His hands were large. My resume lay flat on his desk. He had cleared a space amidst the clutter, and he ran one of those big, sensitive, but also violent looking hands over it again and again while he studied it, as though his hand was a scanner and would impart some key bit of information that reading never could. I later discovered that this was in fact what he was doing—he couldn’t read very well, and seemed to place as much importance in a document’s texture as in its contents.
The boss—sitting behind an impossibly cluttered desk, in an impossibly cluttered room, with the sound of the bagel factory in full swing upstairs, churning away with the noise of a ship’s engine—looked down at the resume and chewed thoughtfully on his lower lip. Then he abruptly looked up with the penetrating, profound, and fired up expression of a prosecutor who is about to ask the question on which the whole case would turn. He said: “If someone buys three dozen bagels, and they get a free bagel for every dozen, how many would you give them?”
I thought I heard everyone else in the room collectively catch their breath. There were five of them, all women. They had given me a cursory once over when I walked in, but now I could feel their eyes upon me. Given that I saw the ad in the New York Times, it occurred to me that I was part of a long parade of applicants that had come through the office that day. I wondered whether it had been on this question that they had stumbled, one after another. The tiny office’s floor was covered in black and white tile.
I stared down at the tiles for a moment—they were classy in a way, the sort of thing one might find in the foyer of a nice apartment, but they were also suggestive of Alice and Wonderland, of a dream world, a parallel universe, where everything seems normal, but is not.
I did the math.
“Thirty-nine,” I said.
Mr. H. didn’t even blink. He went back to studying my resume, running that large hand over it again and again.
I like bagels, but I have never felt in their thrall. I never craved them, never viewed them as something special, out of the ordinary, or exotic. They were a fact of life, personified, when I was growing up, by the local store that baked and sold them, H&H bagels, on 80th Street and Broadway, which was open twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. Besides selling bagels, the store performed a kind of community service by perfuming the air in its vicinity with the smell of baking bread, which gave the chaotic stretch of Broadway north of 79th Street a neighborly, friendly feel. There is something about the smell of baking bread, in its diffuse form, that civilizes people.
Once, during one autumn college break, I was walking along Broadway late at night on the way home from a party, when an unexpected early snow began to fall. It was exhilarating and beautiful, and I rhapsodized about the beauty of the city and of the snow, paid careful attention to the little clumping sounds of my feet on the whitening sidewalk, and scarcely noticed that I was cold.
Then, after a few blocks, I noticed. I progressed very quickly through the various stages of cold until I felt on the verge of freezing to death. I walked faster. I had no money in my pocket for a cab, just a couple of quarters, and with each block the distance home seemed to increase.
And then, amidst dark and shuttered Broadway, there appeared an oasis of light and warmth—H&H bagels.
A lone cashier stood behind her register, white paper cap atop her head.
“What’s hot?” I said.
Behind the cashier was the oven, and just then one of the bakers in his white uniform slid a wood platter into the maw of the oven, and removed a squadron of steaming plain bagels, which he dumped into a wire bin. My two cold coins were enough for a hot bit of sustenance. The bagel burned my numb fingers. I walked the rest of the way home with the warm dough permeating my senses.
It was this kind of memory—vague, nostalgic, innocent—that had sprung to mind that day in early September of 1992, when, amidst a bleak session of scanning the New York Times’ help wanted ads, I came across an ad placed by a bakery that identified itself as being located on “The Upper West Side.”
I looked up and thought, what other bakery is located on the Upper West Side? And then I ran to a fax machine with my resume.
At that time I was a fledgling writer with a graduate degree, a couple of publications and a couple of bum jobs under my belt—bike messenger, gallery assistant, office temp. I took these jobs to make money, but there was also an aspect of penance to them. I don’t know exactly for what sin I was repenting. Maybe the sin of having gone to graduate school for writing. On some level, I saw these jobs as a kind of Karma insurance. It was a way of testing myself: You want to be a writer? Can you handle this? How about this?
I wasn’t so noble and pure minded about literature that it was my only interest. I also played drums in a rock band, and I took these temporary jobs because it seemed that, on any given week, everything could change, we could sign a deal, record, go on tour. I wanted to pay the bills, take things a week at a time, and be ready for the big break. I was still high from a two month road trip/tour the band had taken two years earlier. When that was over I only wanted to do it again. At the time it seemed inevitable, but two years later it was fading in the gauzy haze of fantasy, and I was descending into a panic.
