Over a cup of coffee and a donut, a person will spill their secrets. Do not underestimate the magical unravelling power of a cruller and a cup of Joe; it is the elixir of truth. In our society, donut shops connote happy imagery: syrupy goodness oozing between puffs of powdered sugar. Not for me, though. One whiff of honey glaze singes the insides of my nostrils and the stench of deep-frying oil makes me gag. I have PTSD from the six years I worked at my father’s donut shop in a strip mall in Staten Island in the 1980s. The donut shop was the backdrop of my dysfunctional coming-of-age story of a family of Russian-Jewish immigrants. It was the place I tried many firsts: cigarettes, cookie dough, prank calls, bulimia, and flirting with men three times my age. It was the place my father met his first mistress. Above all else, it was our family’s eternal scapegoat and thief; it stole my childhood, my father, and my mother’s sobriety.
Time Out 4 Donuts, with the clever pun in its name created by the preceding owner, was my father’s capitalistic prize in America. In the former Soviet Union Jews were not allowed to buy “a business,” but in America, my father bought one donut shop – and then another – and a even a semi-detached house with a small backyard with an above-ground pool in Staten Island, a ferry ride away from downtown New York City. Six years after landing at JFK airport, by way of a three-month immigration trek through Austria and Italy, my parents, by all standards were living the American dream.
“People from Brooklyn come all the way across the Verrazano Bridge to eat my donuts!” My father beamed with pride as he boasted, in his thick Russian accent, to anyone who’d listen. Standing 5’6”, he rocked a gray rim-head hairdo, a big gap in between his front teeth, flanked by golden incisors. His daily uniform was baggy sweatpants caked with icing and covered in patches of crusted sugar paired with a free promotional t-shirt; usually Camel or Marlboro. My father sported this outfit as if he was James Bond in Armani. When he came home from work, I could smell him from three flights up and he left white powdered footprints in his wake. To this day, I can tell if a person has ingested donuts within the last 12 hours.
We called it “The Shop” and I worked there from the time I was 12 until I was 18. It was located in a popular strip mall next to the Staten Island Mall. It boasted paneled walls and three mustard-colored, horseshoe counters accompanied by spinning, vinyl-top stools. At the front of the restaurant stood two floor-to-ceiling, brightly-lit display cases of donuts, cinnamon buns, large chocolate chip cookies, and muffins – all neatly arranged on stainless steel trays lined with wax paper. We also sold cigarettes, but rung them up on a separate register (primitive market research.) It was common for an 8-year-old to come in for a pack of Virginia Slims while the mother idled in the car outside and I, at 13, was allowed to sell to them.
At the distant end of the long and skinny Shop was an open window to the short-order kitchen, complete with a silver bellhop type of bell which the cook used aggressively to alert you to an order’s readiness. Scrambled eggs with bacon. Ding! Burger Deluxe! Ding! Bacon egg and cheese on a roll. Ding! Our menu was quintessential 1980s America: western omelettes, pancakes, BLTs, burgers, mayo-rich tuna sandwiches. But people came for the over-sized donuts. They were too big to fit into a standard-issue cardboard donut box.
While in 2018 cosmopolitan cities, sugary treats are on trend, in 1988 Staten Island, there was nothing cool about doing blue-collar work. I felt I was too good for it. My family hailed from the capital cities of Europe, we weren’t going to live off government subsidies or drive car for a living. Fellow immigrants settled in Brighton Beach and wore their mink coats to the Russian delicatessens to buy caviar with their food stamps. They were scammers and I didn’t want to be associated with them. We were honest. My mother was a computer programmer and my father had a “business!”
The Shop oozed grease: the oil from the french fries filled my pours, the bacon was ever-frying, and we used a flattened spoon to spread butter on everything we toasted. It was a shit-show of unhealthy, comfort foods which I made with love for our customers and then happily devoured myself. I was 40 pounds overweight in high school. In this pre-hairnet and rubber glove era, I sported my long curly hair down. My standard uniform was a clone of my dad’s: oversized sweatpants, extra large t-shirts, rolled up socks, and high tops.
I resented my father for making me work there, usually five days a week. Even if he didn’t put me on the schedule, I was the default stand-in whenever another employee called out. During the summers, other teenagers went on teen tours or worked as camp counselors or folding sweaters at The Gap, but I logged about ten thousand hours at the sugar butter factory, harboring a secret crush on a 24-year-old high school dropout who worked in the lumber department of Pergmaent.
Is this why my parents brought me to America? By 16 I confronted my father about all the collected wasted skills. “What am I going to learn from peeling these over-boiled potatoes every night?” I yelled at my father, annoyed that he allowed this life for me. I was his smart, capable daughter – and I was elbow deep in cooked potato skins.
“You will use everything you do in life,” he reassured. Turns out, he was right. I have yet to find a restaurant who will make more delicious home fries than mine. His counter argument usually involved a rendition of the Soviet army and minimizing my struggle with the spud.“In the Soviet army, I peeled 75 thousand pounds of potatoes.”
Beyond food, the Shop taught me rudimentary business skills such as smiling at the customers and saying thank you. The Shop taught me to count change without the assistance of a calculator. The Shop taught me how to clean a grill using a mesh screen and seltzer.
