Yesterday, as part of the Spring Writes Literary Festival, organized by the Community Arts Partnership of Tompkins County, I gave a reading at the History Center. I had planned to read this story but at the last minute I decided there wasn't enough time. So I'm sharing it here on my blog, for the second time, and I hope you enjoy reading it.
The story was inspired by the photograph "Bread Store, 259 Bleeker Street, New York, 1937," by Berenice Abbott.
My great-aunt Helen was also an inspiration. None of the details are true but the fighting essence of Helen, who always wanted to see justice done, is woven into this story.
I don’t have a thing against the Zito family personally. The wife is a woman I would even call sociable. Which is not to say friendly. Friendly I don’t even look for anymore. The husband, too, Mr. Zito himself, I’ve got no complaints with him. He’s not a big talker, but in a baker you don’t need talking.
It’s not personal, like some people are trying to make out. It’s not like I have an axe needs grinding. All it is, is a matter of truth in advertising. The sign on the window says sanitary. Look, you see where I’m pointing? Look, why don’t you, it’s bigger than life. If a sign says sanitary then the shop should be sanitary. This I think is not so complex a concept. If you’re not going to be sanitary don’t call in the men with the gold paint and the brushes to paint you a sign on the window that spells out sanitary.
That is my argument in a nutshell. And for this, people are treating me like a pariah.
What did I do was so terrible? I brought home a loaf of bread, excuse me, I thought I was entitled to assume it would be full of bread. When you buy bread, you don’t expect to find a mouse baked into the center of it, do you? Yes, a mouse, you heard me right, that’s what I’m telling you, the whole thing was about a mouse.
What kind of bread? What kind of a question is that? A loaf of bread. Round. That isn’t the point. Better you should ask me what kind of a mouse. Dead, that’s what kind, a dead mouse in the bread. Mice in the bread is not sanitary. Not in my book.
So I brought it back to Zito's. The whole thing, the bread and the mouse. Only the mouse by now it didn’t have its head attached to its body. When I cut in, I accidentally decapitated it. It wasn’t my fault. Believe me, I was more surprised than the mouse. The mouse was already dead by then. Oh sure, to be cooked you have to be dead.
Okay, so I arrived with my paper bag. Mr. was in the back by the ovens, Mrs. was helping another customer, so I was patient, I waited my turn, and then I opened my bag and showed her. The bread and the mouse, together in death as in life.
Mrs. took the whole shebang out of my hands, she didn’t even blink. Eyes like a carving knife, I’m telling you, and this I never noticed before. Always in the past she gave me a smile. That day, it was the cutting eyes.
She takes the bag, she throws it under the counter. Then she reaches into the money box, takes out a nickel, and hands it over to me. So far, so good. That’s the least I would expect. But it’s not the most I would expect.
I tell her I want they should take off the word sanitary from their window. What could be more reasonable than that? I say to her, “Mrs. Zito, you have to do what’s right. You have to change your sign.”
That’s when she tried to push me out the door.
Pushing I don’t like. I was never one for pushing. You could ask anyone. You could ask my sister, Bunny. If she were still alive she’d tell you, all my life if someone put their hands on me it brought out the worst. What can I say? That’s just the way I was made.
So then we had the little commotion. I’m sure you heard about it already. Mr. Zito comes in from the ovens, the other ladies in the shop get involved — although to be technical about it, it was none of their business. There were words passed. I won’t deny there were words. Okay already, so there were words. Sticks and stones may break your bones but words will never harm you. You ever hear that?
You know the rest of the story. No one wants to take my side. No one. Over this, I even lost an old friend. Edith Bloom. You know Edith Bloom? We were friends 35 years. Yesterday, I passed her over by the bus stop, she didn’t see me. It was like I wasn’t even there. Only 2 feet away from her and she didn’t see me?
It seems my manner with the Zitos was not entirely acceptable. That’s what they tell me. My manner. Is this about manners? No! It’s about honesty.
That’s why I’m out here in the cold, in the rain, every day with my sign. “Unsanitary.” I printed it myself. You don’t have to go to any fancy print shop to make a point. A little crayon, a little cardboard — I learned this years ago from the garment district. Believe me, this isn’t my first picket line.
Can you tell me what’s the crime I’m committing? It’s a public service I’m giving to the neighborhood for free. That window, it still says sanitary. Which is a lie. I’m out here with the other side of the story. In every argument there are two sides. There’s the wrong side and there’s the right side. How could I live with myself if I wasn’t here to stand up for the right side?
You ask me what you should do? Who am I to tell you what you should do? You do what you have to do. I’m not concerned to keep people out of the store. The Zito family has to make a living just like everybody else. I don’t want to close down their bakery.
My interest is in two letters only. They can call in a new painter tonight. He can put a U and an N, in front of the “Sanitary,” and by tomorrow I’ll be gone. No one will ever know I was here. Two letters. That’s all I’m asking. The world, it could be an entirely different place, with two letters. Justice would be served, with just two little letters.