Monday, August 07, 2006

Bad things can happen at night: Stories from the bakery #4

I haven’t filed any bakery stories in a while. Here’s another one.

During my five years at the bakery, it seems bad things often happened at night. Shortly after I started a the bakery, a woman working the night shift on the roll line was raped in the women’s locker room. I never knew her, don’t even know if I ever saw her and she never came back to work. As a new employee, I don’t have much memory of this except that the protocol for getting in and out of the plant became more stringent. It was probably long over due as the perpetrator, who was not an employee, had slipped into the plant and hid in the women’s locker room. I don’t even remember if they caught him.

A year or so later, on a hot sticky night when I was working night shift during my summer break from classes, I drove up to a surreal scene. Police and ambulances with their lights flashing were parked in front of the plant. The chalk outline of two bodies could be seen on the sidewalk. The bodies were being loaded up into a waiting ambulance as I arrived. A mobile crime lab drove up. Walking around the police tape, I wondered if I should even go to work that evening. It was eerie walking into the plant as I was oblivious to what had happened, except that it was obvious that there had been deaths. As soon as I got inside, people began to tell me about the few exciting seconds. There were all kind of stories running around, the only thing anyone was sure of was that no one from the bakery had been involved in the shooting. It turned out, as we learned the next day in the newspaper, that the shooter was a jealous husband who lived in a housing project across from the bakery. He hid in shrubbery out in front the bakery waiting for his wayward wife and her lover to walk by. When they did, he stepped out and shot her. He then took aim at her lover, but missed. As Don Juan ran for his life, the husband turned the gun on himself.

I often rode my bike to work. During my first year out of college when I worked the night shift as a supervisor, I had a small office, just large enough to store my bike. I got into the habit of only driving a car when the weather was inclement or on Saturday night. With the housing projects across from the plant, it was just too risky for a white guy to ride a bike through the neighborhood at midnight on Saturday night.

During the year I worked as a supervisor on the night shift, I was always nervous going to work at night, but had only one disaster and it was a small one. This happened on a rainy night. Harvey, my oven operator, was on vacation. John, who had taken over the second shift oven operator job from me when I was promoted to supervisor, was working Harvey’s shift. This particular night, I was short staffed in the mixing area and was pitching in when I got a desperate call from John telling me that he was having problems getting the ovens up to the proper temperature. It was still 30 minutes before the bread would be coming out of the proof box, so I wasn’t too concerned. As soon as I could, I headed back to the oven with a mechanic. About the time we got to the oven, one of the truck drivers who hauled bread to the warehouses around eastern North and South Carolina, came running back yelling that the roof was on fire. Something clicked. I knew immediately that John hadn’t shut the dampers on the oven. As the mechanic headed to the roof with a fire extinguisher, I told the driver to call the fire department and started shutting the dampers. Sure enough, the dampers were the problem. Lighting the oven, which was about the size of a house, required that one first open the dampers and purge the oven with air to insure that no gas was present. This was a safety feature that reduced the risk of an explosion. Once the oven was purged, one could then open the gas valves to each of the seventy some burners in the oven and engage the electric lighters. As soon as the burners were lit, the dampers were closed. John forgot that part. The oven kept calling for more heat to get to the desired temperature. The flames grew larger and were drawn up into the dampers which, we discovered the hard way, hadn’t been cleaned in some time. One of the damper had a build-up of grease and it caught fire. As soon as I shut the dampers, I grabbed another fire extinguisher and headed to the roof where the mechanic had already extinguished the fire. The rain had kept the fire from spreading, but there was a small section of the roof that had to be repaired. The fire department arrived and checked things out, and the night returned back to normal.

Working the night shift, especially as a supervisor, had its challenges. It was always difficult to find a replacement when someone called in sick. There weren’t too many qualified replacements to start with and even fewer available at 2 A.M. The night shift mechanics often found places to hid and sleep. But mostly it was monotonous and I was always relieved when morning came. I got good at anticipating the time the sun would rise and a few minutes before, I’d grab a cup of coffee and head out to the loading dock. Standing on the side of it, caressing my cup in my hands, I could look back toward the east and watch the sun rise between the plant and the flour silo across the street. I always felt better watching the sun rise. I knew my time was almost up and pretty soon my worries would be over and I’d be in my bed sleeping.

Other bakery stories:
Frank and Roosevelt
Linda and the summer of '76
Harvey and Ernest


  1. I'd have had a tough time going back to work after a lady was raped. I guess we didn't protect women as well back then, thinking it wouldn't happen at our place. Poor thing.

    I have heard of several shootings like the one you leaves work, crazy over jealous hubby takes her out then himself. Jealousy is one thing I will not tolerate. No woman should. It is the deadliest in a marriage or relationship.

    I enjoyed your writing as always!