I don’t want to romanticize this panic. I think the breaking wave of the present tense is always accompanied by a whitecap of panic, as true of the moment of this writing as it was then, when I was looking for a job to pay the rent, and wondering what the hell was going to happen next with everything that was important to me.
I got the job. It didn’t have a title, but I knew right away that it was special. I was to be in charge of inventory, which seemed a position of considerable gravity as it included all sorts of items out of which the bagels were made (poppies, raisins, sesame, sour dough), and I was to be paid ten dollars an hour, which I intuited was at the very high end of the pay scale at H&H. I was also to function as a kind of right hand man to Mr. H., which meant, among other things, that I had to arrive at eight in the morning and call a series of automated voice mail systems belonging to several different banks, and get that day’s balance on several different accounts, and write it all out for him so it was there as soon as he sat down at his desk at nine.
My immediate superior was a young man named Rick, a lapsed classical trumpet player from Buffalo, whose blond hair was cut short and whose glasses had small, round rims that made him seem efficient and fastidious. Rick was in the midst of extremely gradual exit from the bagel factory. He had been exiting, as far as I could tell, almost as soon as he got there. He’d been there three years. Rick showed me around the upstairs, where the bagel-making took place, and the downstairs, a dungeon like space illuminated by bare light bulbs dangling from the ceiling. There was one long hallway, which lead to a series of crevices that were used for storage, for locker rooms, for the mechanic’s room.
Descending the stairs from the ground floor to the basement felt like entering another world. Each stair had a rounded edge, worn down from years of use. At the bottom of the stairs was a long passageway and one was immediately in full view of Mr. H. sitting behind his desk, way at the other end. The first time I went down those stairs I was brought up short by a very peculiar image: a pipe leading straight down from the ceiling spewing water into a white porcelain sink. The water splashed into the sink, careened around the white porcelain, and disappeared down the drain.
“What the hell is that,” I asked Rick.
“It’s water from the oven, to cool the engines. It just pours down twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. It never stops.” This was a metaphor. For something. I hoped not for my time at H&H bagels.
Rick taught me the ropes.
Concerning perks: All the bagels you want, for free.
Concerning theft: You can not steal money, but you can steal food (tuna fish, lox, orange juice, soda, ice cream). Concerning Mr. H.: Sporadically big hearted but for the most part a hard ass in the mold of a boss who has worked his way up from the bottom. He was from the Bronx, a Vietnam vet. The youngest of eight kids. He had his own route for a bakery after the war, went to work for the previous owners of H&H, and managed to buy them out with the help of a city-backed loan to help minority businessmen. He couldn’t read very well, so when he asked you to “take a look at” some document, it didn’t mean he wanted your expert opinion, it meant he wanted you to tell him what it says. But you had to do it with sufficient subtlety so that it wasn’t totally obvious he couldn’t read it in the first place.
I liked Rick, but I found him disturbing also—there was an itchy, twitchy quality to him, a certain impatience that manifested itself in even the smallest movements, that seemed to scream: I’ve wasted so much time! He had the air of a man who had just awoken from a nap that had lasted much too long. I could relate to it. Not from experience so much, but as I roamed the complex physical world of H&H bagels, and imagined all the other complexities, grudges, anxieties, and hierarchies, that the place must surely hold, I could feel its chaos lulling me somehow, entrancing me; it was that Alice in Wonderland feeling of falling out of one reality into another. I didn’t want to be like Rick and awake three years later, shuddering with regret. And yet I could feel myself falling, gleefully falling in H&H bagels, into its reality, the beautiful, sensuous, arduous world of bagel making.
And nothing entranced me more than the huge, ancient ledger book in which all the inventory details were recorded, a book that would come to dominate my days, and, eventually, my nights as well.
When I saw that huge, decrepit, almost biblical looking ledger book in Rick’s hands, filled with tiny numerical entries, my heart leapt with recognition. The ledger book became my domain. I studied it. In the mornings I wandered around the factory with the thing open in my arms, a pencil behind my ear, counting. All around me was the chaos of the men in white uniforms making bagels—the roar of the oven and, at the other end of the floor, the dough mixer, the hilarious machine into which huge globs of dough were fed and which then spat out measured dough sausages, and fed them via a conveyor belt to the other machine which grabbed these dough sausages and rolled them into a loop. A team of men stood at the end of the conveyor belt and, with expertly Chaplinesque gestures, plucked them off one at a time and placed them on a wood platter.
