The Curse Is Upon The Editor. Dark Pulsations And Fluorescent Hallucinations. The Rose In The Greasy Fist.
I’ll start with a startling admission: in this, The New Age, the closest I come to feeling part of a community is at an all-night cafe just down the block called Breadmen’s.
Breadmen’s? That dump! That all-night garbage pail for frat-baggers and dope-addled hippies? Where, to get to the bathroom, you have to go outside — in the freezing rain! — and count yourself lucky if you’re not trampled by the enraged owner of this madhouse barrelling out the door after someone who didn’t pay? Breadmen’s? Where the radio is so loud it drowns out your stomach’s hoarse and desperate pleas to get out of this greaseworks — fast! — and across the street to Shoney’s, or McDonald’s, where the waitresses look like waitresses, at least, with proper uniforms and proper smiles? A community — this?
Ah, this is the fever, the Breadmen’s curse! To love and hate a place so much! Am I writing about a restaurant, or a woman? You would not turn to take another look. She is plain, unremarkable; but beware if you linger an extra moment, or venture one half-step too close to her laughing, naked soul: you’ll be lost, like me.
The all-night hallucination, the psychic flotsam and jetsam, the loneliness, the groping under the tables. Come back in the morning: the carpenters swilling coffee and telling jokes, their hair tied back in pony-tails; the eggs hitting the grill; the families with happy kids and bratty kids; the messy pile of newspapers on top of the cigarette machine, left behind like leftover potatoes (ah, the potatoes! the best home fries south of Jersey City); the eight hanging plants not quite making this steamy barracks chlorophyll-rich; and the waitresses, light and quick on the tiled floor, their smiles breaking against your tiled shores, as they lean across that Carolina blue, All-American formica counter. If you woke up alone this morning, your waitress was probably the first person you spoke to. It is understood, at Breadmen’s, that this matters.
Breadmen’s has a character uniquely its own — one-part American roadhouse, one-part hippie funk. One part Jersey City (Roy Piscitello, who owns Breadmen’s, was born there; so were his brother, Bill, and his sister, Arlene, who help run it); one-part Chapel Hill. One-part day, one-part night: the marriage of the sun and moon, a hotbed of subconscious yearnings and dark pulsations (it’s closed only two-and-a-half hours out of every twenty-four, open all night Friday and Saturday; there’s no time for the air to unwrinkle; fragments of dreams swim in it, settle on your hair and in your heart). It’s the last stop; when the bars close, this is where they go, still humming, still yakking, pumping it out like there’s no tomorrow — which, at Breadmen’s, there isn’t, only the eternal now, one-part screech, one-part sigh. Souls are lost and saved here. I mean, this is where Roy met his wife. This is where a waitress, in her first week on the job, learns more about the caves and rivers of human psychology than a half-drunk gang of psychiatrists from the hospital could teach her in a lifetime.
“Breadmen’s is open,” says Julia. “Really, it’s nothing more than one big room. Even the kitchen’s exposed. If a customer is giving you a hard time, there’s nowhere to sit down with another waitress and talk about it. You can’t hide. There’s no place to go. So, your style has to change. Something good comes out of it.”
I didn’t make that up. It’s a metaphor for the age because it’s true — spiritually, emotionally, politically: you can’t hide. There is no place to go. Lifeboat Earth. At Breadmen’s, we’re all dumped into the same enormous pot: melt, or swim . . . but either way, you’d better pay. Remember Roy. An extremely good-natured man, until he’s crossed. Then, he’s two hundred and fifteen pounds of instant karma hurtling your way. And that ain’t just pasta, baby; those shoulders belong to someone who works 80 hours a week. He’s proud of this place, and the people who work here. If he doesn’t like this piece, he’ll stop advertising. Which gives him the edge. Because there’s no way I could boycott Breadmen’s. It would be like giving up hugs, kisses, screams in the night.
Roy opened Breadmen’s in October, 1974, in a spectacularly ugly building on Rosemary Street that, in the past few years, had housed three Burger Chef and two Fish ’n Fry franchises, all spectacular failures. Why Breadmen’s and not Piscitello’s? Roy is coy. There are “many stories,” he concedes, but this is the official one: Bread Man was his nickname in college (he studied business at UNC) because one summer, “for a business project,” he brought 1,400 loaves of bread down here from Brooklyn — filling his car with dry ice to keep them fresh — and gave them away to test “customer response” and see if there was a need for a “high quality” bakery here. There wasn’t. Anyway, since it’s a tradition to name restaurants after the families that run them, Roy settled on Breadmen’s rather than Piscitello’s because “Piscitello’s just didn’t sound like . . .” The sentence is unfinished, sent into oblivion with a wave of the hand. “I still get bills from The Tar Heel for Roy Breadmen. If I can’t pay a creditor, I tell him the Breadmen brothers are in Miami Beach this week.”
