A St. Paul Baker Turns His Run-in with ICE into Poetry

In ”Hitman-Baker-Casketmaker,” Dan ”Klecko” McGleno opens up about closing Saint Agnes Baking Co., employing undocumented immigrants, and getting older

 

The cover of “Hitman-Baker-Casketmaker”

Courtesy of Paris Morning Publications

“No Bread at the Super Bowl.” Baker and poet Dan “Klecko” McGleno remembers that January 2018 headline. Minneapolis would soon host football’s big day, and Saint Agnes Baking Co., owned by Klecko in St. Paul, would supply bread to the major vendors.

It was the bakery’s most profitable year in some three decades of operation. Near the start of his new book, Hitman-Baker-Casketmaker (Paris Morning Publications, St. Paul), Klecko outlines the stakes:

“I had been selected by a French panel/To spend Super Bowl Sunday attending their baking expo in Paris/It was mentioned with emphasis/That I was the only American invited/Life had never been better.”

The same was true for his employees. “My production managers drove Hummers and Escalades,” he tells me by phone. “They were living the American dream.”

Then, 16 days before the game, an immigration audit came in. It said Klecko employed 23 immigrants with invalid I-9s. Most of them had worked for him for decades. He says he made a deal: They could work through the week, and everyone would get paid.

“News reporters said some of my supervisors fled and ran away, and it really beyond-angered me,” he says.

A local publication ran a piece, he writes in the poem “Media Jackals,” with “a photoshopped picture/Of ICE raiding a building/That was meant to depict our bakery.” The TV journalist who said supervisors fled didn’t just lie: “They compromised our dignity for headlines/Insinuating we were cowards/Knowing we were helpless/And in no position to defend ourselves.”

The media dust-up appears in the first half of the book, a collection of more than 90 poems. It marks the first time Klecko is telling his side of the story.

ICE leaves behind an emotional fallout, and, along the way, Klecko drops seeds of autobiography, to flower in the second half. Hitman is definitely about disbanding Hispanic employees and shuttering an iconic bread bastion. But it’s also about growing up, hitting 55, staying relevant, and steering relationships. Probably for the politics, though, Klecko admits, the book has earned more attention than anything else he’s written.

That’s even with a locally known mononym: Klecko founded the St. Paul Bread Club in 2003; he’s penned eight other books of poetry since 2013; and, at one point, he created the Kerouac Award, for people who work for a living and write poetry for fun. The California native is a loud, tattooed, 275-pound Master Bread Maker who speaks with self-deprecating pride about his Polish heritage. Recognizable enough, in other words, that some guy at the gym recently approached him, after hearing about Hitman on Minnesota Public Radio. (The book is now set to go up on Amazon.)

“He was telling me about how he was having conversations with his son in college about immigration, and [the book] would be a good way to continue the topic,” Klecko says. “Because, I’m telling you, we’ve all heard the word ‘ICE,’ but people are so nervous, and with good reason, to discuss this.”

Him included. “I only understand baking and baseball and very little,” he says. “I’m not political.”

When he has brought up the issue, of undocumented workers working behind the scenes, without security—whomever he’s talking to, he says, whether they’re a business owner or a local politician, they’ve looked down at the ground.

“My job doesn’t have to be to provide answers,” he says. “My job has to be to drag it to the table.”

 

Surrounded with Sweetness

Before Klecko started on Hitman-Baker-Casketmaker, he was thinking about white privilege.

In his mid-50s, he wanted to write about what he calls “the last generation of complete white entitlement.” (His 28-year-old son seems more aware of minorities than he was at that age, he says, having spent his own youth in Inglewood, California, then Crystal, Minnesota.)

But soon, his priorities changed.

He closed Saint Agnes. “It’s our fault, we will work for free/Until you find replacements,” his former employees offered, as described in “Rally of Despair.” “I smiled and said no, not without you.”

Then, the jackals incensed him.

If he spoke out, he didn’t want it to be by essay, or weighted with statistics. Not at a time of Facebook rants and “alternative facts.”

No one could refute the emotional truth of poetry, he thought. Or, as he calls the brisk vignettes in Hitman, “poetic commercials.”

“With each, to make a precise message, and to move on to the next one”—a book to read in one sitting, he says.

It also needed entertainment value. “I had to put more into it than just immigration, because if it was just that, and if it was just a group of people getting torpedoed, I think it would’ve left people without hope.”