Other men took the platters to a boiling caldron, and dumped the dough loops in. Still other men fished them out with a wire scoop the size of a shovel. They flung the dough loops down a moist steel gully, a bit like shuffleboard, where another crew took the boiled rings and placed them on wood slats. Then another group of men took the slats and expertly shoved them into the oven, which had within it a continuously rotating carousel, onto which slats were pushed, or flipped, and from which bagels were removed and dumped into large wire bins. The bins were then placed next to an open side entrance where a huge industrial fan blew on them to cool them off. Thus: the bagel smell on Broadway.
Most of this activity took place in full view of the store. While the customers waited in line for bagels they watched these proceedings with the entranced expressions of people watching the inner workings of a watch. And having an audience added a tiny spice of theatrical energy to the proceedings.
Amidst all this was the sane, specific, and essential world of my ledger book, on whose large swan-like pages was written the information that made all this possible. Amidst the craziness I counted.
I counted the fifty pound bags of poppy seeds, of sesame seeds, of sour dough, of pretzel salt, and regular salt. I counted boxes of cinnamon, and raisins. I counted the number of white fish salads, the kippered salmon salads, the tuna fish salads. I counted the number sliced lox packages, nova packages, and the whole whitefish (complete with their head, and the one dead golden eye that stared at me while I counted).
I counted the Tropicana Orange Juice (Original, Homestyle, Grove) and the grapefruit juice, and the sodas. I counted the froze fruits and Haggen-Daz in the freezer up front. I counted the number of mop heads, broom handles, Brillo pad boxes and Ajax. I counted coffee cup lids, coffee cups, and the little plastic sticks people used to stir their coffee (a thousand to a box). I counted plastic forks, and spoons, and knives. I counted napkins, paper towels, and rolls of toilet paper. I counted the number of white paper bags, the ones that held two bagels, and the ones that held four, and six, and a dozen (plus the free extra one). I put on a coat and a scarf and a hat and entered the walk in freezer which held a galaxy of cream cheese products so diverse my mind reeled. I searched out the smallest, most minute things and counted them, entered the number in the ledger, an later compared the current number to the one a few days ago to determine our rate of use, and to figure out how much more to order. These long periods of contemplating the ledger book were probably the closest I’ve ever come to Talmudic study.
And then there was the brown sugar. Right in the middle of the bakery, behind the cashiers, was a huge stack of fifty pound bags of brown sugar. It sat there like a monument to its own importance.
The recipe for an H&H bagels is, Mr. H. informed me with a wink, top secret. But I feel, given the size and visibility of this sugar monument, that I would not be betraying any trust in saying that each and every one of the bagels made there has a dollop (a smidgen? a teaspoon?) of brown sugar in it. Twice a week a truck arrived and workers rebuilt that four sided column of sugar from its diminished status to a magnificent, proud height. When the sugar stack was low, I felt a pang of fear in my heart; after a delivery, I could stare at it for ten straight minutes and feel all was well with the world.
Downstairs, in a small crevice off to the side of the main office, was a row of desks. I was given one. To my left was Jay, another new hire. He was a slightly built Hispanic man with a thin and neatly groomed mustache, and for the first few days arrived at work in a long black leather coat, black pants, pointy black cowboy boots, and a huge black cowboy hat. He played trombone. He played in a Latin band that performed regularly at S.O.B’s and other dance halls around the city. His band was famous, he told me, and I tried to be respectful of that fact, though I had never heard of it. During the first weekend of his job at H&H, he had flown down to Miami to play in Gloria Estephan’s support band at the Orange Bowl. As though reading my mind—”If you are so famous then why are you here?”—he added, “I’ve got two kids.” His voice was reedy and thin. I couldn’t imagine him playing trombone.
I respected his outfits, though. They obviously meant a lot to him. He came all the way down from the Bronx, first on a bus and a then a subway, and though he spent his days hunched next to me making calls to various deli’s and grocery stores around the city asking after unpaid bills, he seemed intent on retaining his image as a star trombonist.
But after the first week he started showing up in sweat pants and sweatshirts. It was not a question of self-esteem, but rather of flour.