Now I’ve also heard it suggested that the “bread” in Roy’s nickname has something to do with — how shall I put it . . . money? But money is something Roy doesn’t like to talk about, at least with me. Breadmen’s, he says, is “no longer a game. It supports 32 employees.” And Roy, with that deep-seated New Jersey paranoia which is kin to the New York City paranoia I knew and loved for years, isn’t about to let any would-be competitor know how much he spends, say, on meat every month, for fear, no doubt, this information will be run through a computer and yield the secret of his amazing success. By skillful questioning, I did ferret out that he buys 4,200 eggs every week. From two farmers in Hillsborough whose hens live in those desperate, artificially-lit cages that must be to the chicken-world what Breadmen’s is to us.
Which leads us, finally, to the food itself. On this subject, Roy is disarmingly candid: “What we serve is what I like: lots of meats and starches.” You said it Roy, not me. “The only thing that’s frozen is the french fries. We make everything else ourselves. All the baked goods. We use all chuck in the burgers. There’s no place in town that makes a burger this good. People don’t know what a real burger tastes like anymore.”
I’m no expert on burgers, but I’ll vouch for the baked goods. The date-nut bread is everybody’s favorite. (I was tempted to ask for the recipe, but this undoubtedly would have seemed like suggesting he leave his safe open.) So are the onion rings. (Roy doesn’t eat them; he’s made “too many.”) There’s onion soup for fifty cents, sixteen different kinds of omelettes, and “for misplaced Northerners,” hot pastrami on rye. Breadmen’s uses “the highest grade of Chase and Sanborn coffee,” which, before I gave up coffee, I found undrinkable. This view is shared by a few others, but certainly not by most of Breadmen’s customers. Roy never drank coffee, and can’t tell a good cup from a dishtowel. Breakfast is served anytime, as is everything else, and if you’re sitting in the right place you can see your meal being prepared. The cooks at Breadmen’s, like you and me, have good days and bad (if you want consistency, Roy says, go to McDonald’s; you’ll get “70 percent satisfaction, no matter what.” At Breadmen’s, on the other hand, as on a jet plane, your fate is linked to such vicissitudes as someone else’s mood; at 40,000 feet, or over a large platter of onion rings, you realize this with a feeling of exhilaration, or nauseating gloom). The cooks are Breadmen’s unspoken heroes, Roy suggests. They are, to the waitresses, what a good offensive guard is to a running back — a full partner, unrecognized and underpaid. Imagine cooking dinner for 30 guests! The waitresses, however, see it differently: they’re the ones getting pinched and propositioned, stabbed in the ass with forks and — hard to believe, but true — having their hands stepped on, running their own interference with these princes of the night, these arrogant college men with the minds, and manners, of chipmunks in heat. This is the subway at rush hour! The eye of the storm! It’s unrelenting, and exhausting: share tips! They may make a lot of money but — like Roy — they work for it. (Barbara just came in, read this far, and said something’s missing about the waitresses and the cooks: they love each other.)
There are fringe benefits: A free cup of tea or coffee (one waitress liked to drink plain hot water; one night, Roy saw her and confided, “Don’t worry, Terry. You can take a tea bag.”). Half price on meals. And such stories as this, my favorite: in New York, visiting her parents, Karen was spotted by four different people who recognized her from Breadmen’s. Three of them at the airport, one in the subway! “I’m rushing to catch this train, and all of a sudden some guy points to me and shouts, “There goes BREADMEN’S!”
But brace yourself, sons and daughters of the American night, the lame of spirit, the weary and the scorned: progress is coming to Breadmen’s.
Roy, who always dreamed of running a “family restaurant,” is about to sink vast, undisclosed sums into the joint to make it that. Roy is confident he won’t lose any of his regular customers, and even plans to “leave a few booths for the hardcore Breadmen’s addicts.” But something in me goes cold. Do you know what it’s like to take a shower after a day or two of hard, grubby work, of sleeping in your clothes and not even washing? It’s exquisite, but there’s a small sadness in saying goodbye to smelly old you. Breadmen’s is a lovable unwashed garment that looks like you even when you take it off, and that’s now on its way to the dry-cleaners. “Eight vegetables,” Roy crows. “Meat entrees, plate lunches — a real restaurant.” But I fear for the slag heap of broken bones and bleeding hearts Breadmen’s clutches to its bosom. It’s a people place, understood by people people — what nonsense! It’s a business! It’s a job! It’s a burger! Breadmen’s is as multi-faceted as the human personalities who wait in line to get in: it’s city compassion and country silk, it’s a goddamn zoo, unstuck in time — it never really closes; someone is always mopping up or putting on the coffee — and so, a reminder of our ration of eternity. “I want it to be a nice place to eat,” Roy says, “where you don’t have to go outside to get to the bathroom, where you don’t have to see the kitchen if you don’t want to.”
But Roy, we like the kitchen. We like going outside to the bathroom: some of us don’t even make it that far, and end up peeing under the stars. Would you deny us this elemental assertion, make us come back wearing jackets and ties? “What I like about this place is this,” one regular says, propping his legs on the table as if he were at home.
What I like about Breadmen’s should be clear by now: it’s as improbable as this magazine. Its story is the story of Chapel Hill: a little magic, a little spice, but real muscle, and a beating heart. It’s his dream, and Roy’s living it. Chapel Hill is fertile ground for dreams. They rise from our shared consciousness like flowers, no less alive, needing the proper nurturing: love, foremost, and light. Some water, please, and a menu.