Walk into City Bakery for a loaf of rye and you might stagger out with a sackful of metaphor and a half-baked ballad.
Poets read their hearts out there one night a month.
On Saturday mornings, owner George Keenen, a writer toiling over a children's version of the Odyssey, which he once translated from the ancient Greek, tells stories to saucer-eyed preschoolers.
From time to time, folk singers wail in the old printing plant in mid-town Ventura, and a group of Ventura County Medical Center doctors, under the name "Malpractice," delivers bluegrass classics. The Plexus Dance Company plans to stage a performance there, tripping lightly on the linoleum between the muffin counters and the folding metal tables. And Keenen wants to play host to a marathon reading of James Joyce's "Ulysses" on June 16, the 85th anniversary of the day Joyce chose to have his characters plod around Dublin.
The place is more than a cup of coffee and a good dunk. It's a free-form, come-as-you-are literary salon, concert hall, community center and oat-bran extravaganza. If it were broadcast, it would be the Ventura Home Companion. If it were simmered, it would be a jambalaya. In a day of bottom lines, it's vertical.
"I'm very enthusiastic about it," said Ventura real estate agent Judy Hower, a regular at the bakery's Thursday night "Pizza 'n' Pictionary" bouts. "They've got something for the intellectual, for the children on Saturday mornings, for families. This is the best thing that's happened to this town in years."
Dr. Ron Blanchette, a Ventura psychoanalyst who reads his poetry and takes his ease there, agrees.
"It's meant a great deal to me," said Blanchette, who specializes in treating other therapists. "A lot of people in Ventura feel deprived because, in some ways, the city is an intellectual desert. The bakery has succeeded in bringing them together for a wonderful experience."
That's lavish praise for a place that broke no new ground in corporate planning when it opened eight months ago.
"We didn't have a cash register," Keenen said. "Overnight, we hid cash in a plastic tray in the oven, but one morning forgot to take it out before we turned the oven on."
Employees were drawn from a crew of willing customers. "One kid from Humboldt State came in and said he'd never made a cheesecake," Keenen said. "We put him to work."
Keenen had no experience in the bakery business, but picked up some tips during a week as a hanger-on at the Tassajara Zen bakery in San Francisco. A former ad man, children's author, horse rancher and VISTA volunteer, he quit his job as copy chief at Sage Publishing, a Newbury Park company that puts out social science texts and periodicals. Mabel Chase, creator of most of the bakery's recipes, left her job as a child nutritionist for the county.
Why abandon career and paycheck for 14-hour days and a crust of pumpernickel?
"A lot of it had to do with the oven, and Mabel is an excellent cook," Keenen said, widening his eyes and inserting spaces between words in the manner of a man accustomed to earning the attention of 4-year-olds.
While cleaning out a carpet store in Bakersfield, an acquaintance had discovered a massive oven, an inoperable relic left over from the building's days as a House of Pies.
The couple got it for a song and spent four months overhauling it. "It was like restoring a steam locomotive," Keenen said. "We had $90-an-hour specialists coming up from Pasadena to look over its bearings."
When the gleaming monolith finally came to life, they crawled inside and rode around on the revolving trays, hoisting glasses of champagne.
Not every day is so jubilant at City Bakery.
"Another November," said a sighing Summer Nicol, reciting a poem Friday night about the death of her cat. "The first tear of the evening drips down my right cheek."
Over three hours, a dozen poets trooped to the microphone one by one, nervously issuing laments, odes, manifestoes, confessionals and what-have-you, mainly unrhymed and mostly doleful. They wrote of faded love, raging consciousness, the ocean, entropy, suffering, death in myriad forms, loneliness, confusion, truth and beauty.
But the packed-house crowd didn't call for limericks. Polite applause followed each offering, and Keenen himself got a big hand for a bakery-based ballad called "Chocolate Wedding Cake":
A woman came in around Christmas
a sad face, a gray overcoat.
married seven days A wreck from telling no one And she wanted a chocolate wedding cake.
City Bakery built one four layers high
each layer golden from the oven.
But when City Bakery applied the icing
the layers began to slip
like tectonic plates
and the cake became a chocolate Australia
then the chocolate ruins of Dresden
then a chocolate igloo, a chocolate Eichmann trial,
a chocolate meadow muffin . ...
Desperate, City Bakery propped
with curls of white chocolate
lifting it into a chocolate road apple
a chocolate speed bump, a chocolate burial mound ...
City Bakery brings the cake slash thing out in a box.
City Bakery lifts the lid
and four City Bakery aprons
form a City Bakery rescue choir
and sing: ooouuuuu woooooow, that is the most beautiful
will you look at what a marvelous isn't it wonderful!
She breathes--is about to speak
then she looks at the cake again and sees that it IS beautiful
and smiles, and thanks us,
and carts the thing off.
And that's how chocolate wedding cake came to mean
something small that's been rescued by love.
The next morning, Keenen arrived at the bakery at 6. He cleaned up from the night before, helped prepare the day's scones and breads, and greeted early arrivals. Then, at 10 a.m., right on schedule, he sat before a band of fidgeting toddlers and, widening his eyes and inserting spaces between his words, intoned:
"This is a story about a genie and a lamp, and a very wise fisherman. . . . "