Behind us, a few feet away, was a huge flour silo. Twice a week fifty thousand pounds of flour was pumped into it from a truck that drove down from somewhere in Pennsylvania, and several times a day an engine revved up to pump flour upstairs to the dough mixing machine. The pipes leading upstairs often sprang a leak. A fine mist of flour would fill the air of that small space very quickly. Sometimes, it was so fine we would work through it, and after ten minutes all of us would be very lightly frosted with white powder. Sometimes the leaks would be more serious, and we would suddenly be engulfed in a blizzard. On these occasions everyone would jump up from their seats and run into the adjoining office, slam the door, and stand there huddled together for ten minutes while that tiny air conditioner gasped away in the corner.
Jay’s outfits were getting killed. And so he gave up wearing them and surrendered his identity, during that eight hour stretch, to being an accounts receivable guy at a bagel factory. Jay approached his task with such vigorous energy, such upstanding earnestness, such righteousness (he was right after all; these people owed us money!) that I sometimes got a little misty eyed listening to him press whomever was on the other end of the line for their back payments, his voice lowered a bit for extra gravity.
One day, shortly after I had begun working, Mr. H. called me into his office and handed me a black canvass money belt, instructed me to put it on and, seeing it was well fastened around my waist, handed me a wad of cash totaling seven thousand dollars. He instructed me to walk the six blocks down Broadway to his bank with the cash and a deposit slip. It was as though the green ink of the dollars had some chemical property that briefly stunned me, because for a moment I just stood there on the black and white tiles, staring abstractly at the cash in my hand.
“Take Jay with you,” he said.
“Are you worried I’ll get robbed?” I said. Mr. H. gave me one those penetrating stares through his wire rimmed glasses. He was always in such a swirl of papers and phone cords that when he stared right at you for more than a second it seemed significant. Now it seemed clear that he had understood the true content of my question: You don’t trust me?
“It’s about insurance,” he said. “My insurance says you gotta have two people if you’re moving more than five thousand dollars.”
Broadway was bright with sun and people, traffic careening down the avenue, and Jay and I bopped down the street with the bounce of truant school kids. The pouch of the money belt was nestled near my groin, in that soft private place between the bottom of my stomach and my hip.
These bank deliveries were a frequent occurrence. Sometimes I took Jay, once in a while Rick, and on occasion one of the workers upstairs. The tight bulge of the money belt under my shirt became familiar. Mr. H. trusted me with his cash.
More and more, I came to feel this was a mistake.
My lunch came from the store. A toasted bagel with whitefish salad and an orange juice was typical. I ate on a bench on one of the traffic islands of Broadway, with a paper in my lap. I took leisurely hour long lunches sitting in the sun, noshing and reading the paper, enjoying the open air and periodically lecturing myself that this lunch was not, not, not some fantastic moment to be cherished in later years.
Now, years later, I cherish those lunches. The autumn sun was bright and elegiac, the air was crisp, the street bustled with activity, and the respite from my busy morning of inventory and phone orders and cash counting and delivering was sweet. The truth, which I understood but hated at the time, but which I feel a bit more resigned to now, was that the hard work made the respite sweeter.
One day, shortly after Thanksgiving, when I had been on the job nearly three months and the novelty was long gone, I arrived at the factory at an unusually early hour. During the previous weeks I had been on a few dates with a woman named Cathy. In addition to all the more familiar anxieties, I was careful to monitor her for her feelings about my current job. She seemed to think my bagel career was amusing and temporary. She thought it was an interlude, a funny story in the making. I kept my panic that this was no interlude to myself. I liked her attitude. And I liked her. And she liked me. And on the morning in question, I had woken up at her house.
On that chilly November morning I had emerged from the subway into the cold air in great spirits, feeling triumphant, looking forward to the calm stretch of time when I had the office mostly to myself. It was early, and I bought a paper, prepared a cup of coffee, grabbed a bagel, and headed downstairs, where I gleefully sat down at Mr. H.’s desk and prepared for a pleasant half hour interlude contemplating the previous night and reveling in the quiet of the place before everyone showed up and all hell broke loose. But first I would make my bank calls; I had developed a weird attachment to the soft, mellifluous female voice on Marine Midland’s automated account information line, and had come to look forward to starting my days with the sound of her automated voice. This placid image was so fixed in my imagination that I burrowed towards it single mindedly, not pausing for my customary glance around the bakery floor to make sure all was well.
I had barely flattened the paper on the desk and taken a sip of coffee when Alberto, the night foreman who was just now coming to the end of his eight hour shift, entered the room, and, with the grave manner of a sergeant reporting bad news to an officer, removed the pointed paper cap he and everyone else upstairs had to wear. He stared at me with his black, sad eyes which were always touched with a hint of violence.
