The first time Pop brought Amy to open the bakery was the first time she remembered waking before sunrise.
“Come on, Miss Amelia,” Pop said, as he squeezed her little shoulder over the thick, pink quilt she slept under.
She sat up in bed, her pink striped pajamas pulled up and twisted around her little torso. Pop turned on the lamp next to her bed.
“Get dressed, Peanut. I’ll wait downstairs.”
Amy crawled out of her covers and looked down on Lawrence Avenue from her second story window above the Lincoln Square Post Office. The street was so different without any people on the sidewalk or motors humming, no sunlight glaring in from the windows across the street.
It was the time of the year when the air in her small bedroom felt just a little cold in the morning. She buttoned her brown sweater over her favorite flower print cotton dress, then pulled her knee socks up high before going down to meet Pop.
She crossed the kitchen then plopped cross-legged on the dirty hardwood floor. She picked her brown T-strap shoes from their slot in the wooden bin, then wedged her sock-covered heel in with her index finger. The straps were flimsy from wear, and she was down to the fourth and final hole in the leather to poke the buckle through.
“Pop, is Mama coming along?” she asked, her face scrunched as she struggled with her right shoe.
“Not today, Peanut.” Pop looked around the corner at the bedroom door where Mama continued to sleep.
“So it’s just you and me?” Amy buckled her right shoe and waited for Pop’s confirmation.
“You got it,” Pop said, reaching his hand out to help her up from the ground. “Let’s go.”
Arnold’s Bakery stood three blocks east of the apartment. Amy wrapped her hand tightly around Pop’s index finger as they walked down Lawrence Avenue, only letting go once the brown brick storefront was in view. The tall window read “Authentic German Baked Goods,” painted in fancy Old Time gold letters that hovered in the window waiting for Pop’s fresh baked breads to advertise. Underneath, it read “Est. 1959, Chicago.”Pop was truly important.
Pop unlocked the heavy glass door and shoved it open, sounding the little bell on the inside. He clicked on the first row of lights and went around the counter to put on a pot of coffee. Amy surveyed the small, off-white floor tiles outlined in dark grout, the blocks of flowery print pressed into the tin ceiling. The bakery was long and narrow, all the way from the street to the alley. Up front, an L-shaped counter lay over two glass cases for deserts and pastries. Pop stocked two small shelves with German groceries like salt, seasonings, vinegar and honey. He kept rows of woven bins lined in white cheesecloth on the long wall for his rolls and loaf breads.
The kitchen was in back, and Pop had replaced the old fashioned swinging door with a red and yellow printed curtain. A small washroom was off to the right, and the two big ovens sat along the wall to the left, with two prep tables and a cooling rack in between. Pop walled off the back corner of the kitchen himself so Mama had an office to work in when she used to come in and help with the books.
It was old, and a little cramped, but it was perfect. Everything was in its place, and Pop knew the floor plan out of such repetition that he could run the bakery in the dark.
He brought Amy back behind the curtain and showed her how he turned on the oven, then pointed out the large bins of flour and sugar, the rows of spices all in different jars and the tall racks of pans along the wall for cooling.
Amy had been to the bakery many times before, but never to start the day, never just her and Pop.
“You can’t start working until you’ve had a cup of coffee,” he said after they had walked around the kitchen.
An old German tea service sat on a shelf that hung in the bakery. Pop said it came from Grandma Allendorf’s home in
Berlin all the way to his bakery in Lincoln Square, and that Amy would get to have it when she was older. Pop reached up and pulled down a delicate porcelain cup and saucer painted with green, feathery leaves and pink rosebuds. He wiped the dust lining from inside the cup with a hand towel and poured out a tiny bit of coffee. Amy watched as he added milk until the dark coffee turned beige.
Pop poured himself a tall mug of black coffee and carried the cups back to the kitchen. She followed and he sat her up on the prep table so she could see. When Pop worked in the kitchen, he always wore a white apron and a black, red, and yellow bandana that hung from a nail just inside the doorway. He tied his apron, then picked up the ends of it so he could gather utensils from around the kitchen in one trip.
Amy watched as he steadied the heavy steel mixing bowl into the stand of the tall electric mixer. Pop then dumped cup after cup of flour into the bowl for a batch of dough he would use the next day. He turned a crank on the stand that raised the bowl just below the head of the mixer.
“Do you want to turn it on?” Pop asked.
Amy bobbed her head with excitement and Pop wheeled over the stainless steel cart, pulling the mixer’s power cord tight.
“See that metal switch?” Pop asked. Amy angled her head to peek around the mixer.
“I see it!”
“Just push the switch over to the other side.”
Amy flipped over the switch, and the long s-shaped dough hook began to spin around in the bowl, making lines in the white powder like sand.
“It’s spinning!” Amy said, hypnotized by the motion.
“Good job, Peanut.”
The mixer toned with a loud hum as Pop added a bottle of milk and a block of butter.
“Who’s Hobart?” Amy asked, pointing to the branded metal plate fixed to the mixer.
“Oh, Old Hobart, he was the greatest baker of all time,” Pop responded without falter.
Once the mix came together, Pop pulled a chilled brick of dough from the icebox, filling a small bucket with flour then grabbing his rolling pin.
First he would make Berliners, the best in town. He struck a match and lit the burner under a cast iron pot of oil. The sulfur smell lingered in the air for a minute. Amy liked to watch his hands; he could roll a dozen kuchen in less than a minute. Some would become traditional Pfaankuchen with apricot marmalade, some would be strawberry-jam filled. Each little round of dough hissed as he gently lowered it into the scorching pot. After two minutes, he flipped each round in the order they went in, the shiny pale floats reversed to a golden cake. He worked fast but cautiously, his clean shaven face hovered right over the bubbling oil. Two minutes after the flip, he scooped them out with a pair of slotted wooden spoons and placed them neatly on a wire rack, lined up one by one to cool. Her favorite part was the filling; she watched closely as he stabbed each cake with the metal point of the pastry bag, knowing just when to stop so they never leaked. Walker’s Deli carried soggy jelly donuts that always oozed out their runny red filling. It was like watching the little cake die while it sat in the glass case, beading with sweat from the hot, humid kitchen.
Once each puff was filled, he lined them up side by side in and sprinkled heavy granulated sugar over the tops. He picked out four of the best looking cakes and positioned them on a plate, then re-filled their cups with coffee and cream.
“Let’s sit outside, Peanut. You grab the plate.”
Father and daughter sat on a wooden bench in front of the bakery to watch the sky change from dark purple to pink, then to orange as the sun rose. Amy scooted back on the bench, the wood was cold under her bare thigh, but she didn’t care.
Pop grabbed a golden doughnut by its sides, holding it to his nose to take in the smell.Amy did the same, sniffing in a deep breath before she took a big bite, sinking her teeth into the warm, airy cake. She gulped down the first bite and licked the grains of sugar from her upper lip.
“Isn’t this the best?” Pop said.