A Brief Act of Kindness

Saturday morning, before we began our trek to SoCal, Fuzzy and I were sitting in our favorite bagel shop, chatting about inconsequentials, and just enjoying the day, when the Woman in Black came in.

While she wasn't really a Woman in Black, in the sense of the political group, she was a woman, and she was black-clad from her ratty hooded sweatshirt, to the cotton dress, full of holes and split to mid thigh (more on one side than the other because the seam had ripped).

When she walked, it was impossible not to see that she was wearing red, white, and blue plaid knee-high socks under the dress. I don't remember what her shoes were. Some kind of sneaker, I think. She was muttering to herself, which is really what gave her away as being homeless. As did her first action: She picked up a napkin dispenser, carried around, then sat in a corner, pulled all the napkins out, and stuffed them in her purse.

I was midway through my bagel, and the cream cheese just didn't taste right to me that morning. I'd been complaining to Fuzzy of that since we'd begun to eat. So I told him, “You can finish that, if you want,” and wandered out of the bagel place and into Starbucks for road-fuel in the form of a caramel frappucino.

A few minutes later, mission accomplished, I returned, in time to see Fuzzy handing off my bagel to the Woman in Black. And I thought, “Wow, what a cool thing to do.”

He reports that when he offered it to her, the initial response was “What is it.” A bagel, he answered, with cream cheese.

“Oh,” she replied. “I like cream cheese.”

* * *

It's her last comment that made the encounter stick in my mind. Before I met Fuzzy, my mother and I had a winter ritual of helping to cook holiday meals at a local homeless shelter, and one of the things we always boggled at was the way people who are literally scrounging for their next meal would turn away parts of the dinner, “Oh,” they'd sniff. “I hate green beans.”

I suppose it's about control. Sometimes turning down green beans can be the most empowering thing you do all week.


While we were in the hotel, I started reading the book Bread Alone, a novel about a woman of roughly my age who is essentially a trophy wife. When her husband informs her that he needs space, she flees to her best friend in Seattle, and starts baking bread, something she hasn't really done since a foreign exchange trip in college, where she apprenticed in a boulangerie in France.

Interspersed throughout the book are recipies for everything from peasant bread to Tassajara's banana yeast bread to pumpkin muffins (a personal favorite). This book, like A Year in Provence made me want to taste everything. Alas, when I began to read, even room service had shut down for the night.

I finished the book last night, and dreamed about making bread with my grandfather. Bread baking was one of the hobbies he acquired in the seventies, so I'm really the only grandchild who got to participate. My cousins say I was his favorite, but I think it was more that I was there.

In any case, I remember the smell of the cornmeal in the bread pans, and I remember him teaching me about sourdough starters, and how they worked, and I remember that he had this metal bowl with a crank for stirring dough (it never occurred to him to use my grandmother's stand mixer, or maybe the mixer was dead by then.)

The last time a book really put me in the baking urge was eons ago when I read The Sourdough Wars by Julie Smith (great mystery novelest, btw), and this book has also sparked the urge. All day today at work, I wanted to rush to Barnes and Noble and pick up The Tassajara Bread Book and perhaps some other books on bread. That didn't happen, because I didn't leave work til eight, and by then I was grumpy and tired, and Fuzzy and I were too hungry to do anything but eat and veg in front of Inside the Actor's Studio.

Before I came upstairs, though, I tossed 1/4 cup of white flour, and 1/4 cup of wheat flour, and an equal measure of water, into a ceramic bowl, and stirred it into a paste, covered it with a wet towel, and left it on the back of the stove. Tomorrow when I come home, it'll be time for the first refreshment, and by the weekend, I should have decent starter. It actually works better (faster) if you toss in a little rye flour, but I didn't have any. Oh, well.

I can't wait to knead the first dough, to shape the loaves, to smell that fresh bread smell wafting through my house. True, I have a bread machines, and that's great for basic stuff, but it's not the same as shaping it myself.

Not just yeast, but little bits of nostalgia and imagination.
And since the bread machine has a jam cycle, maybe I'll make marmalade in it, so it won't feel ignored.