Nothing Fancy

A baker. His bakery.

The window at the corner of 18th and Jackson says “Angelo Lanci & Sons” in letters of chipped gold. Behind the glass is the store, a plain white counter with a white scale and a cardboard solicitation for the March of Dimes. There is a roll of butcher paper and a bell attached to the counter with a string and two strips of duct tape. As the sun begins to rise, Regina Lanci picks up a warm loaf of bread, brushes specks of excess flour off the bottom, and places it in a wooden rack beside four dozen other elliptical loaves that stand on end like columns of soldiers. She sets aside a loaf from the back of the oven for Mrs. Russo’s husband, who likes his bread hard. The store lights up as the sun burns through the hazy sky. Regina waits for her first customer, framed by a blued-out picture of the last pope, the U.S. flag, and the bread with its whorls of brown and blonde.

Upstairs Raymond Lanci, the baker, is asleep in the same room where he was born. He is Regina’s husband, Angelo’s youngest son. Now seventy-three years old, he is one of the last men to bake the old bread the old way. At two o’clock in the morning he rose to mix his dough, form each piece of bread by hand, and feed them with a peel onto the tiled floor of the oven his grandfather built eighty-six years ago. When we first met, Lanci said he was beginning to cut back. “I do five days a week now, instead of six. I stopped doing my own deliveries. And we do one dough now instead of two. No more whole wheat on Wednesdays and Fridays.”

This pace might be ordinary for a Korean grocer or Lanci’s own father or any immigrant looking to make a start. But the Lancis are plenty established, with three adult sons. Larry sells real estate. Robert runs his own bakery in South Jersey. Steven works for a ravioli company. There are six grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and a third on the way. His sons tell him to quit. Ray keeps baking. “People are always asking me, why are you always laughing? Why are you smiling? I say, because I enjoy my work. I’ve done this my whole life. This is what I know. I enjoy my customers—talking to ‘em, growing up with ‘em. I was never looking to make a lot of money here. All I want is a living.””

Ray sits at the table in the kitchen. He pours milk into a mug of coffee. The burning coal wafts in from downstairs, making the air smell like firecrackers. It is seven in the morning. His heavily-lidded eyes are neither awake nor asleep. The skin that hangs like bunting from the eaves of his brow dampens his expressions, making him look stoic. Outside the cone of light hanging above the table are dozens of photographs of family, wedding pictures, prom pictures, graduation pictures, attached to the walls and the cabinet glass with Scotch tape. Regina serves us coffee and buttered bread.

“Here you go,” she says, patting Ray on the shoulder. “The doctors said he couldn’t eat bread. Too much gluten. He couldn’t eat his own bread!” Ray has diabetes. He follows the rules halfway, scraping out the bread’s insides and dipping the crust in his milky coffee.

“Alright, babe?” she asks.

“Mmm hmm,” Ray answers. “That’s good stuff, Ma.”

“A lot of things we do come natural, ‘cause we been doing for eighty years. I do the bread. Regina minds the store. It keeps her out of trouble.” He chuckles to himself.

“Fifty years we been married. And I still got her. Thank God. She’s like my second hand man.”

I ask what makes his bread special. Ray says it’s the crust.

“The younger generation wants it softer. The older generation wants it harder. The problem is that the older generation is dying off.” Why not change? “You need the crust. You slice it down and the next day, you want another slice? Take that first slice off, and the bread inside is just what it was yesterday.”

“The crust protects what’s inside,” Regina explains.

Like many in South Philadelphia, Ray speaks often and fondly of the past, a time when family, neighborhood and nation enjoyed a prosperous unity of purpose. Doors were left unlocked. Laws were obeyed. Any man who wanted work could find it. “Them days,” is what he calls this time. “In them days the father was king. You never tried to dethrone him.”

“His father said ‘You gotta keep the bread the way it is. Don’t change a thing.’”

“In the boom days we made a soft bread. We sold it with the original. Then the milk guy stops by and says he wants a milk counter. My father says no. Why? It doesn’t matter. My father says no, and I obey my father.”

“You don’t talk Ray into nothing,” says Regina, proud and resigned.

+++

Raphael Lanci was a bricklayer. He immigrated from Lanciano, Italy to Philadelphia with his son Angelo in 1920. “Over there, they didn’t need no bricklayers. Here, they were building streets, homes, ovens. He bought this property in 1920, brought his boys over, and put an oven in the back. I was born right upstairs, in 1934. How the hell did we live, stacked up so close? It was close-knit in them days. We all worked in the bakery with dad. When mom was washing the clothes we’d take care of the store for her. We didn’t call it work. We just did it.”