The Shop was Ground Zero for teenage experimentation. I tried my first cigarettes at the Shop. Menthols. I stole a pack off the rack. My mother was a lifelong pack-a-day smoker and I was disgusted by it – but was also curious. Genetics and bad habits permeate generations like second-hand smoke – it will enter our lungs whether or not we choose to inhale. I did not enjoy the taste and didn’t understand the thrill – there was no high!
The first two years I worked mostly out front, dishing coffee and donuts, mastering the art of the perfectly toasted roll with butter. With experience, I garnered progressively more responsibility. My father often me alone as the “person in charge” and when a customer came in asking for a manager, the other waitresses would holler for “Simon’s daughter.” This shamed me; I didn’t want to be singled out as the daughter of the man who ran that dump.
Eventually, I became the one to close the Shop for the night and also the evening shift’s short order cook. I presented those burger deluxe platters with pride. I didn’t care about the peeling yellow Formica counter or the chipped white plates. I put my heart into every piece of cheese I melted onto the bun. I arranged the three pickle slices on top of one slice of thickly cut tomato. I was embarrassed at how we served cole slaw, macaroni salad, or potato salad in a paper cup the size of a walnut, but when I placed it on the plate, I did so with love, carefully arranging it between the fries and the burger.
I yearned to make the Shop better. I helped my father create new menus which I colored with markers before we got them laminated. I was annoyed at my father’s apathy towards presentation. He paid his workers by shoving cash into small white envelopes, their first names scribbled on the front. There were two waitresses named Dolores; they referred to one as “Fat Dolores” and the other “Skinny Dolores,” and this is how my father wrote their names on the envelopes.
The Shop workers, who were neither friends nor relatives, evolved into an extension of our family. These women were melodramatic stereotypes, as if they stepped off the set of Mel’s Diner. With Staten Island accents, they referred to customers, family, and friends as “hun.” The morning crew trifecta consisted of Fat Dolores, Skinny Dolores, and Marlene. They knew the regular customers by first name and would begin prepping their orders as soon as they saw them walking through the first set of double glass doors. When my father switched over to a computerized cash register, the morning crew gave him the silent treatment for a week because they all preferred to make change in their head.
The night crew was different; it was comprised of transient teenagers and Dotty.
Dotty was 35 years old when I met her and beyond her years; perhaps because she was already a grandmother. She gave birth to her first daughter when she was 15-years-old and her daughter did the exact same thing. Dotty was Kathy Griffin meets Chelsea Handler – if they were pregnant teenagers who ended up with 5 kids, working the night shift at a strip mall donut shop for three dollars an hour. Dotty sported a gigantic mane of bright red curls, with bangs she styled with a curling iron. “I’m a five-foot-tall freckle,” she joked. She presented her double-D sized breasts in her standard v-neck t-shirt uniform.
Dotty’s biggest complaint wasn’t that her daughter had a baby at 15, but how her grandson was half black. “Black Irish does not mean mixed with a black man,” she lamented. Dotty had four other children and lived with Eddie, her boyfriend, who she called, “the Native American.” Eddie picked Dottie up in an old Toyota truck every night. He never actually came inside but idled outside smoking cigarettes out the window while she exchanged her tips – coins for dollars.
Dotty wanted to school me on life. I had been dieting and upped my water intake, consequently going to the bathroom more than usual. Dotty grabbed me by my wrist and pulled me aside.“Girl, are your boobs sore? Is your sense of smell extra strong? Do you want a pickle?” She was convinced I was pregnant and I was too embarrassed to tell her I was still a virgin. I didn’t have the heart to tell her not every 15-year-old is sexually active. “Oh shit,” I said to her. “I hope not! My parents would kill me.”
Jimmy was a regular who came in to see Dotty. (Cup of black coffee and a glazed cruller.) He sat at the first horseshoe, closest to where Dotty hung out, and lingered there for hours. He was retired because he had gotten into a terrible construction accident years ago and received so much money from the lawsuit that he never had to work again. He walked slowly, with an extreme limp because he had an iron rod in his leg. Dottie leaned over him, her freckled boobs filling his world with light, his 50-cent cup of coffee got her a $5 tip every time. I imagined she daydreamed Jimmy would be her ticket out, but it never happened.
The Shop’s workers’ personal drama infiltrated our lives – night waitresses never lasted; donut bakers were never good enough and the cook called out drunk most weekends. Instead of hiring better people, my father took on the roles himself, one role after another and never trusting anyone else to run the Shop. He was there to open it, close it, and do most jobs in between. Eventually, he burnt out and would come home for dinner, do vodka shots with my mom, pass out on the couch, and rouse to pick me up and lock up the Shop. He lived on a hamster wheel in a cage, and through the years the wheel spun faster and the cage got smaller.
I survived for six years because I knew it was temporary; I was the wind blowing through there, with my eyes on money, success, career, – other white-collar destinations. In the midst of my teenage years, up to my neck in donuts, I didn’t stop to analyze what the “family business” was doing to our family. The routine of it all, the opening and closing 7 days a week; it was the heartbeat of our family. Everything revolved around its Little Shop of Horrors’ “Feed me, Seymour” demands. While the Shop didn’t outright steal my adolescence, it has been the scapegoat for my grievances at not having a traditional American teenage existence.
My mother has apologized to me about my hours and years spent at The Shop but I have come to value my minutes there. More than high school or even college, the Shop taught me about life. It was where I learned empathy, compassion, and the power of a back story. Those evenings and weekends working at The Shop were the equivalent of my teenage yearbook – and in that sweet version, I was the one voted “most likely to succeed.”