“Yes, well, the ad did say ‘driver needed,’ but what we’re looking for now is someone who can drive and do the mixing.”
“Yeah, mixing the dough for the bread.”
“And when does the mixing shift start?”
“Sure, I guess I’ll give it a try. I wouldn’t mind learning a little bit about the process.”
I stepped outside. The air, as usual, was mild, cold air coming down from the mountains, colliding with the temperate air from the ocean, but, outside the bakery, there was a definite haze of flour in the air. Unconsciously, I rubbed the palms of my hands on my pants to clean them off, got on my bike and rode the seven blocks back home.
“How’d it go?”
“Good, I guess. They seem to want to hire me, only they sorta’ sprang this mixing thing on me.”
“Yeah. It’s production. Basically, the person who comes in the middle of the night to get things started. The shift starts at 3.”
“Yeah. There didn’t seem to be any way around it. Basically, they told me if I wanted the job, I’d have to be available to do the mixing as well. Who knows, maybe it’ll be interesting?”
“Yeah, but 3...”
“I know. Listen, I didn’t really have a choice.”
I got the job and it started in a week. My first day, I had to be in at 4:30. I knew, eventually, I’d adjust to the early hours and then I’d have the whole afternoon off. I could go to the beach or ride my bike back into the forest. I could take more advantage of the natural beauty of the place. After living in a heat-scorched, shadeless, concrete and steel-built town in the tropics for the last year, I was ready for something less intense, a place I could go out, find a bench and be a natural part of. When it’s not raining, the Pacific Northwest provides some pretty peaceful refuges and I was looking forward to taking advantage of them. Revitalizing myself after being savaged by sweltering streets during the day and by unmuffled phalanxes of motorbikes screeching through the sleepless jungle night. I wanted to stop up my ears with cool ferns, nuzzle the loamy roots of the redwoods and relax.
“Chirp, chirp chirp, squAAAAwk!” I’d set my alarm to ‘birdsong 1,” but the incongruity of such a lively aviary chorus with the black sky outside was more discordant than the standard alarm buzz would have been. My alarm was set for 3:45 and, knowing there was no other way, I rolled out of bed, into the freezing house and stumbled through the kitchen, fumbling at the oven knobs to start the water for coffee. I had just enough time to brew a thermos, stand next to the heater, take a few sips and get on my bike for the ride to work.
The dregs of the night were cold, like all the freezing sediment had collected at the bottom, as the last touches of starry darkness pulled back from the horizon, revealing a cerulean band at the top of the mountains. The bakery was already warm with the action of rising dough and bâtards fresh from the oven, cooling on the racks. I shuffled into place and began loading baguettes and boules for shipment. It was fast-paced and I kept getting in the way, but it wasn’t overwhelming. When everything was ready, we loaded the van racks, slammed the doors and drove south on the verge of the sand dunes. The boss was training me, but it was a sleepy hour and neither of us said anything as we drove along, slurped our coffee and watched the sky over the mountains blush with the rising dawn. The moisture rose in smoky streaks as if from small, isolated forest fires.
I trained on delivery driving for two weeks. At first, the routes seemed complex, but I knew eventually, I would remember them and my first day out alone, I did fine. Compared to my last delivery job, the tempo was much more relaxed. The obstacles of San Francisco hills, one-way streets and traffic had all been removed. There was also no strict time limit, so I didn’t feel like I had to rush. I was a little tired in the afternoons, more than I’d expected, but I managed to get a little done and I didn’t mind going to bed around 9. It was only a little earlier than my normal bedtime. In short, things were working out then, one day, the schedule changed, my driving shifts were gone. They’d all been replaced by ‘mixing’ shifts, five-in-a-row, all starting at the impossibly small hour of 3am.
Well, it’s not like I hadn’t been warned. The night before, I planned to hit the hay around 7, but I kept getting delayed by little things and by the time I got into bed, it was almost 8. Setting my alarm, I realized I only had about 6 hours to sleep if I wanted to get up and make coffee before leaving. Of course, knowing this only served to make sleep that much more elusive. I sought a peaceful position in vain and flopped back and forth until nine o’clock, obsessed with the idea of salvaging some sleep. I refused to open my eyes, no matter how inclined they were to disobey the order. I set myself in one position, no longer willing to indulge the idea that I might be more comfortable on my back or stomach. It was side or nothing. My fidelity worked, gradually, the lucidity drained from my thoughts, I lingered in a hypnogogic state for a moment and then passed into unconsciousness.
“Tweet, tweet squAAwk!” At the alarm, I opened my eyes and the rarefied air of the middle of the night burned my corneas. I felt the sick alertness one feels upon being woken far too early. I scrambled up from a sleep that didn’t even seem to have sunk anywhere near as profound as REM. I switched off the alarm and started for the frigid kitchen. I felt raw and motionsick, like I’d stayed too long at the beach at day before. I stood before the gradually thawing stove, watching the leaden coils color and glow under the kettle. I drank my coffee feeling nothing. No warmth, texture or flavor, just a featureless substance, no different from the empty air around me. I put my jacket on, stepped out into the dark rain, brushed my bike seat off and set off, wincing, for the bakery.