“We’re out of sugar,” he said. He had worked as the night foreman for ten years and earned only a tiny bit more than I. Like most of the workers upstairs, he was Puerto Rican. He understood my role at the company, my prerogatives and my perks. There was no sympathy in his eyes. I stared at them anyway.
“We ran out around five o’clock,” he said. “I’ve had thirty guys sitting on their asses for two and a half hours.” He ran a hand slowly over his slicked back hair, as though this bit of information might have, in the very telling, unsettled it, put his paper cap back on, and went back upstairs.
I sprang into action. I called Rick, my sugar guy, and begged him to let me have some of the inventory that he had already loaded onto a truck headed for other destinations in Manhattan. Then, having been promised enough to get me through the day, I sank into a numb state of dread. Mr. H. would be upset when he heard about the sugar. I could only watch the clouds gather.
The gale was of hurricane force. Mr. H. just happened to arrive a bit late that day, so it took place in view of the whole office. Mr. H. was a hands-on manager. Every one of the myriad details concerning the production and shipping and selling of his bagels was in his head—he delegated with reluctance. And now his worst fears had come true. As he screamed at me and yelled at me and waved his arms around—all this with his coat still on, his paper still in his hand, his scarf still wrapped around his neck—I could see in his red, scrunched up features another, quieter and more complicated exasperation—”One day I come in twenty minutes late and all hell breaks loose!”—he seemed to be thinking. He had a family, but his business was his baby. It consumed him even as it fed him.
He raged on until I pointed out that it was Tuesday. Tuesday was the day I did a massive inventory of the cream cheeses, and the order had to be in by ten thirty. I put on my coat, my scarf, my gloves, and retreated into the cold humming silence of the freezer with the old ledger in which all the figures were kept, and began the process of counting, and penance.
Following the sugar disaster I redoubled my efforts to get out of the bagel factory. I had been focusing my money making energies in what was meant to be my profession—writing. I would make numerous phone calls from my desk to magazine editors, trying to scrounge up some free lance work. There were two obstacles to success in this endeavor. One was that other than a short story that I had published in The New Yorker, I had very little in the way of credentials—even if all I wanted to do was interview some starlet in exchange for what, compared to my H&H salary, would have been a treasure chest of cash.
Besides my meager credentials there was the problem of the flour silos and the pipes leading up to the dough mixer. With some regularity the enormous engine would switch on, making a sound similar in texture and volume to a big airplane getting ready to ascend. This tended to have an adverse effect on my phone conversations with editors.
“What’s that?” They would say when the engine kicked in.
I’m at the airport? I’m at the heliport? I’m at the hairdresser?
“I’m at work,” I would reply and usually, thinking that offense is better than defense, I would add, “I’m working at a bagel factory.”
“Oh, how wonderful!” was the usual reply.
It was not wonderful. After three months it was downright miserable. After the sugar incident, my anxiety about the inventory grew exponentially. I overcompensated, and placed a mammoth sugar order. A crew of men carried it in from the truck on their shoulders. They made the stack in its customary place, but there were still more bags. They found a place for them in the stairway. But there were still more bags. By the time they were done the entire factory looked like an World War I trench. A bunker. The staircase, the hallways downstairs, every available space was lined with bags of sugar, as though we were sandbagging a river that threatened to flood. Getting to work meant that everyone now had to turn their shoulders sideways so as to fit through what little space remained. The complaints were endless, though curiously the only person who did not chastise me was Mr. H. himself. His was a tunnel vision, and I suspected that the space his body was now compelled to move through was no larger than the space through which his mind always moved, and so he hardly noticed it. All he registered was that we had enough sugar; and perhaps he wanted to give me a break.
The momentum of the holiday season coincided with the momentum of my desperation to escape the bagel factory. For reasons I couldn’t fully grasp, the holidays and bagels were weirdly connected, and the store overflowed with customers, not just single bagel snackers, but three dozen buyers. It was at the height of the holiday season, when the lines for bagels were stretching out the front door even with all the cashiers fully manned, that Mr. H. turned to me during a lax moment and said, “Put on a hat and go upstairs.”
“And a white shirt. Everyone has to wear a hat a white shirt. You don’t need to wear the pants. Go to register one.”
My eyes bulged. But, after the sugar thrashing, I had, in some perverse way, developed an odd servility to go along with my ever increasing desire to disappear on one of my money belt errands and escape forever. So up I went. I set the white paper cap at a jaunty angle and began to rattle off orders in the manner of a carnival barker trying to drum up business.
