It has been three years since I’ve lived amidst the hustle and bustle of a large city. I remembered the glitz, but somehow, I failed to remember the pining for space, bumping elbows, and avoiding eye contact with fellow bus passengers, even if it means perpetually re-reading an advertisement for becoming fluent in conversational Swahili. Everyone operates in “elevator mode,” where neighbors stand shoulder to shoulder, but barely muster the deference to nod hello.
Even the produce feels crowded. At Big City Neighborhood Bakery, we turn out high volumes of product while operating within the confines of city real estate. This requires creative storage. Efficiency rules and consolidation is key. Lots of bungee cords are involved, restraining the bins of batter back from jumping off shelves onto the soiled, walk-in refrigerator floor. Cakes are especially desperate for space, praying that they don’t get sideswiped by a clumsy sheet pan or knocked by some desperate reorganizer, trying to create just one more open space.
In my mind (a place where those who travel should receive proper vaccinations beforehand), city life and the walk-in refrigerator are one and the same. Any spot that opens up is prized real estate, no matter how small or dingy, and regardless of how spatially insane it seems, something will happily shove itself into that cranny. Perhaps if I had trained in the navy on submarines I would feel less claustrophobic, but alas, I grew up in the soft suburbs of Cleveland, where everything is scaled to the size of SUVs and double cheeseburger meals.
Strategically located at the back of this skinny, rectangular walk-in refrigerator is a (need I say it?) small walk-in freezer. Getting out of the freezer is like exiting a very crowded subway train with a suitcase. The first step is carrying a sheet pan or a heavy tub of frozen goods past the door, which rarely opens fully due to boxes in its path. Then, there is the daunting task of passing two or three other people who are trying to dig for what they need in the refrigerator. At this point, I usually have to convince myself not to back-up, shut the freezer door and play a game of make-believe where I’ve been transported to the North Pole, where Mrs. Clause has been keeping very busy making hundreds of brioche pastries and mousse cakes.
Basically, every turn in a multi-step process that requires coordination, balance and a bit of contortion. It makes me think of places like Flagstaff and the pioneers. Taking a caravan out west to claim an expansive plot of land where cows can roam and the amber wheat can wave. It’s a nice fantasy, but at the end of the day, Big City Neighborhood Bakery, is successful because that efficient use of space and manpower. And because of our efforts, working elbow to elbow, we are able to provide other city-dwellers with a small slice of humanity. It is always my hope that freshly baked cookie made with wholesome ingredients, or homemade, hand-rolled croissant can offer a momentary silence from the crowd. A small bite of enjoyment. A reward for doing all you do each day, even if that just might be navigating through traffic.