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I had just stepped out of the 17-degree cold of a mid-January night and into the warmth of my Columbia Heights apartment. While I defrosted, I strolled into the kitchen, opened the refrigerator door, and stared blankly at my dinner choices: three slices of stale bread, a half-eaten Snickers bar, and a couple of tablespoons of orange juice. I quickly devoured the Snickers and finished off the O.J. But that didn’t quite get it.

The empty refrigerator and arctic cold outside made my next step a foregone one: takeout. I quickly ruled out Chinese, chicken, burgers, and subs, and promptly rang up my friendly neighborhood Pizza Hut outlet.

“Hello. Thank you for calling Pizza Hut, located on Georgia Avenue. Will this be pickup or delivery?” asked the employee.

“Delivery,” I responded enthusiastically.

Then came the standard pizza-delivery protocol: name, phone number, address, cross street, and so on. Then she kindly told me that they did not deliver to my street.

I wondered why the outlet, which is just 10 blocks away, refused to deliver to my address. But the woman proposed an alternative, advising me to call the recently opened Pizza Hut on U Street. I took her advice.

“Hello. Thank you for calling Pizza Hut Lincoln Center. Will this be for pickup or delivery?”

We then went through the delivery rigmarole, which ended this time with her pledge to deliver the goods within 30 minutes.

Great! I would have something in my stomach. So I went into my room, kicked off my shoes, and stared at the clock. When the phone rang I was startled—mainly because I was hypnotized by the tick-tock of the clock.

“Hello, Ms. Babalola?” asked the voice.

“Yes, this is she,” I responded.

“This is Pizza Hut. I’m sorry, but we don’t deliver to your street.”

“Excuse me?” I retorted with an edge hardened by hunger.

“We do not go to your address,” she explained.

“But you’re only five minutes away,” I pleaded. “Couldn’t you make an exception this one time, please.”

She got rid of me by directing me to the Pizza Hut in Adams Morgan, which told me to bug off—in a nice way, of course. “We do not go past 16th Street,” said the person taking orders—but not from me—at the Adams Morgan Pizza Hut.

I felt as if I lived in the hole in the middle of the doughnut. Although the three Pizza Hut outlets were all within striking distance of my 13th Street apartment, together they had managed to carve me out of their delivery zones.

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Lisa Cummings, manager of the U Street store, told me that the company had designated a few blocks in my neighborhood—specifically, 13th and Harvard, 13th and Fairmont, and 13th and Columbia—as “restricted areas.”

“Restricted…” I said, repeating this term of art.

“Yes, restricted,” she replied. “While delivering in your area, a driver was hurt.”

I guess I never quite thought of my neighborhood as a “restricted” sort of place. I walk these streets every day, and not once have I been robbed or even harassed. Plus, in the eight-block stretch of 13th Street around my apartment, robberies and assaults dropped from 36 reported incidents in 1995 to 24 in 1996.

Tony Emeagwali, manager of the Georgia Avenue outlet, spouted the company line on cutting off neighborhoods. “That area is restricted to us because we don’t pass 13th and Irving. We don’t make the rules. The home office sets up the delivery zones. We don’t have anything to do with that.”

Dallas-based Pizza Hut spokesman Rob Doughty explains how the company decides to exclude people like me from its delivery routes. “Well, we look at two things when we decide to make a delivery. The first is we see if the home is eight minutes from the delivering store. The second is we look at the crime rate within that area. If the crime rate is above the national rate, then we do not deliver there.”

That criterion would seem to rule out delivering just about anywhere in the District. But Pizza Hut knows crime risk and delivery as well as mozzarella and pepperoni. “A company out of Pennsylvania produces the statistical information that we use in order to determine whether the crime rate is high in certain areas,” says Doughty. “We have never been sued over this situation. We have had a few complaints. It is our legal right for us not to deliver in a certain area if we think that the area is dangerous to our drivers.”

Last week, a Pizza Hut manager in Kansas City made national headlines by refusing to deliver 40 pizzas to a local school for a special luncheon. Kansas City school board officials were unswayed by Pizza Hut’s claims that assaults in the school’s neighborhood were several times higher than the national average and canceled a $170,000 contract with the company.

The loss of business hasn’t changed any minds down at corporate headquarters: “Within the past two months, three Pizza Hut drivers have been murdered in three different cities. So I think that it is our moral and legal obligation to protect our employees,” explained Doughty.

The only recourse for excluded folks like myself, Doughty suggested, is a 15-percent discount on pizzas bought at the stores. But that means I’ll have to go out into the cold and walk 15 or 20 blocks just to return home with a cold pizza. Plus, I’ll become an instant crime target—after all, I will be carrying my pizza back through a “restricted” neighborhood.

—Esther Babalola