A typical bagel oven has five shelves that rotate slowly so that you can load or unload one while the others remain suspended. Upon pressing the green button, the shelves resume their cycle and when you press the red button the next shelf presents itself to get loaded or inspected for doneness. The shelves rotate up and back, down and forward and each shelf has a certain amount of time in the 475° box before it comes back to the door where it can be dealt with.
In addition to my shifts at the bakery I'd worked at since high school, by nineteen
I was an overnight baker at a 24 hour bagel shop on the service road of the Long Island Expressway ("Horrace Harding" as it's known locally). The New York Times had celebrated Bagel Oasis as one of the top five bagel places in New York City while I was employed there, a commendation in which I took a good amount of pride.
I'd worked almost as much as I'd partied during high school, and considerably more than i studied. I would sit on the city bus taking me to work after school and listen with envy to the other kids planning their extracurricular activities, social lives and mischief.
I was driven to overachieve...to fill the shoes of the "special" tag Id been assigned, and when my interest in school plummeted, I found other ways to feign accomplishment and garner admiration. I was a "hard worker", a trait that has only served to keep me from slowing down long enough to confront my true desires and formulating a roadmap to their fulfillment. The world has fallen to pieces more than once. Opportunity has flirted with me over drinks, email and frank discussion.
I just kept on working.
Both jobs were quick paced and exciting. I loved being around food and intense heat and I had boundless strength for carrying heavy loads and energy for long hours.
Even at fifteen I considered myself to be the best dish washer alive and I'd consider the clock as I washed every pot and hotel pan, always approaching the job with the concentration of a protege and the skill of a ninja. I took this approach to all my work, aiming to be the fastest, strongest and coolest at everything from twisting challah to making blackened aluminum pans shine silver again.
The principal baker at Bagel Oasis was a tall, scrawny guy a few years older than I was and known by the crew as Gay Eddie. He had a chip on his shoulder and, while never overtly unkind, kept a competitive eye on me and I always felt challenged.
However much dexterity and confidence I brought to the table, I couldn't deny that I was in the presence of high-gluten greatness. He moved like a ballerina, twirling the peel rather than lifting....spinning across the floor rather than walking. He was fast and efficient. I was humbled and upped my game in the face of any impending comparrisons. Eddie drank a lot and was often late to work, which increased my own workload on those days and led to the bosses' offer to give me a better schedule, which I politely declined because of blind dedication to my other job. I'd gotten good at working stoned, but noticed myself dragging if I was hungover or if I'd recently had cocaine in my system. This was happening more and more often.
The excitement was getting replaced by exhaustion, social anxiety and debt. I'd done coke with abandon since 11th grade beginning at a party thrown by one of my High School substitute teachers. She'd filled in for an English teacher for months and was likable and very popular...mostly because she assigned us next to no work.
Ms. Mark was young and Jappy and sounded like Fran Drescher's charachter on The Nanny. One Saturday morning she came to the bakery to say hi wearing a long mink coat, sweat pants and flip flops. I was equally impressed by and embarrassed to be seen with her. She and I had gotten close and she was a fan of my writing and--I suspected--of me. We talked about my struggles with my girlfriend, her aging snowbird parents, drugs, and statutory rape. Oh...and English. We pined over heavy metal song lyrics and debated the Beatles and the Stones (all Beatles for me at the time), George Carlin an Richard Prior (the latter ever possessing a hotline to my funny bone), the Electric Company and Zoom (oh, two one...three four). She invited me over to listen to music and pulled a large zip-lock bag from the freezer. She sat at her moms glass coffee table, pushed the bowls of peppermints and jolly ranchers aside, produced long shears and began to snip huge sections of very green pot into a crystal ashtray and we got more stoned than I'd ever known was possible. She arranged a party for a handful of us students at her parents house and she pulled me into a room where we did shotguns and my first lines of coke. I fell immediately in love with the frame of mind it put me in and the confidence with which I walked out of that room drove me to peruse and use cocaine as often as possible. That's the thing about drugs for me; they did something wonderful. Liberated me. Granted me access. Balanced my brain. Once. Or twice. But then when they stopped doing that, I relied on them more and more. Like a bad partner who once showed promise but now presented nothing but grief and degradation, I wouldn't let go.
By this time my grades had plummeted fueled by a bad relationship, depression and truancy. I'd lost any remaining focus and despised school. Once I began using coke daily (smoking it at night) I was cranky, negative and enslaved. I stole money from my parents, conned my dealer, and started selling a little in order to support my habit. Unable to resist any quantity of the stuff in my proximity, dealing only led me into deeper debt and greater dependence. I anxiously avoided my dealer. I came late to work and burned myself frequently. I started to hate working and it showed in my performance.
Once, as I had a bagel oven going with two trays loaded and cycling, I went to the bathroom to get a hit. As I walked back to my oven I realized I might have missed my shelf of done bagels. I found that it had run an extra half turn and was now in the rear of the oven. This meant that by the time it got to the front of the oven, that shelf would be burnt. Same for the ones behind it. The whole place smelled of burned bread and I couldn't rush the machine. I had to wait, subjecting the shop to my now burning work, a mess, a spectacle and money in the trash. I soon left that job. I cannot remember the circumstances.
Although I still had a couple of friends I got high with, none were in as deep as I was, and as an evening with one of them would end, so would begin my own escapade. Hours and miles and dollars on end, my second life had become my new normal and so work, family, friends and any kind of self care became hard to fit in and there came a point where there was no differentiating days from nights. Wrong from right. "Need" from "need more". I did things that get people killed and I spent my time alone.
Bosses caught on and friends got sick of me and Mom just frowned and the floor kept on dropping out presenting darker and denser scenarios all featuring resignation and quicksand.
I look back on those days with sustained anxiety. Like the default heart-drop when a police cars' lights go on behind mine. Always the feeling that I'm a complete fake, about to be found out. About to get fired. About to burn shit.
At the same time, my tendency toward delusions of grandeur remains intact. I'm still the best dishwasher in these parts. I can frequently be found in the bouncy house of my mind, declining music licensing offers from the likes of Pepsi and Apple, racing soccer moms across the Tapan Zee, and winning televised dishwashing contests. A little less distracted. A lot less destructive. Ever the ninja. Ever the sham.