Dan “Klecko” McGleno

Courtesy of Paris Morning Publications

Klecko found his strategy in the straightforward style of novelist Ernest Hemingway.

“[He] drives points home by surrounding them with sweetness,” he explains. “You look at Old Man and the Sea—that is a premier book that’s ever been written about a human being trying to remain relevant. But he surrounds it with complete sweetness, of his relationship with the boy, and trying to fight for the fish.”

The ICE-Saint Agnes fight was over before it started. Really, Klecko says, it serves as a subplot. We get to know the gratitude and the tenacity of his co-workers. Then, like steam from an oven, their goodbyes fade into the heat of his other tumults and relationships. Strangers enter and exit: the chain-smoking couple at Tavern on Grand, bleb-lunged but together; the woman who storms into Golden Chow Mein to scream, “They don’t love you like I do”; the pastry chef who steals Garrison Keillor’s salt and pepper shakers; the 99-year-old football fan Millie Wall, who throws a foam brick at her TV when the Vikings fumble. Klecko’s mom gets a recurring role, as a harebrained, bird-loving sage.

The title’s “hitman”? His swashbuckling stepdad, woozily anchored to the underworld. And the “casketmaker” is Klecko’s biological father, mostly out of the picture, who takes pride in the white Cadillac of a coffin where he sees himself someday.

ICE and immigration fit as pieces of Klecko’s jigsaw. They’re not hot takes: He worked with Mexican immigrants for at least a quarter of a century; probably 95 percent of his applicants in the past six years have been Hispanic, he says.

“When you have this group of people that you fall in love with—I mean, they literally can’t speak for themselves,” he explains, in part addressing our queasiness over white authors telling non-white stories. “If they do [speak], they lose it all. I haven’t lost everything. I’m a white man in America. I have everything.”

Shortly after closing, Klecko brought his recipes to the 40-year-old Grandma’s Bakery, in White Bear Lake. “Millions of dollars, millions of loaves/Vanished in a single Super Bowl run,” he writes in “Closing Thoughts,” at the end of the book’s first half.

His only regret, he says in the poem, is that he…

cannot list the names
Of the bakers who worked
Late nights, holidays and weekends
To ensure you received
Loaves to build tradition on
According to some
Those services are criminal

 

St. Paul’s Sanctuary

If Klecko’s undocumented employees ever got pulled over, each had a business card with his name and phone number on it. In St. Paul, it was never a problem. But as soon as they crossed into Eagan, Woodbury, Eden Prairie—several times, Klecko says, police flashed their lights, took the employee’s vehicle for impounding, and left them on the freeway. Klecko would come pick them up.

“[St. Paul] is a sanctuary city, plain and simple,” he says. “There’s no contract or anything like that, but when you’ve employed a group of people for decades and seen how it works, it’s obvious.” (He says anyone with a questionable I-9 wouldn’t dare work in E-Verified White Bear Lake.)

The Saint Agnes audit wasn’t just a shock; it was a sign of changing times.

On one level, Hitman personalizes the country’s piqued awareness of those who come to the U.S., often from perilous circumstances, to take unglamorous jobs. As the final, grueling, 90-hour workweek rolls to a close, Klecko sits with his morning bread mixer in “Lunch with Oso.” He asks, “You gonna be ok?” Oso nods “before explaining/The biggest mistake I made/Was I got too comfortable/As a Mexican/I should have known better.”

Klecko threads a series throughout, called “Mexicans in the Parking Lot.” The Saint Agnes crew would drink beers after work. Klecko is handed a Modelo. “Breeze feels good, beer tastes good,” he writes, showing his Hemingway stripe—“Noticing the satisfaction of the crew/As they faced the breeze to receive a reward.”

Illegal immigrants can’t bother with the renown that a Paris-destined baker, or a poet, or a novelist might chase. And yet, in Hitman, Klecko finds it most fitting to immortalize the moments and people who typically go unsung.

He learns, from professional baking, that white America’s privileged obsession with recognition is usually funny and off base. And he points out, more than once in the book, that it’s also often thanks to “illegals [who]/Bust ass to bring your life value and luxury.”

Klecko bakes a cake for a poet laureate’s 80th birthday party, in “A Preference of Lemon.” Hobnobbers compare milestones: meeting the Dalai Lama, meeting Peter, Paul, and Mary. But “women aren’t thinking about…/how many candles are blazing,” he writes. The plain-dressed truth: “She simply wants dessert.”