“Two poppy and a dozen sesame for the lady in the white fur hat!” I would yell, while the guy next to me grabbed the appropriate bagels and I punched the register’s keys and took the money. At the end of each transaction I would belt out a thunderous and rather cathartic, “NEXT!” and the long line would inch forward a notch. I got into the flow. I was really enjoying myself.
And then I spotted a couple standing off to the side and staring at me. After a moment, I recognized them both, and ninth grade came rushing back. I had slept over at Brian Steele’s house a number of times. Standing beside him was his mother.
Our conversation was brief and friendly. The cliché would be for them to be mean and snooty, but they were very nice and, though slightly surprised to see what I was up to, there was no condescension.
For all its non-nasty aspects, this encounter had a strong effect on me. It brought the lurking shame into the open, and once exposed it would not go away. The odd thing was that my sense of shame at my bagel factory job increased right along side with a certain kind of weird pleasure I took in it. I felt, in the tumult of the place, that I was connected to life more intensely that I would be were I had a more suitably professional job. The fact that this exhilarating life was so lacking in comfort just added to my confusion and sense of distress.
One Friday I went alone to Club Broadway, a fancy Latin place above the 96th Street subway where Jay’s band was playing. The interior was lit with dim purple lights, and there were mirrors on the walls and ceilings. I came late. The dance floor was packed and the band was punching out its marimba rhythms. I arrived just in time to see Jay step forward from the large band, his trombone shiny under the lights. I took in the scene in one huge gulp, the purpleness, the dancing, the size of the band and the brightness of the spotlight reflecting off Jay’s huge unwieldy instrument. I thought of his reedy voice harassing deli owners for their bagel payments and had a stage fatherish pang of anxiety on his behalf. Poor Jay! I thought. What now?
He unleashed a trombone solo that shook me to my bones. It seemed to shake him, too. The crowd cheered him when he finished, a wild cheer. The band played on. Everyone kept dancing. And in the back of the room was a solitary figure jumping up and down, clapping and screaming like a lunatic.
By December I was miserable in a way I had never been, grasping in some visceral way for the first time in my life the power money has to shape the course of events. I don’t know why it took until age twenty seven to understand this. I began to look on those business majors in college in a new light. They had understood choices, and money, and consequences.
I had held crappy jobs before. But somehow I had been able to keep my ego and sense of self apart from them. I felt a bit invulnerable. I possessed a certain kind of money fat. All those years of summer camp made being a bike messenger possible. But the stakes were getting higher.
At last I pulled my ace in the hole, an ace so far down the it had never occurred to me to use it, because to use it was to no longer have it in reserve—I called my editor at the magazine where I had published my first story. The flour silo’s engine did not turn on. The call was brief. I made an appointment to come and see him.
He was a straightforward man who had been at the magazine a long time and had about him an air of bemused probity. He had written me a very nice note when my one story came out. And a nice note about a year later, asking to see more stories. I responded with nothing. After one story, I had gone into instant J.D. Salinger mode, and disappeared. My start had been auspicious; I did not want to sully the waters. I could only go downhill, was my logic, and so for nearly two years I was silent, except for one short essay.
I visited him at his new office, which smelled like old leather, or maybe a horse. I suppose it smelled of him. I told him about the bagel factory. He didn’t seem to think it was such a bad thing. He was perilously close to joining the ranks of the Oh How Wonderfuls! I asked if the magazine needed someone to lick stamps or sweep the floor. He said they had those bases covered.
He suggested that perhaps I could do a piece of non-fiction, something short, and asked if I had any ideas. As a rule, I never have ideas, which is to say, I don’t think in terms of proposals, a fact that did more to hinder my freelance activities than any flour silo. I stared at this man, as though to focus on his face—avuncular but stern, beneficent but no-nonsense—would provoke an idea. He radiated sly humor and a kind of intellectual honesty. Something about him suggested that work, hard work, was something to be proud of.
Perhaps I made some unconscious connection—I blurted out the name of Esteban Vicente, an old painter with whom I was acquainted, who was having a ninetieth birthday coming up and an exhibit to go along with it. Vicente had shared a studio with de Kooning and had become famous along with all the other New York School painters, but his star had waned and now he was obscure. But he painted on, oblivious to his professional fluctuations, or at least not unmoored by them, and was now having something of a revival.
