Friday, May 29, 2020

All of the Cookies

[We receive a lot of praise and positive feedback about our products and customer service. This may be the most thoughtful and kind love letter we've ever received. Republished here with the author's permission. - Ari]

by Elliot Inman   

May 24, 2020:  74 Days since the WHO Declaration of the Global Covid-19 Pandemic
       




Back in the 1990s when downtown Durham was a hollow shell of empty tobacco warehouses waiting to become something new, you could walk down the one-way streets and pass one abandoned building after the next.  There were a couple of bars and the occasional temporary storefront church that consisted of little more than a Sunday service sign and some folding chairs.  But there was almost nothing open during the day except Ninth Street Bakery.

Ninth Street Bakery was there at the tip of an isosceles triangle where two one-way streets met, its parking lot hidden behind an old brick wall.  You could walk around the wall, into the parking lot, and up the stairs to the bakery.  I don’t know how I knew it was there or how I knew you could just walk inside, but it seemed as if it had always been there.  

Not on Ninth Street, of course.  That was part of the mystery.  Not on Ninth Street at all, but there.

****

Back in the late 1990s, I had started a job downtown as what we now call a “data scientist” for one of the few companies, Measurement Incorporated, lead by someone who saw the future of the area.  The Durham Bulls ballpark would be the old Durham Bulls ballpark.  The empty tobacco warehouses would be renovated to become loft apartments and coworking labs for high-tech startups.  But none of that was there then and no one would blame you if you couldn’t see that vision. 

Two high-rise buildings had just been built and one sat empty.  A few places like the Carolina Theatre drew a crowd in the evenings.  People arrived and left walking a straight line from their cars to the theatre and back again.  Anyone who worked in an office brought their lunch or left downtown to eat, by necessity, probably to Brightleaf Square or even further away.  The only people doing good business seemed to be the meter maids who would ticket any car parked along the street for a minute too long.  I could not have imagined what downtown Durham would become, but some people did and they made it happen.

Back then, I was a year out of grad school, married, with a small child at home, and eager to prove to the world that I could easily work 12 or more hours a day six days a week.  I did -- cranking data, creating reports, optimizing distribution plans and trying to make sense of longitudinal trends.  This was before data science was deemed the “sexiest job of the 21st century.”  Back then, it was just cranking code and grinding out statistics, trying to find ways to make the computer run faster as the data sets grew bigger and more complex.

Ninth Street Bakery was just a couple of blocks from my office.  At lunch, I would walk the streets downtown, just to clear my head for a minute.  I watched as church service signs went up and were then taken down, the folding chairs cleared out of a room.  I passed the old furniture store and bars.  I watched the windows of an old hotel fill up with a sign made of letters on 8x11 paper begging Oprah Winfrey for help, a corporate SOS of sorts.  I remember when the downtown library removed the study carrels to try to discourage the homeless from sleeping there.

Ninth Street Bakery, hidden behind its brick wall fortress, persisted.

****

Where I worked, an enormous industrial coffee machine served free coffee to everyone who worked there.  I have never been a coffee connoisseur.  The coffee was good enough and it was the right price, free, so I usually filled my cup at the office. 

But some mornings, half asleep from working all night, addled, adrift in a kind of statistical fugue state, I would wander down the street to the bakery for a cup of coffee.  I don’t remember the coffee, except that you were given a cup to serve yourself.  But I wasn’t there for the coffee.  I was there for the yeast.

If you walked into Ninth Street Bakery, as is still true today, you were immersed in the aroma of a real bakery – yeast, flour, dough.  I understand technically that fermentation is fermentation and the difference between bread and booze is sometimes just a matter of time, but bread has always smelled like bread to me.  The minute you stepped into Ninth Street Bakery, you were bathing in the aroma of bread. 

If you arrived at the right time, you could see the bakers, only feet behind the front counter, dumping an enormous blob of soft wet dough onto the massive floured butcher’s block table where they would force the dough across the wood, kneading the dough with their bare hands, the angle of their elbows straightening as they pushed their hands into the dough, their bodies lurching forward and rolling back in motion with the dough that seemed to have a life force of its own.  If you arrived at the right time, you got to see this while you were waiting for the clerk to get you a cup for your coffee and ring up your order. 

