I often joke with my peers that if my friendship with Kadir Catalbasoglu were a course at Yale, it would be called, “LIFE 101/PIZZA 900” and titled, “The intersection of wood fired pizza, small business ownership, community relations and Turkish studies.” It would be cross-listed in at least a half-dozen different departments, including Modern Middle East Studies, Economics, Psychology, Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations, Political Science and American Studies.
But truth be told, I’ve learned as much or more from Kadir, the founder and owner of New Haven’s Pizza at the Brick Oven on the corner of Howe and Elm streets, than I have from any class I’ve attended. Don’t get me wrong — I feel incredibly grateful to have learned from extraordinary teachers at Yale and throughout my upbringing. But, I’m not talking here about that type of learning. I’m referring to the education you receive outside of class. Learning about life. Learning about how to be a citizen, a father, a business owner and, most importantly, a friend. Above all, Kadir has taught me what it means to be, to use the Yiddish word, a “mensch,” a person of integrity.
The restaurant goes by a handful of names around the city, depending on the crowd. Those of us regulars who live in the neighborhood call it “PATBO,” or Pizza at the Brick Oven. To others, it’s “The Brick” or “Brick Oven.” Many just know it as the place with a massive pile of chunk wood sitting in its parking lot, ready to be loaded into the fire.
To me, this is the place where I’ve gotten to know one of my closest friends and teachers. I vividly remember the first time I met Kadir as a freshman. I’d been on campus for a few days, and some friends and I headed over to grab a late-night slice. I could feel Kadir’s warmth as he greeted me with his well-known opener, “How are you brother, what can I do for you? What’s your name?” I introduced myself, and without hesitation, Kadir told me that he remembered my older brother, a Yale alum. Kadir is the unofficial “Mayor of Howe Street.” He knows everyone.
That first time I went to Brick Oven was the only time I came just for pizza. Over the last three and a half years, I’ve been in at all hours, hungry or not. I’ve talked with Kadir about politics, business and religion. I’ve gotten to hear his remarkable story, which is an American Dream tale in motion: coming to the U.S. as a new immigrant, raising a family and trying to get a small business off the ground, all at the same time. I’ve introduced Kadir to my friends and family and gotten to know his as well. After moving to an apartment a block away before my junior year, I started coming into Brick Oven more and more. I help him behind the counter, take orders and make some pies, too. I’ve gotten to know Kadir’s employees, and they are now close friends as well. Carlos is the wizard of the brick oven who runs at least five miles every day before work, and effortlessly bakes dozens of pizzas at a time. Abdul, who helps deliver orders, arrived a little over a year ago from Afghanistan after escaping violent run-ins with the Taliban. Today, Abdul speaks perfect English and has mastered every task at the restaurant. He’s taught me some Farsi, too. As for Kadir’s family, I was in the restaurant celebrating with him just an hour after his son Hacibey was accepted to Yale last spring; I’ll never forget Kadir’s tears of joy.
It may sound crazy to some that my friendship with Kadir has been an absolute highlight of my time at Yale.
But, I’d like to let my experience serve as a challenge to all of us on campus. The opportunities within the walls of our colleges and academic buildings are abundant. I promise you though, that if you also seek out learning experiences that can only be found outside of the confines of the University, you’ll be amply rewarded. Get to know a local business owner. Volunteer at a community institution. Teach or mentor local high school students. Learn about this city and those who make it tick. I’ve found the reward to be great.
When I graduate, I’ll look through my Instagram profile and see endless pictures captioned #rafiandkadir. From the flour-dusted counter of Brick Oven where I recently made a veggie-soy-bacon-and-kale pizza for Kadir and staff, to the backyard of his home where we celebrated Hacibey’s Yale admission over a delicious Turkish breakfast, to celebrating my 22nd birthday with friends at the picnic tables in the Brick Oven parking lot, my memories are endless.
Thank you, Kadir, for the years of friendship, and the lessons you’ve taught me along the way.
Rafi Bildner is a senior in Davenport College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .