The 5 a.m. sun peeks through a crowd of highrises and historic brownstones on a Brooklyn street, shining a spotlight on the glass storefront of a bakery. On show is a window filled with red velvet cupcakes, whimsically topped by piles of cream-cheese icing, chocolate-chip cannoli, dusted with powdered sugar, and golden-crusted pies with apples, cherries, and peaches peeking through their lattice tops.
The man who filled the windows and the showcase inside, emerges from the basement bakery at this early hour five days a week. Without a glance at his night’s work, he squints his sunken brown eyes in the new light and heads for the train and home two stops away.
“Sometimes you hit the bed face first, and don’t even take your clothes off,” he says.
Later, while he’s home frosted to his sheets with sheer fatigue, passing children from a nearby elementary school will stop in front of the display to plead with protesting parents for one of his sweets. Grown-ups will count calories and fudge the numbers to fit in a small snack while heading to the park. The baker is still snoring.
He won’t wake until 3 p.m., when he showers and gets ready to head back to the bakery for his 5 p.m. shift. He has lived in this neighborhood his entire life and says he’d prefer his name not be used. At 57, the 12-hour shifts have hollowed his cheeks, worked dark bags under his eyes, and bent his slender frame to a five-and-a-half-foot hunch.
He’s off Tuesday and Saturday. Evenings he runs the errands the rest of us scatter throughout the week, doing laundry, paying bills, shopping, and cleaning, trying to retain a normal life. After a certain hour though, the stores all close, and he’s left alone to spend his time walled off from the world by a time-clock and punch-card.
He’s never been married, and hasn’t talked to his old friends in a long time, he says. He just stays home and reads the Bible or health magazines, trying to improve himself, one way or another. Or, he’ll listen to 1010 WINS, news radio.
“It helps with the loneliness,” he says.
When he can find the time, he visits his 90-year-old father who lives a few blocks away. Usually, they just go grocery shopping, so the son can help him carry things home, or they go to Nathan’s for french fries. Sometimes his brother, 56, comes from Staten Island to meet them. He used to be a baker too, but has since found work as a security guard. It’s been tough for the baker to stay in touch with his family though, living 12 hours apart, on the other side of the clock. “It’s hard to find the time,” he says.
His hair may match it better now, but when he first donned the snow-white baker’s uniform 30 years ago, he was able to wear it with a greater sense of satisfaction. There was a crew of bakers, working together to fill the day’s orders. Rolling, cutting, shaping, filling, proofing, baking, a warm, sweet-smelling assembly line, that left them with a sense of camaraderie and meaningful production.
“I liked to go to work,” he says of those days. “We were part of a team.”
The shift to night work, which started a year ago, has changed all that, he says. Overnight he’s alone in the basement caverns, under a low-dropped ceiling. That’s what has been really hard he says, “the loneliness; it’s hard to work alone.”
He says the owners must have something against him, or else they’d show some compassion and put him back on the old shift.
“You’re just a number here,” he says.
In a few more years, this lonely baker will be able to retire. “I put my time in, and I deserve it,” he says.
He says has no idea what he’ll do when that day comes.
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