An Original

A light has been extinguished.

Pizza John DiVitaOur best friend…everyone’s best friend, Pizza John Divita lost his short battle with lung cancer last night and the entire community is is mourning today. John was an “original” who brought life to the community and built friendships with people from all over the world who visited his restaurant just once but never forgot it.

John was a night person who kept in touch with his friends via his “Jungle Radio” program on Facebook where he introduced and played whatever music caught his fancy on any given night. A visit to Jardin Escondido, John’s pizza place in the jungle involved reading the thousands of visitor greetings scrawled on every inch of walls and ceilings of the two story building-except, oddly, the bathroom where the walls are pristine.

John, a California surfer dude and the son of Italian immigrants who operated a pizza business, had a brief career as a member of The Degenerates, a southern California punk band in the late 70’s. After his music career derailed he went to work for Best Buy, married and settled into a typical middle-class lifestyle. In the early 2000’s when his marriage collapsed, John cashed in and began a period of world travel which eventually led him to Costa Rica. As he tells the story, he took a wrong turn, ended up in El Castillo where he met a girl and decided to stay for awhile. That girl is long gone, but John remained.

When John realized that he would need a means of earning a living, he returned to his roots and opened Jardin Escondido, a bare-bones pizza parlor perched on the edge of the Arenal National Forest. Open-air, concrete and tin, the restaurant quickly attracted attention from Lonely Planet who habitually named it one of their favorites in the area and from Trip Advisor who put it top ten in Costa Rica. John would be the first to tell you that the business never really thrived financially, but it earned enough to keep him around and gave him the arena to do what he did best-hold court, entertain and make people feel at home.

John was a dreamer, an optimist and an insatiable story-teller. Together, and in groups, we hatched big plans over late night rum-a few that came to fruition, but many more that were just fun to contemplate. Somehow life seemed bigger around John, despite his small footprint on the planet. Somehow, John made us feel connected to the larger world through his small community. Any visit always began with a story about someone new he’d met from somewhere exotic, or not exotic, this morning, last week or last month. Without having to leave his tiny jungle home, John spanned the globe with his connections and pulled it closer together. John’s six degrees of separation were probably only three or four as he hosted friends of friends of friends who braved the road in on the recommendation of someone, somewhere.

On my last visit, after the cancer had forced John into the hospital from which he would never return, I encountered three young men from Switzerland who had come in search of Jardin Escondido and found it closed. In an unintentional homage to John, I invited them up to our place where we spent the afternoon in conversation and laughter over wine, swapping stories until they had to leave. Only now do I realize how much I will miss John’s ability to put together those impromptu events from a disparate collection of visitors I might have never met.

In recent months, John met Myra, the love of his life and they married in February at a ceremony that captured everything original about John. A hodge-podge event, a mixture of careful planning and total chaos that started hours late, the wedding of John and Myra took place in the living room of Gordon and Nancy, led by Graven, with Bill by his side, food by everyone including the pig that had been given as a gift and slaughtered for the occasion, served by Jonathon and the other young people, flowers by Glenn. Never before have I attended an event that carried more hope for the future-this coming together of two people from disparate cultures, conducted in two languages on a hillside overlooking the lake, surrounded by friends both old and new.

And now, just a few months later, John is gone. I never much liked rum, but whenever I return to Costa Rica, I will hoist one for John and remember his unique toast whose origins are now lost in the legend that was Pizza John’s Jardin Escondido- Pinkies Up, Pirates!