I learned when the curtain rose on this performance and that’s when I went to get coffee.  Not every day, but definitely those mornings when I was lost in a mental trap of code bugs and numbers that should be equal but weren’t.  That’s when I needed it.

****

I did go at other times of the day.  Sometimes, when I was out for a walk at lunch, I would buy a cookie -- one of the big chocolate chip, peanut butter, or M&M cookies --  and eat it on the way back to the office.  Some late afternoons, when I and my coworkers had all been working too long too hard, I would go to the bakery. 

I don’t remember the first time I said it, but I do remember late one afternoon, long after the lunch rush, I was looking at all of the cookies in the case, trying to figure which one of a dozen or more cookies I wanted, and suddenly, these words came out of my mouth:  “I’ll take all of them.” 

“All of them?” asked the clerk. 

“Yes,” I said, “all of them.  I want all of them.” 

She packaged a dozen or more big cookies in a box for me and I carried it back to the office where I sent an e-mail to my coworkers to come and have a cookie in my cubicle.  They arrived.

“What’s going on,” someone asked.  What was the occasion?

“I don’t know,” I said. 

We ate all the cookies. 

It was not a regular thing, but every so often I would go and tell the clerk “all of them.” 

The entire box with all of the cookies probably didn’t cost more than $50, but it is one of the few times I felt rich.  I will take all of the cookies.  And I meant all.  The popular ones, the ones that might be cranberry or raisin, and that last one, whatever it is, by itself on the tray.  All of them.  

Please and thank you.

At the office, if we ever had too many cookies, they were disbursed to a circle of friends by special invitation, one after the next, summoned to a cubicle in order of friendship.

Back then, I guess I was a regular customer at the bakery.  I don’t know how many people darted into the bakery and back out to their offices.  Probably more than I knew.  But I recognized the bakers and clerk and they recognized me. 

One afternoon, on a spontaneous cookie run, the clerk said to me, “You know if you order ahead, we can make whatever kinds you want and I can have them boxed up when you get here.”

It was a kind offer, but making a plan to buy so many cookies for no reason seemed paradoxically too intentional, too deliberate.  I would have had to admit that I knew what I was doing before I did it.  I was happier imagining that what was happening was simply in the moment, as it had been the first time, deciding that what I wanted was all of them.

At the office, no one asked questions.  Sometimes, we just had a box of cookies.  People offered to contribute some money to the cause, but I refused.  Someone pays once and then everyone thinks they have to pay and the next thing you know you have to keep a ledger for accounts receivable, so no.  Just no.

That was twenty years ago.

****

Ninth Street Bakery is still where it was, not on Ninth Street.  It is no longer at the corner of two one-way streets.  The streets are now two-way streets to accommodate all of the traffic as thousands of people make their way to the various stores, restaurants, and nightclubs there along the new streets of downtown Durham.  The Black Wall Street sign is still there to mark a historic African-American business community.  The nearby statue of a confederate soldier was removed by some young people who couldn’t understand why the people my age had not already removed it.

These days, high-tech startups gather in basements where entrepreneurs slip down sliding boards to race to the electronic chalkboard to sketch a new gadget or app.  The Durham Bulls play in the new ballpark which is now just called the ballpark.  The recently renovated downtown library will open soon with a roomful of 3D printers alongside the books.  The same downtown streets that in the 1990s were almost always empty are now full of people day and night and weekends, too. 

Almost 15 years ago, just as the rest of the world was arriving in downtown Durham, I left my job downtown.  I am now one of the people who come back often because there is so much there to see and do.  When I walk the streets now, I remember what was actually there, or what wasn’t there, and think about the people who saw what it could be when no one else did.

Meanwhile, there is Ninth Street Bakery on the same corner hidden behind its brick walls.

****

Last weekend, when I ordered 4 sandwiches, 12 pastries, 2 t-shirts, and a breadmaking kit with yeast starter and 10 pounds of flour from Ninth Street Bakery, I knew I was not going to go inside.  I paid over the phone, pulled my car in the parking lot, and sat as a clerk dropped the bags into the back of my CRV. 

What I was not expecting was that, as I drove home, the same magic aroma of Ninth Street Bakery would fill the car.  As I drove home, there I was again:  waiting for the clerk to hand me my coffee cup while I watched a man massage an enormous blob of dough on the floured table.  The aroma filled the car with a memory from long, long ago.

