When I graduated college I sat down and read F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise and didn't know half the words. This is after I had received a Masters in History. So I started a notebook of words and it really wasn't until I worked the night shift for Gonella Bread on the West Side of Chicago that I received my literary education. It was there that I discovered the secrets of men and women who smithed words.
I worked in the shipping office of the bakery and took the bread orders all night long. The phones rang and rang and I sat in the flour and filth that is a bakery with the long loaves and flat rolls going around the bakery on a conveyor belt much like a roller coaster track. The Italians who worked there (they were all Italians) didn't speak much English and they all swore and gesticulated in the shipping office drinking their coffee with the red stain on their tennis shoes from the ink on the long loaf bags they held in place with their shoes.
Alonzo the foreman could speak English and he would come in and shake his head. What the frick you doing with all them books Jack? What in the frick you going to do with them? You need a job not books. You need a good job. Forget about them fricking books. And then he would head back out into the bakery. Around three AM the bread orders would die down and the route drivers would start to appear, sleepily drinking their coffee in the office.
It was then I pulled a book from the stack I kept on the corner of my desk. The stack was two feet high and had Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Kerouac, Faulkner, Lowrey, O'Connor, London. I couldn't decide what I wanted to read so I brought it all and for the next three hours I read while the loaves and rolls fell off the conveyor with soft plops to the bakery floor. When the sun started to creep into the loading dock I put on my backpack and loaded up my books.
I went to the conveyor belt and picked off the hot rolls and wrapped them in brown paper and stuffed them in my leather coat. Then I rode my motorcycle home through the cold quiet streets of Chicago with that warm bread keeping me warm. I caught my wife just before she went to work and we had warm bread and coffee. That was my literary education.
William Hazelgrove's latest novel is Rocket Man due out in the fall.