I was introduced the magazine’s art critic at the time at it was agreed that I would write a very short profile—more like a long blurb—to go along with a full page reproduction of one of his paintings.
Suddenly Esteban Vicente became the focus of my existence—along with Euro-Disney, which had placed a mammoth order for our bagels. Every day I drove a truck packed to the brim with four dozen boxes of bagels, each about fifteen pounds, out to a warehouse in a desolate section of Long Island City, where I would throw each box into the arms of a scrawny black kid who stood on the loading dock and stacked them on a platter, which then wrapped in a giant roll of a Saran Wrap, and finally driven by forklift into a monstrous freezer from which they would be shipped to France for the consumption of European people looking at Goofy. It was arduous physical labor. My back was a mess. I kept thinking, “I’m throwing my back out for Euro-Disney!”
I went to Vicente’s studio on West 42nd Street to interview him. We sat and talked for a long time—I had called in sick, not entirely a lie because my back could not take another day of throwing boxes—and the longer I talked the more I began to feel that it was a strange coincidence that I should be coming to know this man at this particular time.
There was something wonderfully impervious about him, and resilient. His speech, still heavily inflected with a Spanish accent, meandered, but beneath his actual words was an attitude that was very vivid, strong, and clear. He had a self-worth which in someone else could become vanity. But vanity is always defining itself against the appreciation of others. Vicente been down and up and down, and the only compass he was watching was his own.
His values regarding art were inspiring. I came to understand how the very word, “career,” held so much less sway over his feelings and thoughts than did the substance of his art. His commitment to the idea of art, and of being an artist, amazed me in its lack of irony. Vicente was an education in how much single mindedness is necessary if you want to survive as an artist.
These rather grand emotions did not, however, mitigate my rather craven ambitions to get my piece in print, to see my name published somewhere besides an H&H paycheck, and when the day of the birthday exhibition arrived, I haunted it with blazing and anxiety ridden eyes, searching rather desperately for anything useful to stick in the piece, eavesdropping voraciously, and guzzling white wine.
I faxed the article from bagel factory the following Monday morning, having not slept the previous night, and went about my business with considerable energy, in anticipation of my release. I returned home that evening and submerged in my bed and sleep, but not before, just on cue, as my eyes closed heavily, the phone rang—it was my editor, who in his typical measured tones told me “we” liked the piece. He said he would call me later in the week. I slept deeply.
The next day was Tuesday, cream cheese day, and I went about my duties in the walk in freezer in a state of elation. Wednesday was good. Thursday, disaster struck. I received a call from my editor saying that there was a problem with the art department. Apparently someone somewhere had raised an objection to reprinting a full page of abstract art and the whole piece was in jeopardy. Vicente had been asked for a self-portrait.
I called Vicente’s gallery to discuss this catastrophe. The man had been an abstract painter for over forty years, and this after a huge principled decision to stop painting and exhibiting figurative work. I didn’t think he was a prime candidate for a self-portrait. Furthermore, if there was ever a non-pragmatist, it was Vicente. I amused myself with a mock speech I could deliver about how, maybe just a few dots with a mouth beneath it, it would mean so much to…me! To everyone! Hey, it’s exposure! But he didn’t give a damn about exposure, and for this I admired him.
I drove my truck full of bagels out to Long Island City, parked it, and crawled back to lay among the boxes, warm and fragrant (they were all sesame bagels that day). A daze of despair came over me but it was also a kind of bliss, feeling the warmth and insular quiet of the inside of that truck, and I fell asleep. By now my job had thoroughly infiltrated my dreams: every other night I had anxiety dreams about running out of whitefish salad, coffee lids and sugar. I had another anxiety dream amidst the boxes of bagels, and when I opened my eyes the dream/nightmare just continued. This was my life. The fact that it was this beautiful moment of comfort and peace—all those boxes of bread around me muffling the outside world, warming me, the smell—just made it more complicated. My career at the bagel factory was indefinite. Vicente would never do a self-portrait.
Later that day I returned from the Euro-Disney job, called my answering machine, and was informed that Esteban Vicente had done a self-portrait for The New Yorker. I floated through the flour saturated air. I ran my hands through huge vats of poppy seeds and watched it pour through my fingers as though it were treasure and I its owner. I went to an out of the way crevice and pummeled a sack of sour dough like it was a heavy bag. Never have I known such elation! The piece was on! Esteban was going to do a self-portrait!