Impressed by the richness of the New World’s flour, Raphael and his brothers became bakers, as did Angelo, his son. Ray remembers helping Angelo park his Dodge truck and carrying 100-pound sacks of flour from the cellar to the mixing machine. In 1949, Ray’s mother died at 49. Within a year, all three of her sons had married. Ray, the youngest, had been with Regina since junior high. “I saw him and I liked the looks of him,” Regina remembers. “I said to one of my girls, isn’t he cute?” In 1956, Ray joined the Army. The Lancis relocated to Texas, where Ray served with a private named Elvis Presley. In 1957, as Ray was contemplating a move to a base in Germany, Angelo called him back to the bakery.

“‘You gotta come home. Your brother don’t want to stay. Come home and work in the bakery.’ I’ve been here ever since. It was more what my father wanted me to do than what I wanted to do. I liked being in the service. I wanted to get out and see the world. So I was disappointed at first, but I got used to it. Then with her and the baby … we settled in. Thank God everything worked out. We did real good.”

The bakery is a dim room with a concrete floor and a low ceiling. Coal smoke has blackened the paint of the patchwork walls. In the summer, Ray pries the wooden panels off to let cool, fresh air flow in from the street. Along one wall is a wooden table where Ray and Tank, his longtime assistant, form the bread, and metal racks where the loaves proof on wooden boards. At the far end of the room is the oven with its deep interior. The air inside is crooked with heat.

A few months ago, Ray lost a toe to gangrene. When he went back to work, a burning coal fell out of the oven and onto his numb foot, igniting the bandage and giving Ray severe burns. And there are more troubles: Bills, old property taxes, an IRS audit, all fallout from the 1970s, when Ray owned six motorcycles, a plane, and a house at the Shore. Now business is down, from six hundred loaves a day to a few dozen. The old oven takes longer and longer to heat. Ray thinks it might be leaking.

As Tank mixes the dough, Ray limps around the bakery, giving the grand tour. “You see what I got here. A rinky dinky bakery. Nothing fancy. We don’t do nothing by machine—that’s the way we were taught. No fancy names. They’re small bread, large bread, round bread, long bread. We call ‘em as we see ‘em.” He throws a pair of stale loaves onto the coal to spread the fire. It burns purple and orange. A grey kitten scurries in from the kitchen. “That’s Tony,” says Ray, affectionately. “A gift from my grandson. He runs the joint, the little piece of shit. You hear that you little meatball? You’re gonna get your ass kicked.

“Look,” Ray says, pointing at the dough. “You got salt, water, yeast and flour. No sugar. No emulsifiers. This is real bread. Just like the Romans did it.”

Tank, heavy, mustached, sweating under his white tank top, takes the dough out of the mixer and absorbs Ray’s speech. There is an easy silence between the men, as though everything to say has long been said. Ray picks up a handful of flour and uses his thumb to spread it over the table in squirts. He starts on the long bread, picking up a handful of dough, rolling it into a tube, pinching the ends, and tossing it over to Tank, who lays it on a tray. Ray has broad palms and long, thick fingers, the hands of a sculptor. They fall into a rhythm. Soon the tray is full. Ray tucks the loaves in beneath a ratty pink tablecloth to proof.

Hanging from the ceiling by metal pipes is a wooden spatula called a peel. The peel has a handle twelve feet long, long enough to ferry bread to the oven’s back wall. It took a master bricklayer like Raphael, Ray says, to build a dome-roofed oven of this size without a pillar. I wonder if this is true or a bit of lore, a holdover from the days when you could buy the old bread from any corner and bakers told tales to differentiate their product. When the Lancis had a second bakery on Colorado Street, Ray would boast that his building was the only one on the block with a pipe that connected to the bottom, not the top, of the water main, yielding fresher water for his and a cleaner taste for his bread.

Tank feeds the bread into the oven with the peel. Round bread takes longer to cook, so it goes in the back. The small rolls go in front. A few minutes later Ray is back in the living room, napping in front of the morning shows as the bread bakes. A portrait of Angelo in oils hangs murkily above the TV. Outside, the sparrows that nest in the awning begin to wake up. Tank spreads a newspaper out on the table and studies yesterday’s box scores.

At seven-thirty Regina wakes up, descends, finds the bread waiting for her on orange plastic trays. She greets her husband. “Good morning, Ray.”

“It’s good night for me,” he replies, pulling himself up the steep stairway. “I’m gonna go up. If I’m not back down by one, come up and give me a buzz.”

Business is down, from six hundred loaves in the 1970s to a few dozen. Nevertheless, Regina is cheerful. The sky lightens and she waits for the bell to ring.

