nurse who says he can probably find some in the hospital. But then, as Biccolo walks toward the elevator, the nurse runs after him, saying the cafe is closed and they’ll need the plates after all.

“OK, I’ll come back in five minutes,” he says. He heads back to the pizzeria, still with another pizza waiting to be delivered in his backseat. Rieber, the manager, gives him two more orders. He fills up a bag with plates and forks to run back to the hospital.

The next orders take him to an apartment complex in Mission Valley, then to Linda Vista, then to City Heights. The trip for all three takes 45 minutes.

At the first complex, the order sheet shows an incomplete address, just a 52, when all of the address have four digits. He tries calling the phone number. No answer. Tries calling again. No answer. “What is ‘enjoy?’” he asks, hearing the word used on their answering message. “Like, appreciate?”

He gives up after a few minutes and is headed down the hill toward the freeway for the next two, when they call. U-turn. Back to the complex, then a scramble to the freeway for the next delivery.

From the next two houses, he returns to the car with handfuls of loose change — tips. The coins clank as he drops them in the console between the front seats. Not the best night for tips, he says. Along the way, he wipes sweat from his forehead with the arm of his short sleeved pink t-shirt and juggles the map book on his lap.

But even with the time crunch, the getting lost, the trips all over the city, this job is not as stressful as his job in Brazil, he says.

“Because here, you don’t use your head,” he says. “Here” — he rubs his shoulders — “here you are stressed in your body.”

Please contact Kelly Bennett directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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