But gradually this elation gave way to something else. How could Vicente agree to such a thing? My elation turned to a kind of mild, sour grief. Had he been bullied into doing something for pragmatic reasons? Had the voice of commerce lulled his artistic integrity? Did he whip off lots of self portraits all the time and not tell anyone?
And as I contemplated this, I came to realize that intertwined with all my admiration for the man was a weird little strand of resentment. This is a weird thing that accompanies one’s appraisal of the virtuous—I had regarded his integrity as ever so slightly a reproach. But now, as I considered that it might have faltered, I missed it. I was rooting for it and lamenting it. As much as I wanted the piece to run, I did not want Esteban Vicente to sell out.
The next day, clutching the phone as the flour silo roared in the back ground, I was told that Esteban had in fact handed in the self-portrait. The magazine had the self-portrait. It was a…
The roar of the flour silo drowned out the words. I waited twenty seconds and asked the person at the other end of the line, the woman from the Berry-Hill Gallery, to repeat herself. “The self-portrait was a splotch of red,” she said.
If my time at the bagel factory involved a constant struggle inside of me between the sentiments of exhilaration and despair, then this was its most pure, crystalline moment.
The interesting thing was that these seven hundred words landed on The New Yorker’s new editor in chief’s desk entirely by accident, and found there a receptive audience. The article did in fact make it into The New Yorker (the splotch of red did not; they ended up taking a picture of Vicente). And I in turn made it out of the bagel factory (and into The New Yorker myself as, voila, a staff writer, and then into other things, but that is another story). A couple of years after I left, Mr. H., riding a surging tide of national appetite for bagels, moved his operation into a huge factory just across the street from the Intrepid on the West Side Highway, and the teeming operation on 80th Street fell silent, except for the ovens, to which already rolled dough’s were shipped from the main plant to be baked fresh, and perfume the surrounding blocks. Esteban Vicente, is still very much around. Five years after the events described above he is still painting.
I gave Mr. H. my leave. He responded coolly to this, but did not seem too upset. Later that afternoon he had a heart attack. The place was in an uproar as we watched the paramedics load him into the ambulance with an oxygen ask on his face. I helped carry him up the stairs. Among the white suited workers upstairs, the men whom I had watched Mr. H. positively brutalize in all sorts of hard nosed ways (primarily by paying them about five dollars and change an hour and not giving them any vacation time until they worked there nine months), there was a surge of genuine grief. Everyone spilled out of the side entrance and the paramedics loaded him into the ambulance.
Downstairs, we had to deal with the fact that, at the time he had the heart attack, Mr. H. was counting out a huge sum of cash, which of lay untended on his desk. About five different people volunteered to be responsible for it. I prevailed. In my dreamy fantasies about theft and revenge I could not have conjured a more enticing scenario, but I counted the money out scrupulously, totaled it, and put it back in the safe.
Characteristically, Mr. H. was back at his desk two days later, a bottle of pills in his shirt pocket, but his demeanor and habits otherwise unchanged, except that he periodically repeated a new mantra about taking it easy, and now had salad and cottage cheese for lunch instead of pizza. Maybe the heart attack changed the dynamic of my departure, or maybe now that I was on the way out, he could entertain nostalgic thoughts about me. But whatever the reason we had a pretty warm last couple of weeks. I watched my replacement be interviewed. He had graduated from Deerfield, then Dartmouth. He was an aspiring actor. I informed him that when Mr. H. asked him to read something, it didn’t mean his expert opinion was being asked, you were just supposed to paraphrase. The rest was up to him to figure out.
I found myself on Tuesday morning, shortly before my last day, standing in the walk-in freezer wearing a suit. I had a very important appointment with Tina Brown that morning, and I was racing through the cream cheese inventory so as to be on time. And then, for the first time since I had been working there, someone bumped the heavy metal door to the freezer, and the ancient metal bolt clicked shut. I carefully put the ledger book on some boxes of olive and pimento cream cheese (6 ounce) and commenced to bang hysterically on the inside of that door, screaming at the top of my lungs to be let out. I was screaming in fear—that I would miss my appointment, that my big chance would be squandered because I was locked in the cream cheese freezer—but I was also laughing. The bagel factory was clutching me for one last moment in its absurd embrace. And when the door was pulled open at last, and I was free to rise up and out of that place forever, I felt a tiny pang of intuition, at once thrilling and mortifying, that somehow, in some way or another, I would be back.
This essay appears in “How To Be a Man: Scenes From A Protracted Boyhood.” For more information about the book, click here.)