+++

One Sunday afternoon a few weeks later, Ray is sitting in a chair on the sidewalk, looking at the brick wall on the other side of 17th Street. His arms are folded. Regina is beside him.

“I’ve let the customers know that we’ll be closing on June second,” she says, firmly, like a mother explaining how her son is too sick to play in the big game.

Ray is silent. Regina says it again.

“June second is our last day. That’s it.”

“No it’s not,” Ray says, sing-song, as if this were a favorite joke of theirs. “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”

Regina puts her hands on her hips and shakes her head at Ray. He rocks himself back on his good foot.

“You see what I put up with?” she says. “He’s the most indecisive man in the world. He changes his mind every day.”

“We’re not closing. We’re staying open at night. That’s when the business happens. We’re gonna do sodas, ice cream…”

“But no bread. The store we’re keeping but the oven is closing.”

“We’re still gonna sell bread,” says Ray, now turning to look at his wife. They are in perfect agreement but he wants to eke out a win. “We’re just not gonna bake it ourselves no more.”

“Right,” says Regina, satisfied. “We’ll buy bread from our son.”

Ray rises from his chair to stretch. Regina runs inside and returns with a photo album from their granddaughter’s wedding. “Isn’t she beautiful?” she says, pointing at the bride, blonde and tan, standing beneath a lakeside cupola. Ray looks over her shoulder. His face is tired but his eyes are beaming. They pose for a picture.

“Come closer,” Ray says. “I won’t bite you.”

“Yes you will,” she says, flirting.

“Yes I will,” he says. They look down towards the river, where the slack telephone wires and crenellated rooflines vanish in the low sun.

Four days later, Regina writes this on a piece butcher paper and tapes it to the wooden bread rack, beneath the rosary.

To all our customers:

Because of my husband’s health we can no longer bake. Our son is going to bake for us. We will continue to give you the same service.

Thank you,

Mr. & Mrs. Lanci

Tank is reading the sports pages. Ray finishes taking the last loaves of his last dough from the oven. I ask Ray if there was anything different about this last night.

“No, nothing,” he says. “Just another night.”

I ask him why he stopped.

“Two weeks ago we went two hours without a single customer. ‘What are we doing?’ I says. ‘I hate the bread we burn the next day. I can’t do this no more.’ It’s been a good life. I never wanted for nothing. I thought as long as I got bread, people were gonna buy it. And look what happened.” He tosses his hands against the air.

“Life’s been good,” says Regina, paraphrasing. “The only thing you wonder is what it holds from here on.”

They talk about a friend who works at Shop-Rite. “They need people who actually do what needs to be done,” Regina says. “People who don’t take shortcuts.” They talk about an elderly neighbor who lost his wife and now wanders the neighborhood, inviting himself in to watch Phillies games and asking for help with his microwave oven. Regina’s friend Marie comes in, buys two round breads, sees the sign. “So you were able to break away, finally,” she says. “That’ll be a nice break for your husband.”

This morning there is a question that can’t be asked: “Why hang on for so long?” I will see the answer a few weeks later—“Work is love made visible”—printed on a sign on the wall of a butcher shop in the Italian Market. The butcher is a stout, black-haired man in his late forties. He is in the middle of telling a story like Lanci’s (I stuck to the old ways, employees left, customers left, now it’s just me) when we are interrupted by the sound of screaming from the street. We turn to see a pack of shouting schoolchildren running for their bus. “The young people, God bless them,” the butcher says. “The world belongs to the young.” “They think they’re invincible,” I say.  “They are invincible,” he says. “Once you start feeling pain, you lose your power.”

This made me think of a bookseller I knew, a calm and quiet man. One night we were talking as he sat on a stool and priced used books with a pencil. He was complaining about the rising rent; the landlord wanted one and half times what he could afford. Suddenly the bookseller began to cry. He said: “You give so much to something, for so long. Eventually you think you’ll eventually get something back for it, but in the end you wind up with very little.” He thought for a moment and continued. “I wish it weren’t all about money. It’s really about quite a bit more than that to me. But sometimes they squeeze you so hard that you forget why you got into it in the first place. You start to feel trapped by it.” That night, the bookseller’s work was like a bad marriage. If given the chance he would go back and do something different. Or maybe he would do nothing. Maybe he would just stay in bed.

Ray has no “work is love” sign and no propensity to lament what might have been. The thing that drove him out of bed was habit, a lifetime’s worth of blind momentum. His work outlived the world’s reasons for it. Again I ask him why, but there is no why.

“You know how the oven is. As it goes, we go. It just comes to an end, that’s all. Everything does.”

He gives me a loaf of bread and sends me on my way.

-30-

This story was first published in Paper & Carriage.