My wife and I both went through rehab, and I began to live without drugs for the first time in over a decade. It wasn't easy at first, but I didn't want to go back to that way of life.
Six months passed. I was happy just to be alive and conscious, but I was unemployed. One day, I passed a West Village bakery with a sign in the window saying "Driver Needed" and some tiny cowboy voice, deep in the reptilian part of my brain, propelled me inside.
This was a daytime gig. No more sitting in the glow of dashboard lights and wondering what was out there in the darkness. No more driving all night at high speed through empty streets. Suddenly, I was around people. I would wake up each day by 7 a.m., wash up, get dressed, and walk to work. All those years when I had been on drugs, coming down and wanting to die, I had watched people going to work in the morning from my window and felt so envious. I didn't have a job then, and I was too strung-out and psychotic to walk around in the daylight. It was a joy to wake up at dawn and go to work.
I would retrieve the truck from a lot on Washington Street and drive to the bakery (or "patisserie"), where the other driver and I would stand across from each other at a table in the kitchen. While the bakers talked with each other in French and their West African tribal dialects, we would pack hot, sticky danishes into white boxes and talk about the previous day's stops, our nights at home, and the world in general.
"Hey Lazar, you don't really believe that there are no gay men in the Ivory Coast, do you?" Lazar was the "fruit man" -- he would make fruit tarts all morning. He would shout back: "I'm telling you guys, there are no gay men in Africa." This kind of dialogue would go on for about twenty minutes every morning.
One of the other drivers at the patisserie, James, a very tough black guy from North Carolina, once came out of a stop on Cortlandt Street just in time to see someone getting into the back of his truck, obviously with the intention of stealing some pastries. James ran to the back of the truck and closed the door, trapping the intruder in the dark, refrigerated box. He then took a very "fast, bumpy drive," as he described it, to the World Trade Center, where he turned the thief in to the police. He loved retelling this story to me as we packed danishes each morning.
The bagel bakery was like an assembly line at General Motors compared to this place. One person iced the cakes, another made the tarts, another made the napoleons and pies, while someone else worked the oven. The decorators were artists, and we had a reputation for beautiful, expensive cakes. Sometimes, the bakers got into tribal disputes -- literally -- and fists flew. And the owner had little patience for slow workers, so you never knew when a muffin pan would go flying across the kitchen. He was an Italian who had grown up in the Bronx, started working in Jewish bakeries when he was thirteen (as he never failed to remind us), and learned about French and Viennese baking at the Plaza Hotel. "Let me tell you how we did it at the Plaza," he would say.
My first run of the day was called the "breakfast run," croissants, danishes and muffins, and it went out to the coffee shops and espresso bars downtown from 8 to 9 a.m. -- ridiculously late for breakfast items. The managers at these stops were usually waiting for me with the eternal questions: "What happened?" or "Where have you been?" or "What am I going to do with this stuff now?" My standard reply was "You're my first stop, they got me out late. Call the store." I would blame the dispatcher, the bakers, the traffic, the truck --anyone or anything. Usually, it was the bakers' fault. They routinely came in late, and our boss would occasionally scream at them and pound his fist on a table, but nothing ever changed. Sometimes, we drivers would stop for breakfast, too, but we would never admit that to anyone.
Daytime traffic was like another world. "Going to Midtown" became synonymous with "My life will suck today." One of the worst stops was Bergdorf Goodman. We would do anything to avoid it. I had to park at 57th Street and 5th Avenue, go through a security desk, down some stairs, wait for a freight elevator, and go up to a cafe on the fifth floor and a restaurant on the seventh floor. Parking was nearly impossible. The commercial spots were always taken by on-the-job contractors or UPS men, affectionately known to us as "Fuckheads."
The great breakthrough came with Frank, a Puerto Rican driver who was at the patisserie the first year I worked there. Frank had been driving trucks in the city for years. He and I used to find the greasiest of the greasy spoons and dare each other to go in and get the greasiest dishes. ("Yes, I'll have three eggs over-easy, with corned beef hash, bacon, and sausages.") Those meals were a lot cheaper than my fancy business lunches at Le Perigord, where I had once nibbled at expensive crudites with coke-numbed teeth.
Anyway, it was Frank who struck up a friendship with Pat, the doorman at Bergdorf's. Pat was a New York City legend. He had been standing there on 57th Street for over forty years, and it seemed like he knew everyone in the city. We were having trouble parking on 57th, so Frank started to bribe Pat with cheesecakes, carrot cakes and fine pastries ... nothing was too good for Pat. In exchange, he would take the truck keys and say, "Don't worry boys, just get a move on."
Half-an-hour later, when we came down, the truck would be neatly parked or it would be double-parked and Pat would be chatting with a parking cop. At Christmas, he would give us Bergdorf sample bags and we would give him bigger cakes. It was a sad day when Pat retired. We laid a lot of pastries on his replacement, who occasionally would look out for us, but it wasn't the same. We felt as though we had lost a dear friend.
I always took the downtown run if I could get it. The parking was much easier. I used to love going to the Federal Reserve Bank and thinking about all of the gold stashed nine stories below ground. It was a quick turn off Maiden Lane, a short drive through security into the loading dock, then a few steps to the receiving agent, an elderly Pakistani fellow who disappeared for a year following triple-bypass surgery. When he returned, he would beg us for lemon tarts, then tell us that he shouldn't be eating them. ("This stuff will kill me.")
I always worked weekends and, during the wedding season, I learned how to drive as fast as possible while still trying to give the wedding cakes a gentle ride. Occasionally, the pastillage flowers would break off or the buttercream would melt en route. Sometimes, if I had to brake hard, one of these masterly confections would be shattered into bits. Then, I would have to rush back to the store, where the bakers worked like the crew in an emergency room, piecing the cake back together again. I would then have to rush to the catering hall or one of the yachts on the West Side ("Hurry up, the boat's going to leave in twenty minutes.") and carry the cake in late. Sometimes, when I was really late and the reception had already started, I would take it to the enraged banquet manager and pretend that I didn't speak English.
And then there were the taxis. Wars were waged each day on the streets of Manhattan between truckers and taxis. We were like competing predators -- two classes of professional drivers with different agendas. Taxis either want to go fast or they're going slow, cruising for fares. Trucks take up the road, double-park, and go slow. Taxis are usually in the way. There's this automatic contempt that you have when you're sitting higher than everyone else.
It became a sport to see how much you could delay a cab with your driving skills. I once blocked a cabbie for over twenty blocks, bobbing and weaving in front of him and not letting him pass. When he finally pulled up next to me at a light, he got out and started screaming and spitting on my truck. I looked straight ahead and, when the light changed, I pulled away slowly, chuckling. Ah, simple pleasures.
I was only going to stay at this job for six months, a year at the max. Every year, I would vow not to be hauling cookies again during the holiday season. I would recall the words of my counselor at rehab: "I hope you have a long, slow recovery." I fell into a rut, but I would console myself with the thought that I wasn't getting arrested or overdosing. I didn't have to hide from my landlord anymore. Family and friends spoke to me again. I took a shower every day. I have to admit, I liked driving a truck, but I began to want more out of life. I was becoming more functional.
I suppose that I had to drive for as long as I did. I had to learn from scratch how to be among people, starting with Bonilla. It took me five years of driving a truck to realize that nobody was going to come to me and say "Okay, you've done your time, here's your life back."
Eventually, I moved inside and started managing the commercial department. I would send the drivers out and, when they called me with their excuses for being late, I would tell them they were full of shit. Didn't they know who they were talking to?