I was heading home late last night along Union Street. When you're heading home late at night on Union Street, you can count on a few signs of life. There's that guy who lives in the brownstone at the corner of Clinton, opposite the library, who's always standing outside smoking and talking on his cell. A few cabs, having taken Brooklyn nightowls back to their abodes, are heading back north on Clinton toward the bridge. And, at the corner of Henry, they're busy making bread for the next morning at Mazzola Bakery.
The smell of freshly baked loafs is one of the rewards of dragging your tired hide back to western Carroll Gardens at 1 AM. I always pause to look at the lit kitchen windows and think what life must be like for the midnight bakers. Hard work, I should imagine. But also serenely elemental. They're performing a simple task that satisfies a basic need, in perfect isolation. The bakers must enjoy a clear focus about the usefulness of their labors. Like the occupation of firefighter, there's little ambiguity to baking bread, and almost nothing to criticize. Fresh bread is a beautiful thing.
I experienced a special treat this recent evening, however. As I stopped at Henry and Union to catch a glimpse of the lighted back door, I saw something more: two tall, wheeled metal racks standing on the sidewalk, packed full with rows of long, seeded Italian loaves, cooling in the night air. Small skyscrapers built of bread bricks.
I couldn't stop looking at the bread. A worker emerged from the kitchen and eyed me, at first suspiciously. He asked how I was doing. Wishing to set his worries at rest, I said I was admiring his work. He puffed on his cigarette. You want one?, he asked. I leaned in. What? You want one, he repeated, for free? I hesitated. Seriously?
He gestured at one the racks and opened up a crisp brown paper bag, which seemed to me to be the most perfect brown paper bag I had ever seen. Not a crease, not a rip. I waited for him to snatch a loaf off the tower, but then it became clear I was to make the selection. I walked up to the rack and grabbed the end of one loaf near the center. It was warm and soft like no Mazzola bread I've ever bought before. The smell of the roasted sesame seeds rose off the crust.
I put it in the perfect brown paper bag, and the worker gave the bag to me. I shook his hand, and crossed Henry. Eating half the loaf before I got home, I thought about my siblings and wondered why they live in the Midwest and Los Angeles.