Bread and Butter

Bread and Butter

by Sherri Alms

I hated the phone, a black clunky desktop model with a rotary dial, old even in the late 1980s. It sat on an end table next to a scratchy brown sofa where I sat day after long January day, trying to will myself to use it to make sales calls to sell office products. It was supposed to be the start of my adult life, moving from my parents’ house in Akron, Ohio to Pittsburgh, where I had college friends.

Before graduating from college, I had always wanted to be a writer. I imagined I would work as a journalist or a copywriter for a few years and then work on a novel. But those kinds of jobs, in the decade after Watergate and All the President’s Men, were scarce. Everyone wanted to be a journalist. And there was a recession. I rejected an offer from a small newspaper in a small town in West Virginia because I couldn’t live on the salary, because I didn’t want to live in a small town. And the truth that I didn’t want to admit: I was scared that I would not be able to do the job.

Every decision I had made since graduating from college two years ago seemed to take me further and further from a job as a writer and closer to remaining stuck in Akron. At first, I worked my old summer job as a candle dipper at Hale Farm, a living history museum north of Akron, not far from Cleveland. I dipped a row of six long cotton wicks attached to a wooden holder into beeswax over and over, the melted wax accumulating slowly. Visitors would scrunch into the dark root cellar in the Hale family’s farmhouse, built in the early 19th century, to watch and listen to my talk. The friends I had at the museum scattered to post-college jobs and graduate schools. I worked with nice older guides and full-time craftspeople—a farmer, a glassblower, a blacksmith, and a chubby, white-haired woodworker, who had the geese he fed following him like big white ellipses. “When? When? When?” they honked, waddling as fast as they could to keep up.

Then I got a job as a marketing assistant, really a glorified secretary for the marketing department of a plastics factory. They made, maybe they still do, plastic lids for Parmesan cheese containers and similar products, the ones with different size openings so people could shake or pour or measure the contents. I worked with three other women, all secretaries, for the executives, all men. I got drunk at happy hours as if it was a job requirement, almost slept with my married boss after one of those drunken nights at a bar, and torched a good relationship by showing up with a former college boyfriend at a Christmas party. Maybe it was the night I sat in the car in my parents’ driveway giving thanks for getting home without an accident, or maybe it was when the college boyfriend called to say he was dating someone else and it was getting serious that I knew it was time to go, with or without the perfect job waiting for me.

So here I was in January of 1986, living with Joanie, a college friend, at her grandmother’s rowhouse in Pittsburgh, paralyzed on the end of that sofa and trying to ignore the phone that grew more menacing the longer I did not pick up the receiver and dial. At training, they told us we needed to believe in the products we were selling, their quality and usefulness to the customer. Three months into the job, I remained an office products atheist, making a few calls and almost always getting rejections. I turned to the comfort of soap operas—General Hospital and All My Children—as I ate my way through packages of Chips Ahoy and Oreos, Fritos and French onion dip. Or I would lose myself in the distraction of long walks around Millvale, just across the Allegheny River from downtown Pittsburgh, past rowhouses, clad in drab siding, churches, and storefronts lined up on the sidewalks.

Joanie and I organized a pub crawl that winter for our college friends. For every church in Millvale, there were at least two dive bars with names like Tony’s or Joe’s, Northside Tavern, Grant Tavern, and Smokey’s Bar. They were dim and narrow, like the rowhouses that edged them on either side, a bar against one wall, a row of tables on the other, one or two tables near the front door, maybe a back room with a pool table. We burst into one of them, laughing and loud, and saw a row of men seated at the bar, some middle-aged and some older, in dark baggy pants and button-down shirts with sleeves rolled up. They cast eyes at us in our bright preppy sweaters and tight jeans and then hunched shoulders forward again toward the bartender, tired men in a tired town, more than likely a few of them laid off, no pensions, unmoored from the only work they knew how to do, their dreams gone the way of the smoke from the stilled stacks at the empty steel mills.

They drank their beer and threw back shots. “How about them Steelers?” one asked to the bar, generally to guffaws in response.

“What about ‘em?” replied a man clutching an Iron City can.

“Fuck the Steelers. I’m about to start rooting for the Browns,” came from an older man down at the end of the bar to jeers and laughter.

Replace the bar stool with Joanie’s grandmother’s sofa and their beers with cookies and Fritos and I was them. I reminded myself that I was trying to find another job, the right kind of job. I bought creamy business stationery and typed out cover letters that dropped into the mailbox without a sound. No replies.