The moon was up and the horizon was coal black to match the vault of sky overhead. The clouds covered the stars, daubed at the moon. The rain dripped down my hair, over my nose and splashed on my petulant lower lip. I squinted hard into the rain and rode faster. It was so late, some people hadn’t even gone to bed yet and second story windows glowed with the efforts of insomnia, televisions flickered, reading lamps shed their frowsy, citrus light.
The bakery was the only building in town with the door open. All the lights were blazing, music, something jammy, that sounded like the Grateful Dead, was flailing from the speakers. The coffee pot was cold. There was nothing to do but clock in and go hide in the bathroom. Two guys with beards, presumably the night bakers, eyed me, but did not respond to my greetings, probably unable to even hear me above the damn Jerry Garcia tribute and the dimensional divide (sleeping and waking) that separated us. It’s always an interesting thing when the night brings together those who have already slept and woken with those who haven’t yet gone to sleep. As such, it’s the only truly liminal time of the day, when people can be on either side of the Dateline.
I stood in the bathroom, trying to regain my poise for a while, hoping the beards would turn off the damn Phish, String Cheese or whatever the hell it was. I looked at myself in the mirror. I had the face of a scowling nonagenarian. My eyes, rimmed red, my face already dusted with flour. I thought about splashing myself with water, but, no, I was already too cold.
When I came out from hiding in the bathroom, the boss had already arrived. The beards switched off the yodeling guitars and the corny lyrics about riding trains and the bakery was blessedly quiet for a minute. I followed my boss over to two large mixing machines and six or seven five and ten-gallon buckets. She began to collect disparate clipboards, tubs, scoops, timers, graphs, scales and assorted papers from around the room. Each one almost hidden away in some nonsensical place. Binders appeared from under racks, papers appeared from drawers of scoops and scrapers, certain important papers were lying in plain sight on the mixing table. I wondered aloud if they were always to be found just, you know, sitting on the table like that. The answer was too complex to follow. It was as if a complex algorithm needed to be followed to determine where the papers would be at any given time, as for the clipboards, such instruments as sextets and astrolabes wouldn’t be unheard of to determine their location, it seemed.
When all these instruments were piled around the two massive mixing cauldrons, the boss began to combine them in the most opaque ways.
“To make sour dough,” the boss began, yelling over the whirring of myriad fans and generators. “You’ll need to do a leave of six. You can see that from this chart here, but that’s only because you have the temperature from a factor of six—“
“How did you find that? I asked pointing to a number that had appeared as if by alchemy.
“Here,” the boss said, pointing to a flour-dusted chart affixed to the wall, showing a 7X7 table of numbers, none of which seemed to have any bearing on what we were doing.
“And why did we need that?” I hazarded, hoping another question, would clarify the first, but this only yielded another binder, holding leaves of paper so old and floury as to be nearly translucent. The boss pointed to another number which seemed all but imaginary. She looked at me to see if I understood, rather than dig myself any deeper, I nodded vaguely. “OK,” I said. But she called my bluff.
“Do you know where that number came from? She asked.
“I, uh, I think so.” I tried, but, no, this wasn’t a satisfactory answer and I was bombarded by three more pages, each again coming from a different part of the room and covered in tables of obscure numbers, none of them complete integers. No familiar Roman or even Greek characters to ascribe a value to any of them, just numbers upon numbers, as if, by sheer volume they had managed to accumulate some kind of meaning. I nodded, dizzily. “Ohh. OK.” I said and, thankfully, the demonstration continued.
The numbers and flour swirled around me. I started machines and stopped others, stirring obscure amounts of flour and water before adding other, even less certain amounts of salt, yeast and/or buckets of starter. Some of which, we’d made earlier. I knew I’d been there an hour and a half when I heard the drivers come in to pack up for their runs. As I listened to them pack, talk and joke, I became aware of a consuming envy. Soon, they would be climbing in their vans and driving off along the coast, needing only to roll down their windows to listen to the roar of the early morning surf and the susurrations of fog dripping through the redwoods. They’d stop into restaurants and supermarkets, trundling loaves and baguettes of sweet-smelling bread. Back in their vans, they’d eat day-old pastries and drink freshly brewed coffee and smile as the world rolled out like a tapestry beneath their delivery van wheels. All for the same rate of pay as I was making using a paint scraper to chip old dough off while, simultaneously preparing dry mixes for the night crew, mixing sweet dough and getting more fifty-pound flour bags from the store room and, any second now, that other mixer is going to stop and I’m going to have to weigh out that dough in 2 bins of 20.19 lbs, 1 bin of 9.48 lbs and three bins of 32.02, or, if there’s not enough for all three, two bins of 32.02 and one bin of ‘leave three,’ and then change the other bin to 17.55 to even things out. There were so many steps, sub-steps, sub-sub-steps and micro-steps, a dedicated statistician couldn’t have figured it all out.
