The Good Things That Came When My Life Collapsed

Baking, for one. And time.

Image: ben Goodnight CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

My job at one of the biggest, most well-loved bookstores in New York City started at a ridiculously low rate. Single-digit-per-hour low. I was promised when I took the job that I would get a raise quickly, that it was nothing to worry about. It was also a union job with full benefits. After six months, I was taking home less than $300 per week, an almost impossible amount to live on when my reasonable-by-NYC-standards share of the monthly rent was $700.

Eventually, I was promoted into their office, but I was still taking home just above $300 per week, even at my highest pay rate. My wife, who was employed as a freelance editor, was eligible for food stamps, and that was the main reason we were able to eat most of the time.

It was an untenable situation, but as someone who had studied creative writing in college, there weren’t a lot of options available to me. I had tried for a while to work my way into the publishing industry, taking unpaid internships and hoping something would come of them. But even in that field, entry level pay is generally around $30,000. Finally, at one of my interviews, someone was honest with me.

“I see that you’re a writer, and you’ve already had some success. You won’t have time to do that anymore if you take this job. You’ll be working at least 40 hours per week in the office, and taking the slush pile (the unrequested manuscripts) home to read the rest of the time.”

I was literally being asked to give up my dreams for $30,000 per year. I didn’t understand how anyone said yes to such a thing.

When the bottom fell out of my marriage, I began missing work, and my paycheck took an even more drastic hit. When a month came where a $50 honorarium from a magazine was the only reason I was able to pay my rent, I knew something had to change.

A friend posted serendipitously on social media that a chef friend of hers was looking to hire staff for a kitchen at a wealthy resort in the Catskills. The job paid $650 a week, and included room and board for the entire summer. That meant I could save around $8,000 — more than I’d ever had in my bank account at once. I hadn’t worked in a kitchen in years, and never a high-end one. But I responded anyway, had a phone interview the next day, and within the month was packing my bags to go to the resort.

It was a desperate and ridiculous prospect. I didn’t know the person hiring me, and my only connection to him was a friend’s cousin. The website for the club was incredibly outdated. My new boss’s social media account disappeared a week after he had hired me, and I completely panicked. Everything was telling me not to take this job, but I also knew I had to. I simply couldn’t survive in New York anymore.

Once I got there, the chef decided that I would be doing the cold food preparation and the desserts. I absolutely fell in love with baking. The mix of physical labor and creativity was perfect for me, and a wonderful balance to the purely mental work of writing. I spent four days a week making breads and desserts, and then had three days off to write. I finished a novel. I saved a lot of my pay.

A few weeks before it was time to leave, I knew I needed to make a decision. Did I go back to New York and pursue baking? Or did I go somewhere else entirely and start over? Because of the low pay for cooks in New York City compared to the high cost of living, I was able to get interviews at some of the best restaurants in town, even with my minimal experience and the fact that I hadn’t gone to culinary school. My strong work ethic was something that was appreciated, as was my passion for learning more. I ended up taking a job at a Michelin starred restaurant that paid $11 per hour (still not enough to live on in New York City!), but because of the money I had saved over the summer, I viewed the low pay this time as an investment in my new career.

It didn’t seem anyone else was making much more. Two of my fellow pastry cooks lived with their families to get by. One lived off of inherited wealth. Only the cooks who worked 12 hours a day or more seemed to be doing okay.

At my new job, I did pastry cooking for upwards of 200 people per night. I learned to make sables, crème Anglaise, ice creams, I learned to plate and to quenelle. These may seem like basic skills to an experienced chef, but for someone like me who had just joined the industry, it was invaluable. Eventually I was given the job of baking all the restaurant’s bread, sourdough boules and rolls, brioche, pumpernickel rolls, and buns.

After almost a year of learning more every day, I decided it was time for me to leave. My money was running out, I couldn’t go back to living just at the poverty line. I moved to Ohio, where my closest friend since childhood lived. Almost immediately I was offered a job waiting tables and baking at a fine dining restaurant in a resort town on Lake Erie.

While the pay is roughly similar to industry pay in New York, the cost of living in the Midwest is much, much lower. I currently live in the apartment I always dreamed of living in in New York –the second floor of a historic bank– that I pay $650 per month for, with utilities included. I have hardwood floors, lots of sunlight, an old bank vault for a closet, and live without roommates for the first time in my life. I bake artisan sourdough loaves in a wood-fire oven. A perfect loaf brings me absolute joy.

I love what I do. I have a goal of one day learning enough as a baker to open a non-profit bakery that apprentices unemployed transgender people in the art of baking, and provides job skills. Because I’m no longer working at a soulless job that I hate, I have more time and energy to write, and have finished my second novel.

I didn’t expect so many good things to come from my life collapsing. But here I am, happy, and a whole lot more financially stable. I think about what would have happened if I’d given into my fear and not taken that chance on the job in the Catskills. But mostly I think about how well things have turned out.

Alex DiFrancesco has published fiction in The Carolina Quarterly, The New Ohio Review, and Monkeybicycle and non-fiction has appeared in Brevity, Trans.Cafe, and Crixeo. Their first novel, The Devils That Have Come to Stay, was published in 2015 by Medallion Press. They are also a skilled bread baker and pastry cook, a passionate activist and advocate, and have a small, wonderful cat named Sylvia.

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