I went into an Italian bakery the other day and bought a focaccia and baguette. When the clerk gave me my change, she invited me to take a bag of bread crumbs at no extra charge. This particular bakery is run by Albanians and her accent was heavy, so I had to ask her to repeat it three times to make sure I understood. She did, and that’s when the trouble began.
I hesitated, not sure what I would do with a bag of bread crumbs. I thought of Maria, the neighborhood woman who flings bagfuls of crumbs to the pigeons every day while chain-smoking cigarettes, but whenever I go up to her she asks me who I am. So I stopped introducing myself five years ago.
“You use bread crumbs to bake with, right?” I asked, not trying to be funny, which, I have discovered, is when I am most funny.
She looked at me, grinned, and explained that you use bread crumbs for things like chicken, chops, and cutlets, you idiot. She didn’t actually say “you idiot,” but the implication was there. I noticed that chicken, chops, and cutlets all started with “c” and was about to say so but thought better of it. Thankfully, curbing my tongue has been occurring with greater frequency as I get older.
I found it hard to focus, though, because, in addition to trying to remember baking with bread crumbs (e.g., I used to be pretty good at eggplant parmigiana), our conversation attracted the other ladies behind the counter, who vied with each other like Maria’s pigeons to get closer.
“What? You don’t know what bread crumbs are for?” asked one. She wore a boxy, white hat as if she worked at a Soviet nuclear reactor instead of a Bronx bakery.
“You use them to prepare cutlets and pork chops,” said another.
“Wait!” gasped a third. “You don’t cook?”
It was true. I don’t. Instead, I arrange things on my plate that have been prepared earlier in the day at a deli or grocery store. I haven’t used the oven in two years, which, oddly enough, is the last time the smoke detector went off, causing other tenants to come out of their apartments and stand awkwardly in the hallway, staring at each other.
“Well, maybe I should start cooking,” I conceded.
“Yeah, that would be a good idea,” said the youngest as she slid a sheet of brioche onto a wooden rack in the bakery window beside me.
She was close enough for me to notice her light blue eyes and pink lipstick. She noticed that I noticed, which caused her to turn her nose up in reaction. No bother. The original clerk with brown eyes was prettier, I thought, even though she thought me an idiot.
As I left with my focaccia and baguette, I could feel them staring at me. They must have wondered what kind of world I come from that didn’t prepare me for the necessities of life. But it’s not that I don’t know how to cook or refuse to cook. I’m just not interested in it. It makes a mess and heats the apartment. And who can blame me with all the restaurants, cafes, delis, pizzerias, bakeries, and pastry shops within a three block radius? There’s even a food market across the street from me.
The father of the owner of a nearby gift shop advised me to find a woman who could cook, clean, and do my laundry for me. Then he hinted at other necessities. Actually, he did more than hint. He’s a good man, a tailor who adjusts suits, jackets, and pants for me. He and his wife run their son’s store on weekends. The son lives in the suburbs.
It occurred to me that the tailor, his wife, their son, and the Albanians have something in common, especially since many of the Albanians are either related to each other, or come from the same region of Albania.
What is that? They are not alone. They live and work as a family, which means they complement each other, combine their efforts, and move closer every day to the American dream.
And, unlike me, they all know what to do with bread crumbs.