11 June 2009

A Beautiful Thing

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.


The Vidiot said...

You wax poetic, but there's a darker side to Mazzola's late-night activities. Ok, not so much as darker as it is humorous.

I used to live across the street on Henry and my bedroom was on the street side. It was summer and I was awakened at about 3am to the sound of guffawing and Italian chatter. I looked out the window and the bakers were all out on the street, smoking their cigarettes and holding bread loaves like, well, phalluses and sort of prancing around like a bunch of horses.

It was hilarious, surreal and a little annoying.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like Vidiot's view of his neighbors clowning was just some Italians (as I am) drinking a little
wine perhaps and feeling well, the
humor as a Fellini film might show.

Annoying not to me.

Mike of tin pan alley

Anonymous said...

that guy must spend all day out there on the phone and smoking. i'm glad to read that he's not just my mirage.

Eat It Brooklyn said...

Thank you for this post. I see 'that guy' all the time and marvel that really, EVERY time I walk by, there he is with a cigarette, on the phone and sometimes a cup of coffee in hand. And I get to breathe in that sumptuous baking bread smell as I go to sleep. It's heaven.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

Seems like everybody knows "that guy" on the cell.

Who's he talking to? Is he outside because his wife won't let him smoke inside? And is he on the phone because it would be too boring just to smoke? Maybe he just rents the porch from the people who live inside.

fgalex said...

Oh!! This was my fantasy for the 4 years I lived on Columbia street and would walk down Union from the F train. Every time I'd walk by Mazzola's late at night and smelled that amazing smell I always wished I could get some freshly baked bread. Except in my fantasy it wasn't a seeded Italian. It was that ridiculous chocolate bread!!! Sooo goood!