Over coffee and donuts, a person will spill their soul. A bite of the holed treat, followed by a slow, careful sip of steaming coffee from the cream-colored diner mug, usually yields the same result: eyes closed, up to heaven; smile slowly spreads across the face, and a muffled, yet audible “hmmm” is heard. People come to donut shops to get happy. Or to escape. Sometimes for both.
I grew up in a donut shop. Not literally. We also had a house, but my coming of age lessons were garnered at Time Out 4 Donuts, a luncheonette in a popular strip mall next door to the Staten Island Mall. Sharing the space was the ever-popular DMV, a Shop Rite, a Pergament (Pre Home Depot), and other pleasantries like a pizza place, a Haagen-Dazs, and a Toys R Us.
The Shop was the row house of strip malls: long and narrow. There were three mustard-colored, horseshoe-shaped counters with rotating, but cemented-down stools. The front of the shop housed the well-lit double width display cases, filled with stainless steel trays covered in wax paper and topped with a rainbow of donuts. Below the register was a secondary glass case for displaying specialty items like glazed bow ties, cinnamon buns, and large chocolate chip cookies. At the end, after the 3 large U-shaped counters were the open-windowed short-order kitchen. There we made delicacies such as western omelets, pancakes, BLTs, burger deluxes, and the most decadent mayo-rich, breadcrumb-filled tuna fish sandwiches this side of the Verrazano bridge. But people came for the donuts.
The aroma of the honey glaze permeated the air, our skin, and our sweat pants. When my father came home from work, he was followed by a powdered sugar trail. I could smell him from three floors up. To this day, I can tell if you’ve had donuts within the last 12 hours.
The Shop was a whole-body potent sensorial experience, beyond the sugary scent. There was the grease from the french fries, the scrambled eggs, and the ever-present frying bacon, and it was like a mosh pit in your nose. The background music was a male Baby-Boomer’s dream: 60s, 70s, and 80s soft and classic rock oldies. To this day, Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide is my time machine, transporting me right back to those paneled walls.
There was no official dress code for the employees, but the typical uniform was sweat pants and oversized, promotional Marlboro t-shirts. We also sold cigarettes, by the way. Before the era when you had to be 18 to sell or buy them – or before anyone seemed to care. We sold cigarettes to anyone with money. Plenty of times a mom sat in her car, sending her 10-year old to fetch her a pack of Virginia Slims.
The Shop workers, who were neither friends nor relatives, evolved into an extension of our family. These characters are amongst the most vivid in my memory, as greatly beloved as characters I adopted from favorite books. These waitresses were not only each other’s confidants, they eventually became mine.
My days at the donut shop were unorthodox as a background for coming of age, but I learned that I had a pretty smile and it got me bigger tips. I learned customer service and accountability, because, at 15, my father would leave me in charge. I learned how to listen, because ultimately, everyone comes into a donut shop wanting to talk. But mostly, I learned about life from the waitresses, who had lived their fair share of it.
Each one seemed like a caricature, but these women were the threads keeping the shop together. The morning crew was: Fat Dolores, Skinny Dolores, and Marlene. They all spoke with heavy Staten Island accents and all agreed to wear black aprons. None of them wanted to change over to the new computerized register because they still preferred to make change in their head.
They knew all the regulars and had their coffee ready before they got to the register. They referred to men, women and children as “hun.” The regulars were referred to by their orders. Ring up “light and sweet with the two glazed donuts” or “coffee black with a buttered roll went to the bathroom.”
The night crew was different. We were made up of transient teenagers and Dotty.
Dotty probably has no idea what a gift she was giving me through her stories. She invented hashtag non-filter; she was like Kathy Griffin and Chelsea Handler if they were pregnant teenagers who ended up with 5 kids and working the night shift at a strip mall donut shop. Dotty had a gigantic mane of bright red kinky curls, with straight bangs she used a curling iron to style. She joked she was one big freckle standing at a whopping five feet tall. She rocked a double D, which I knew because she proudly told everyone who’d listen. She thought it was best to wear v-neck shirts to show off her assets, which were definitely not in her rear. Her wide butt was disproportionate to her short legs, imagined waist, and watery jugs, but the v-necks lured dollar tips over coins.
Dotty was 35 years old when I met her and she seemed beyond her years. This could have been because she was already a grandmother. She gave birth to her first daughter when she was 15 years old and her daughter followed in her footsteps and did the same thing. Dotty’s biggest complaint wasn’t her daughter having a baby at 15, but that her grandson was half black. “Black Irish does not mean mixed with a black man, but for my daughter it was,” she used to say. Dotty had four other children and lived with a boyfriend named Eddie who she called, “the Native American” and he never came in to pick her up and just waited outside in a pickup truck.
Dotty wanted to school me on life like no other. I had been dieting and upped my water intake. Consequently, I was going to the bathroom more often and Dotty pulled me aside with a serious look. “Girl, are your boobs sore? Are you smelling really strong? Do you want a pickle?” She was convinced I was pregnant and I remember feeling so ashamed I was still a virgin. I didn’t want to break her heart by telling her not all 15-year-olds are sexually active. “Oh shit,” I said to her. “I hope not! My parents would kill me.”
Jimmy was one of the regulars who came in to see Dotty. (Cup of black coffee and a glazed cruller.) He always sat at the first horseshoe, closest to where Dotty hung out near the toaster, waiting for more customers. He was retired because he had gotten into a terrible construction accident years ago and he told us he made enough money off the lawsuit never to work again. He walked slowly, with an extreme limp because he had an iron rod in his leg. Jimmy would sit for hours at a time. Dottie would lean over the counter, her freckled boobs filling his world with light and buoyancy and his 50-cent cup of coffee got her a $5 tip every time. I always imagined she daydreamed Jimmy would be her ticket out, but it never happened.
I became invested in their grown-up lives; mine was directly affected by theirs. If they had personal drama keeping them from coming in, and calling out, I was always the one forced to show up. Whether or not I got to sleep until 11am on the weekends was dependent on the well-being of the donut shop crew. But they somehow also vicariously lived through me. I was the only one there temporarily, biding my time until I entered the real world. I was eventually going to college and moving out of Staten Island, but this was their whole and very real world.
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 of the store 7 days a week, was the heartbeat of our family. Everything revolved around the business and while it never served us, we always served it. The donut shop certainly didn’t steal my adolescence, although I’ve often used it as a scapegoat for typical teenage grievances. It did, however, destroy a piece of my father’s heart and soul, and ultimately, our family.
My mother has apologized to me about my many hours and years spent at The Shop. She regrets it and feels pangs of guilt for the sitcom-inspired adolescence I didn’t have. But I don’t regret one minute of it. The donut shop, more than high school or even college, taught me about life. About humans and social trials gone awry. I learned empathy, compassion, and there is always a back story. Those evenings and weekends working at The Shop were my teenage yearbook.