The Fate of Broken People – Part 1

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.


  • Sarcen

    I found that profoundly moving. Looking forward to Part 2.

  • Scott

    Very moving and well written! You’ve eloquently put words to many feelings I have had about the brokenness I see in people all around me.

  • hertfordshirechris

    This touched me. But my own experience of mental health, personally, within the family, and helping others, is that for every one who one sees with “visible” physical or mental problems there are others who have been damaged by their life experiences who either put on a bold front to hide their unhappyness – or are never seen because they cannot bear to go outside and face the real world.

  • QuestionAuthority

    If nothing else, you have a large heart. That’s something increasingly rare in our world. I too look forward to part 2.

  • Robert

    I,m moved by your story,and that’s kind of sad,because it should be natural to treat all with dignity.

  • raymoscow

    You’re a kind man, Hank. We need more folks like you.

  • Yakamoz

    What you describe sounds vaguely like a Broca’s Aphasia, which would be consistent with a stroke. She uses the right words, but it takes a long time to get them out, and she understands what you say to her. Have you ever asked her to write down what she is trying to say? Sometimes aphasia will affect speech but not writing, and vice versa.

  • Andrew Hall

    I’ve been working with people who have brain injuries for 17 years. People that were “normal” up until their accident, and then they became afflicted like the woman you write about.

    Every day is a gift.

  • Brett McCoy

    Very touching thoughts. Something I can take with me while I sleep tonight.

  • maverick

    Beautiful, Hank.

    Working in retail does give you small glimpses into the lives of all sorts of people. And any thnking person does come to realise that we do all “face the same river of shit”.

    I’ve met people who have acquired brain injuries, migrated and worked their way out of abject poverty, recovered from terminal illnesses, and lost friends and family to the same. Everybody has a story, and no story is more worthy of telling than any other.

  • kdan59

    ” . . . 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.”

    Never heard it put quite that way. BCA, you sure have a way with words. Can I borrow that phrase and use if often?

  • Pingback: blue ofica()