  2. Sage: I knew my time was almost up and pretty soon my worries would be over and I’d be in my bed sleeping. And dreaming about Linda? ;-)

    Deana: I highly doubt we protect women any better today as we did back then nor do I think women protect themselves any better over the years. I've read in the 'crime blotter' section of the paper numerous times of women who are out walking alone at 2:30 a.m. and are lucky enough to only have their purse stolen.

  3. I don't think we protect women well enough now.

    I'm surprised that the ovens didn't have a safety feature to stop fires from stopping at the top of the damper. It seems flawed in some way.

    Interesting, though. I doubt I'd take a job in a neighborhood like that for fear of the danger.

  4. Upon further reflection, I don't know who this 'we' is. I think women have to look out for themselves much better than they are.

    Just to bring this back to a bakery story (and I'm sure you really care about what I hate and don't hate, Sage)...I hate the end pieces of a loaf of bread. ;-)

  5. Yet another excellent bread story! Chimney fires are something that we always dreaded back in the days of wood stoves. I saw more than one house burn down because someone carelessly left a damper open and hadn't cleaned out the chimney in awhile.

    I for one, love the warm crusty heel of a loaf of bread smoothered in butter. Nothing better in life than that.... nothing!

  6. Ed - Now I know what to get you for your birthday and end pieces.

  7. Sage, excellent recounting of your bakery experiences scary though they sound in this post. So far in the bakery I work in, we've been blessed that those sorts of thing haven't happened - at least to my knowledge. Now we do have leaky flat roofs and times that our ovens go down because the electricity goes out. But that not quite the same thing. :)

  8. Deana, as a 19 year old kid (the age when I started working there), it was my first experience with something like this. It was scary for the women and I know that most people in the plant were careful about watching out others, at least for a while.

    Murf, sorry to disappoint you, but by the time I was working night shifts, Linda had changed jobs.

    Dawn, this oven was installed in the early 60s--it was probably 15 years old when I was working there--during the time I was there, we installed a new roll oven and it would have quickly shut down. The real probably was that the dampers hadn't been cleaned regularly! Looking back, the neighborhood seemed more dangerous than it did at the time. In daylight, it was okay. When we were done early, I'd occassionally play basketball in the projects.

    Murf, you actually get better flavor with the crust of the bread.

    Ed, working night shift, we'd often take a warm loaf of bread, cut it up and add butter and honey or molasses on it--it was a real treat at about 4 AM

    Murf, feed them to your birds.

    Tim, I plan to write more about the oven and my time as an operator of it--also about some "daytime" troubles we had like the time we threw away 24000 (that's right, 24 thousand) loaves of bread due to bad ingredients.

  9. That guy might have done the plant a favor, due to the grease build-up in there. Maybe if that hadn't happened when you were around to catch the reason for it - the fire would have gotten much bigger and done a lot more damage.

  10. Sage - I don't feed birds. I'm not fond of the after effects all over my car not to mention the high probability of inadvertantly feeding my most disliked animal in the world - squirrels. I'll just mail them to Ed. :-)

  11. Wow. So where do I get an application?

  12. Kenju--it did remind those in charge of such things that the dampers needed attention. The rain really helped keep it from spreading.

    Murf, yes, those pesty squirrels. They're cute but they'll eat you out of house and home--with six bird feeders, the battle against the squirrels is kind of like the war on terror, it never ends.

    Heather, sorry to disappoint you, but the bakery is no longer is business. I may someday go into details, but it closed about 7 or 8 years after I left.

  13. I must say I'm a big fan of your bakery stories Sage. It is a great insight into who you are and tells of a time not so recent but yet not so long ago. Anyway, I just wanted to say thanks for regaling us with these posts.

    Hope things are well in your neck of the woods, have a good one.

  14. oh, i love end pieces, send 'em all my way! pie crust, as well!! :-)

  15. i too love these stories.

    sadly in response to murf, women often have little choice about walking home alone or working nights, or putting themselves in any number of 'dangerous situations. i myself as a student in london had no choice but to work nights waitressing far from home. i would leave at about 3am and have to find my way alone across london without a car ot taxi fare. sassy as i am i was often put in dangerous situations. until i discovered by accident a couple of good tricks... one being that dressing like a lunatic, developing a kind of aggressive 'tick' and talking to myself incessantly (even to the extent of shouting obscenities at any thugs who dared aproach and take the piss) usually frightened off any dangerous males. as well asd learning (about 6 months into the job) that the police are not allowed to refuse a lift to a woman if she says she's in danger and frightened. so they became my taxis if i could find any on route.
    but i still find blaming innoccent victims of circumstance fairly wearing.

  16. I wasn't blaming the victim. I was just stating that one needs to take care of her ownself before others do and that can mean wearing floods or talking to yourself or getting rides with policemen which isn't a bad idea because what girl doesn't have a thing for a guy in uniform? :-)

  17. maintaining productivity on night shifts is hard. Silly mistakes like not closing the dampers are more typical on late shifts than they are on days. I suspect we never fully adapt to being nocturnal creatures


  18. Okay, I have read all your previous bakery stories and am officially hooked. So, I anxiously await #5.