My family and I ate the sandwiches and pastries.  A week later, I set out to try the yeast and flour using the bakery’s own instructions to make a loaf of my own.  When I opened the plastic container of yeast, there it was again.  The smell.  The exact, precise smell of the bakery in the morning, an identity more unique than a fingerprint.

I mixed the levain and let it rest overnight.  The next morning, I kneaded the little lump of dough and let it rise; formed it into a loaf in the pan and let it rise again; and heated the oven to exactly 440 degrees, as instructed.  As the dough rose and then baked, my kitchen began to smell like Ninth Street Bakery.

I have been baking bread for decades, off and on, resuming a regular routine in November of 2016 for reasons that shouldn’t require an explanation.  I have made all kinds of bread from basic whites and wheats to sourdough and multigrain, rye, and pumpernickel in standard issue shapes and rustic round loaves.  I don’t claim that I could, even with their secret ingredients and the baker’s own instructions, bake a loaf as delicious as one you could buy at Ninth Street Bakery.  But it is enough of the memory to remind me of the rest.

****

I am not an economist, nor am I an epidemiologist, but I have spent a couple of decades analyzing both business and health data.  I was analyzing a state’s health care data when I noticed a strange spike in narcotic prescriptions.  Other researchers would later define this as the opioid crisis.  The sharp increase in prescriptions wasn’t the result of the disease; it was the disease.  For another project, I analyzed sales data for a hundred year-old publicly traded company whose business was no longer working.  I watched as sales declined and the company faded into history.  I am watching now in horror at the thought of those two lines crossing:  A sharp increase in disease and a sharp decrease in sales.  The result of that interaction effect is frightening to imagine.

When I hear the experts say that not every business is going to survive this pandemic, I know they are right.  Not all great shops and restaurants managed and staffed by wonderful people will survive this.  

Some of my and your most favorite places will not endure – through no fault of their own.  Simply stated, a business that works in some places at some times does not always work in a different place at a different time.  Standing still right here, right now, this is a different place at a different time.

But even in the middle of this pandemic, I expect that Ninth Street Bakery, having survived so much already, will persist.  It is a retail cafĂ©/wholesale bakery dine-in/take-out order-ahead-or-not model that many other restaurants are quickly trying to adopt.  But it isn’t just a diversified multi-channel sales strategy that will help.  Places like Ninth Street Bakery will survive because we need them as much as they need us.  Like the WWI soldiers of the “Emergency Baking Division” on the bakery’s t-shirt, even under the most difficult circumstances, they keep baking.

All of their old friends and all of their new friends -- all of the people who love the aroma of the bakery in the morning, a sandwich at lunch, and a big box with “all of the cookies” for no reason -- will continue to support them, even if the only way to get a Ninth Street fix is to drive into the parking lot for a contactless curbside pickup.  We need Ninth Street Bakery and it needs us.

What downtown Durham will look like in the next year or two is impossible to predict.  Twenty years ago, only a few people had a vision of what downtown Durham could be.  Only two months ago, no one would have predicted what is happening today.  But the fact that Ninth Street Bakery is still baking bread every day is one sure sign that the starter for the levain of downtown Durham is still alive.  From that carefully tended little jar of sour flour, something wonderful and delicious will once again grow.

The Author with his Bread



    
You can live for three months without a haircut, but you cannot live three months without bread.

Elliot Inman is a data scientist who works for SAS in the Health Life Sciences R&D Division.  With a Ph.D. in Experimental Psychology from the University of Kentucky, a BA in English and a BA in Psychology from NC State University, and a certificate in Basic Electronics from Wake Technical and Community College, he is well-prepared for some career.  In addition to experimental music, electronics, gardening, and camping, he loves to bake bread.  A one-time resident of Durham, he returns to visit places like DPAC, the Durham Bulls ballpark, Motorco, The Full Steam Brewery, The Ruby at Duke, The Scrap Exchange, Pompieri Pizza, and Ninth Street Bakery.  He still misses Manbites Dog Theater and The Carrack.

He occasionally blogs here for SAS (https://blogs.sas.com/content/author/elliotinman/) and here for his own experimental music projects (https://musicalcircuits.com/).

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