In March, Joanie came into the living room where I was reading a novel. “Have you got a minute?” she asked. I looked up. “My grandmother asked me about the rent,” she said. “I’m really sorry, but it was due two weeks ago. Do you think you will be able to give me a check soon?” I could hear in her tentative tone how little she wanted to ask the question. I looked down again and the words on the page swam in my embarrassment. “Oh, yes, sure, I need a couple of days. I can write a check for it Tuesday. Does that work?” Relief flooded her features.

The summer before I left for college, my mom took me through how to balance a checkbook, adding up the columns of credits and debits, figuring the total with pencil on paper, and comparing it with the bank statement. She told me, the oldest of her four children and the first in our family to go to college, that she and my dad could afford to send me $50 a month for my expenses until I got a part-time job my sophomore year. Then I was on my own.

Now here I was, a college graduate asking her for money. As I wrapped and unwrapped the phone’s curly cord around my fingers, we talked about the weather, her real estate work, Dad’s office job, my sisters’ school and friends. Finally, I got the words out, “I need to borrow some money.” To my surprise, she didn’t ask questions beyond how much I needed. I was relieved, grateful, and a little ashamed.

Some weeks later, in early spring, when the sky was the same color as the sidewalk and the wind bit as it blew, I saw my mother’s Christmas gift, a Better Homes and Gardens red and white checked cookbook, sitting on a shelf in my bedroom. I leafed through it, pausing at a photo of a loaf of fresh baked bread. I remembered my dad exclaiming in happiness as he cut slices of my mom’s bread, fresh from the oven, for me and my siblings.

Maybe I was looking for that warm golden comfort, or maybe I wanted the work when I walked to the corner store at the end of the block for yeast. The store smelled like dill, caraway, garlic, onion, and cinnamon. Neat rows of metal shelves lined the walls and the center of the store with the regular selection of snacks, candy, toiletries, and cleaning products. One aisle held fresh vegetables, and I wandered down it, looking at crimson beets crusted with dirt and topped with half-wilted greens, next to pale green heads of cabbage heaped in their wooden crate, fat, long carrots still attached to their ferny fronds and tied in bunches. Near the cash register, loaves of black bread and rye bread sat piled on a long shelf.

When I couldn’t find the yeast, I asked at the front counter. The woman who owned the store with her husband, smiled at me. She was probably in her fifties, maybe her early sixties, slender and tall. She had thick dark hair, wiry gray strands escaping the bun she pulled it into. She wore a loose-fitting floral housedress buttoned up the front, like the dresses my Texan grandmother wore that I loved.

“Yeast?” she asked.

“Yes, I need it for a recipe.”

“Are you making bread? From yeast?”

“Yes,” I answered again.

“We have yeast!” She smiled as she led me to the spot. “Not many young people bake their own bread.”

“I hope it turns out,” I replied as I paid for two yellow and red packets.

I mixed and kneaded, punching the dough and then pulling it, my body relaxing into the rhythm. Whatever I felt loosening in me as I punched the dough stretched a little more. Later, I kept watch as the dough rose in its bowl and then in two pans near the stove. It was, I have since learned, an act of faith to decide when the loaves were ready to go into the oven. Soon, the smell sidled out, warm and comforting, and I could see the crusts browning when I opened the oven door.

When they were still just a little warm, I cut two thick slices, their interior marked by holes where yeasty bubbles had popped while they baked. I slathered them in butter so the airholes could do their job and catch it. I ate them with a cup of coffee.

I told the corner store lady the next time I was in her store. “The bread tasted good. It rose just like it was supposed to.”

“Ah, that is good to know!” she said. “I hope you keep baking.” It was this small delight she took in me, the interest that, like my mom’s generosity, gave me hope that my real adult life was out there and that I was capable of living into it.

Soon after, I found an okay new job with a regular paycheck. Then a friend told me there were lots of jobs for editorial assistants in Washington, D.C. I started buying The Washington Post at the corner store on Sundays for the job ads. The corner store lady always greeted me, sometimes asking if I was planning to bake bread, which I did every now and then. Every week, I carried home the thick roll of paper, opened to the classifieds, circled the potential job ads, and devoured the rest of the paper. I started to see a life I wanted, my desire finally growing stronger than fear I would not succeed.

In November, I found a job as an editorial assistant in DC. I packed my hatchback full of boxes and headed east. Away from the bridges and the hills. The men on their barstools. And the lady in the corner store.


Featured in our July 2023 issue, "Neighborhood"