You’d think with the myriad tasks, I would’ve been kept busy enough not to notice the clock, but somehow, I had just enough downtime between tasks to glance up at the moon-faced bastard from time to time and read his arduous report of the day’s progress. All the duties packed in together meant while I was doing ten things at once, I was also making little headway into my shift, despite all that I’d already accomplished. I vainly waited for a break in the monotonous, but complex labor. There was always something to do. Every time a task was completed, there was another which had already been put off too long, requiring immediate attention. My sore muscles cried out, while the convolutions of my brain eroded to a glistening smoothness to which no new information could stick. I labored, I listened to the instructions from the boss, but I thought of nothing. A draft horse would’ve paid better attention. I was a mule, working on and on, having even lost the hope of finishing some day. Meanwhile, the numbers, forms and charts continued to come into play with all the complexity of the assembly of a particle accelerator.
This laborious agony was occasionally broken up with spells of ‘shaping’ where the dough came out of a machine which separated it into 12 or 24 even pieces, it needed quick pre-shaping to proof. The shaping varied in complexity, but, no matter how simple, I was unable to do any of them correctly. Each time a hunk of dough came to me, I watched in horror as my inept hands twisted, yanked and pulled it into something that looked like it would’ve been better off going through the blades of a lawnmower. In my incapable hands, the dough was rendered, tough, unpliable and overly floured. Any one of my creations would’ve failed as a dog treat and, had they resembled something, probably would’ve best served as the lumpy Christmas ornaments children make with dough that are painted and shellacked. The rolls, which required nothing more than to be folded and tucked, somehow took on the shape of abominations, twisted, rolled and flattened out of proportion with anything edible. As if this wasn’t humiliating enough. My co-workers, continually tried to cheer me up by saying, with each aborted attempt, ‘this one looks better,’ or; ‘I think you’re getting the hang of it.’ All this after each boule, roll or bâtard came out looking like something from a Hieronymus Bosch painting. I pleaded with my eyes, ‘please, spare me any further humiliation,’ but the worse my attempt, the brighter the praise. The ordeal was so embarrassing, I longed to return to my doughy cauldrons, mind-crippling numbers and 50-pound bags.
I never took a lunch and only once in the 8-hour day, did I have a moment to sit down and take a few devastated gulps of cold coffee. The shift ended abruptly, there was no wind-down. One minute, I was engaged in 13 separate tasks and the next, each was finished and the shift was over. I nodded my head in dim recognition of my manumission and stumbled out the door into the blinding afternoon sun.
I did this for three days and each day, my hints to management became more desperate. By the end, I was begging to be taken off this duty. Normally I’m a hard-worker. I take my job as it comes. The last time I did manual labor, I worked a few 12-hour days with nary a peep of complaint. At the end of the day, I had my beer and fell asleep in my dinner like a decent hard-working man, but this was too much. The terrifying possibility that I would be doing this work for weeks, months and even years made my head spin. Sure, maybe I’d get used to it, but what kind of person would I be if I did? Would I have room in my brain left for anything else after I’d taught myself how to do an impromptu leave-2 for a twelve divide of the sour dough? Probably not. And, as the day loomed closer when I’d be taken off training and left to my own devices, I grew more and more anxious. It was fugue in there. I couldn’t remember anything. At 3am, I stumbled into the bakery and waited to be told what to do, nothing registered; there was too much going on to write anything down and so many processes, I knew I’d have to write in shorthand to get any of it down, or else bring a video camera and review the tapes nightly. No, there was no use anticipating it. It was going to be an unparalleled disaster. None of the bread was going to roll out of the bakery that afternoon after my first shift alone. The delivery drivers were going to have to go without their aural bounty of sand, surf and glistening conifer. When my gnarled, unleavened and improperly mixed loaves came off the line, the entire staff was going to shudder and turn their heads away, refusing to touch or bag such abominations. Even the farmers who came to get the day-old stuff for their livestock weren’t going to want these things. Deep down, I nursed the hope that maybe then they’d see I’d hadn’t been exaggerating and take me off the mixing shift. In the meantime, I did what I could to keep my head above water.
After my third day of training, I had bashed my last baguette into a broken ouroboros when a coworker told me to find the manager and ask if I had any more work before taking off. I wearily climbed the stairs to the office, leaving floury footprints on the carpet. Flour-dusted, bone-weary and red-eyed, I must’ve cut a pathetic figure, so pathetic, in fact, the bosses looked up, took in the sight of my hunched frame and told me to come in Wednesday to check the schedule; they had decided to take me off mixing. I’d remain a driver and a driver alone. Luckily my exhaustion limited my celebration to the confines of decency. I wheezed an exultant ‘thank you’ and shuffled out into the daylight, a renewed man. Already, I could hear the Pacific mists rolling up from the beaches and snagging on the pampas grass and coastal pine along my delivery route where I would deliver the bread I now had an extraordinary appreciation for.