I work in a bakery, did you know? Part of my “blue collar” thing. And not a great bakery, with fresh croissants steaming as they come out of the oven, fragrant and delicious and buttery, but a corporate-owned supermarket bakery. I often see it as more a factory outlet than a shop. Frozen bread arrives in boxes, we take it out and heat it in the oven, package and put it out. And our customers, knowing no different, knowing no better, buy it.
Falling far short of the skilled and perfectionistic pastry cheffing I trained for decades ago, this is more like shoveling. Like coal out of a bin, I scoop the almost tasteless, heavily-sugared doughy bits out of a frozen box and into the furnace of the buying public’s collective mouth. The faster I scoop the better, and never mind the technique. The corporate train runs on quantity, not quality, so damn the critics and full steam ahead.
But it’s a job, which I really need right now.
On the plus side, it puts me in touch with a river of people, our buying public, who never cease to be fascinating. In quiet moments, I like to ask people “What do you do out there in the world?” Just recently, for instance, I talked for several minutes with a guy who’s been a school psychologist at the kindergarten level for the past 30 years. We chatted about autism, lesser cognitive differences, and even the fact that he has kids come back to him years later to thank him.
But right now I’m thinking of one customer in particular.
There’s a broken lady who comes in about every two or three days. Middle aged and gray, she’s suffered … something. A stroke? Drug damage in her youth? I’ve heard both.
Like bicycle pedals with the gears disengaged, each time I see her I watch her brain crank through several revolutions before the gears catch and the wheels start to turn.
“I want … I want … I want … I’m wondering … I was wondering … Do you have those … I want … I’m looking for those … I was wondering if you have those … brownies. Bag brownies. Bites. Brownie Bites. Brownies that come in the. Brownie Bites in the bag.”
For my part, I’m always glad to be able to help, and I never mind taking ten minutes or more with her, even in the midst of my busy day.
And after I’ve helped her find whatever she’s looking for, or helped her solve whatever minor problem she’s dealing with, she thanks me. Sometimes a dozen times or more, in deep and moving authenticity. Considering what she faces in her everyday life, I read her as being grateful to be treated as just another person, by someone who neither avoids her nor gushes with that over-careful condescending solicitude that caretakers lavish on mental patients.
There’s a small part of me, a much younger part, that I can tell is secretly horrified by her. We all remember being kids and seeing, for the first time, someone different. They were scary. The guy in the wheelchair with no legs. The girl who had a seizure during math class. The woman with the scar across her face and the cloudy eye. The man with no teeth. At 5 years old, we couldn’t look away, couldn’t stop seeing them in our heads, even after they were gone.
But then again, at some point, you grow up and start to understand that we all face the same river of shit in the world, and it does nobody any good to look down on those who’ve been splashed with especially large chunks of it. I even joke gently with people on occasion, telling the amiable older guy with the artificial hand: “Looks like you’ve had at least one Big Adventure.”
That older, larger part of me – the one who is ME – is only troubled by this broken woman, and wishes good things to happen for her. I want something in the world to cuddle her like a puppy, to make her world less demanding.
Or maybe, come to think of it, what I REALLY want is for her to be healed. To be made bigger and better and stronger, so that whatever challenges the world dishes out, she can handle them on her own, just as everybody else does. I want her to experience the buying of brownies as a little everyday nothing, as the rest of us do, rather than as a marathon climb up a long and difficult hill.
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