The bright pink Formica walls of Cosmo’s must be cloaked with some sort of dark magic that transports people back to the 1980s, if you believe Eric Turner.
For 28 years Cosmo’s Pizza in Five Points South – where Turner used to work — has been a neon fixture in the neighborhood known to locals as the “psychedelic Mayberry.”
The longtime owner, Leisa Bunn, likes that expression. She knows just about everybody who walks through the doors. Bunn believes the restaurant’s homely weirdness—from the mismatched furniture to the novelty leg lamp at the bar — is a direct reflection of her soul.
However, over the last few months, Bunn said she has noticed a drop off in business. “People think we’re closed. I’ve had several people call me and tell me they’re sorry the place closed. It’s just bizarre. I don’t understand where this is coming from,” Bunn said, clearly frustrated.
In the 15 years that Bunn has been a co-owner of Cosmo’s, the business has gone through its fair share of turmoil, she said. But through the chaos and clamor, there is Bunn. Patrons expect her to be there when they walk in. She frequently refers to the place as her home.
Her wavy silver hair fell over her face momentarily as she took a seat under the covered patio overlooking the First Methodist Church in Five Points South. “It’s been a wild ride, let me tell you,” Bunn said of her time in the restaurant business. She paused for a moment, “But I wouldn’t know what else to do if not for this place.”
Bunn, like the restaurant she owns, is a bit of an enigma. Her bright eyes, at first glance, give the impression that nothing bad has ever happened in her life. She smiled graciously as a man walked by and complimented the flowers on the patio.
Although she will tell you she loves everyone, she’ll also admit that if you cross her, she’ll become “mean as a rattlesnake” – which is what her friends and associates actually call her when she’s upset. But, at the end of the day, her lighthearted self usually prevails, Bunn said.
Bunn has been working at Cosmo’s Pizza in one capacity or another since 1987. She fell into the job by accident. “I was working at PT’s at the time,” she said, referring to another Birmingham bar and restaurant. “One of my friends was working here and she asked if I could cover her shift one night,” Bunn said. “I still haven’t left.”
Bunn said that in her youth, she was known as a partier. “That’s what drew me here honestly. I remember my first night here, the Rolling Stones were playing on the radio when I walked to a table to see if they were ready to order. They said they wanted the ‘Rock-N-Roll.’ At the time I didn’t know that was the name of a pizza on the menu. I just said ‘Right on!’ and went on my way.”
Bunn recalled one incident that happened in the early 1990’s when DEA agents showed up at the door looking for the previous owner who was wanted on drug trafficking charges.
“These guys showed up looking for Stanley, the original owner. I didn’t know who they were and since we weren’t open, I made a gesture to my watch telling them we weren’t open yet,” Bunn said. “That’s when they opened their jackets and showed the DEA vests. I about had a heart attack.”
As it turned out, Bunn said the previous owner had fled the country for fear he was going to be arrested on drug trafficking charges. Afterwards, the restaurant changed hands to another owner, Billy Caldwell, before he signed the place over to Bunn.
Since then, she has become as much a part of the place as the neon lights that follow the curves of the interior walls. Beyond the restaurant, she has also become somewhat of a den mother for those who may find themselves down on their luck in Five Points. She will give almost anyone a job.
Given that, it’s not surprising that through the years, Bunn has made lots friends. “I’ve also made a few enemies along the way, but who hasn’t?” she said.
Consider Tommy Lovoy, known to many in Southside as the “Mayor of Five-Points.” Tommy can sometimes be found on the covered breezeway in Pickwick Plaza greeting people as they walk by.
“I love that fella,” Bunn said. “He’s our most loyal customer. Even though he never really buys anything,” she said.
Tommy suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and has been the subject of a documentary, “Some of what I know about Tommy,” written and directed by Birmingham-based filmmaker Chris Hilleke.
As far back as Bunn can remember, Tommy has been a part of her life, for better or for worse. And he’s not the only one.
“For a while I used take leftover pizzas to the people hanging around the fountain and what not,” Bunn said. “I just love the weirdoes I guess… But people started to catch on and started coming into the restaurant and asking people dining here if they were going to finish their food. So I had to stop doing that,” Bunn said. “I just want to help everyone I can.”
Bunn has seen “too many peaks and valleys to count,” she said. Besides the constant stress and financial struggles that come with owning a restaurant, Bunn recalled one of the darker hours of her life. It occurred in 2009, when one of her “babies” – what the otherwise childless Bunn calls her dogs – lost his leg.
Bunn refers to the incident as “the gun fight.”
On May 31, 2009, Bunn’s longtime boyfriend, Russell “Rusty” Crawford was taking their three dogs outside their patio apartment in Southside.
Crawford, as he usually did, let the dogs off the leash to relieve themselves up a steep, overgrown embankment. “That’s where they had always gone and no one had ever had a problem with it. It’s in a spot where people don’t ever walk,” she said.
At the time, two Birmingham police officers were responding to a call about a pack of wild dogs in the area. “[The officers] just ran up on Rusty kind of aggressively. The dogs started to bark. And that’s when one of the officers opened fired on her.”
Bunn who was in the apartment at the time, ran outside barefoot to see what happened. “That’s when I lost it. I kept screaming ‘You shot my [expletive] dog!’”
Bunn and Crawford were subsequently arrested in the aftermath of the shooting and charged with disorderly conduct. Bessie, the dog, was taken to a nearby animal hospital where her leg was amputated. Bessie is still alive and, all things considered, well. Eventually the charges were dismissed. The officers involved were not reprimanded.
Through it all, Bunn, like the restaurant she calls home, has remained unapologetically authentic over the years.
It was Cosmo’s party atmosphere of the 1980’s that drew her to the place but now at 56 years old, Bunn said the party is over. “I just wish I had more advice to give young business owners. Sometimes I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing myself. I guess what I can say is you have to put your love into it, whatever you are doing,” Bunn said. “Hell, I’ve quit at least 35 times. But something keeps bringing me back here. I just don’t know what it is…love I guess.”
She said it’s been a struggle. Bunn is tired. But it’s the inexplicable love she has for the pink-walled pizza joint that keeps her coming back, day after day, she said.
When she can, Bunn retreats to her family farm in McCalla. “That’s the one place I know that when I turn onto that gravel road, all my worries and anxiety just get washed away,” Bunn said.
On this particular afternoon, Bunn said the business has her feeling overwhelmed. And in need of peace and quiet. When she’s in McCalla, she picks fresh basil and zucchini for the restaurant. “I think I’ll go to there after this…But you know I’ll be right back here in the morning.”