A bride, if presented a cake botched because of bad traffic, would entrap him in “an eternal memory/Filled with contempt.”

Dessert exposes pretense. Because, sometimes, cake compensates for a flaccid attempt at meaning. See: the cupcakes his first wife gets him for his birthday, with “those scary plastic clown heads/Periscoping through the frosting/Smiling at my discomfort.” Nothing like the cheap yet regularly invoked beers on the tarmac. Special without insistence.

Other unsung moments get their own poems. They come in like evidence, to validate Klecko’s nameless co-workers.

His biological dad takes him to a boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, and, awkwardly, he confesses: “When you get older, you’re going to realize I’m a sh*tty father.” But he had two tickets, he says, and he hopes Klecko realizes he chose to take him.

His stepdad bonds over traditional masculinity, too: opposing bets on the ’72 World Series, analysis of John Wayne’s fisticuffs in The Quiet Man.

Then, in a stretch of poems starting with “Thinking of Texas,” Klecko hints at the true value of such experiences. He was sitting in his office on an ordinary day, lost in a random reverie about the Lone Star State. Suddenly, it was worth a poem: An email pinged, searing the moment, telling him that a friend’s daughter had died.

It wasn’t the World Series that mattered. Nor the boxing match. (Klecko notes the hype but not who won.) It was the attempt at love. It was getting his stepdad to slip away from his back-alley life, to slump down beside him with some beer and licorice.

The risks that Klecko’s employees took were huge, but, he says, they had reason to feel safe in St. Paul. “When you have a city that says, ‘Hey, come up here, we’ll leave you alone,’ and their cousins are saying, ‘They leave us alone here’—it’s pretty hard to pass up.”

And it wasn’t just the work. In an early poem, the bakers find that same private, lasting significance in the break room before a shift. The oven is a dragon. The Gatorade puddles on the floor “serve as warnings.” Years later, Klecko writes, they’ll realize why they kept on: “It wasn’t for themselves/But each other.”

 

Decrescendo

There is one “soapbox” moment in Hitman, and it feels unavoidable. When the book dropped in March, media glommed onto the political backstory. The poem “My Social Media Response to My MPR Interview” flips Klecko’s August 2018 comment into a meta-statement: “The truth is,” he self-transcribes, “first-world nations/Are using illegal work forces to bolster their economy.”

You can imagine him agonizing over the wording. As commentary, it was carefully public. As a poem, though, it’s offered in faith, intimately. In the preceding piece, he describes the seconds before MPR contacted him: on vacation, on a ferry to Alcatraz, where a Belgian mother tightly embraces her sea-sick son, not alerting anyone to the mess he’s made on deck.

Klecko names poet Charles Bukowski as his mentor, and it’s not surprising: The Los Angeles rabble-whisperer liked to cast a bare light on life’s grimy, often pathetic details.

Like him, Klecko spares us the wordplay. Also like him, Klecko is a white male who knew shady characters growing up. Hitman introduces us to gangster-guarded temptations. He remarks on sad bar dwellers, who might quip, about dying alone, “Not every funeral needs an audience.” Or who, staggering out to a concrete stoop, swollen-faced, “[provide] a narrative meant for everyone,/or nobody,” and barter a menthol cigarette for one of his blueberry muffins.

Even though Klecko came of age amid rough machismo, he picked the whisk over the wrench. That started with some apple crisp he made in a mandatory home-economics class at Carl Sandburg Junior High in Golden Valley.

“[My home-ec teachers] realized that I was on the fringe,” he says. “Those women loved me and nurtured me like no one else.”

(Still, when his grandfather discovers his Wilton’s Course in Flowers and Cake Design textbook, in “My First Tool Box”: “What I would have given/To find an ample place to hide.”)

After Hitman, Klecko might return to his project on white privilege. He guesses that he could finish it in a year to 18 months. In it, he might explore how his male peers burned through that privilege—on drugs, in crime, or due to mental illness.

“I was, for whatever reason, in the presence of many damaged people throughout their youth,” he says.

Remembering the time his father took him to the Ali-Frazier fight, he adds, “People often get angry or go to therapy to try to figure out ways to approve or disapprove of the people who have impacted them. But I’ve learned it’s just about moments.

“Joy hits a crescendo and drops off,” he says, “but once you learn calm, you can stay there forever.”

As he discovered in the parking lot: “It’s a good place to be.”

 

Find Hitman-Baker-Casketmaker online at parismorningpublications.com, at independent book stores, and, soon, on Amazon.

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