I grew up with the familiar pink-lettered box from Dunkin’ Donuts. Getting a dozen on a weekend was a treat. The donut chain just came to Nebraska in the last few years and only last year came to Kearney. Before that, whenever we passed through a town in our travels that had a DD’s, we had to stop. It’s not that I had to gorge on donuts or even that their donuts are the best I’ve ever eaten. Or that I’m that fond of donuts in general. But seeing those big pink letters and smelling that sweet mixture of sugar and coffee takes me home.
Before my mother discovered cholesterol and fat we would pick up a dozen donuts from DD’s fairly regularly. My favorite has always been the Boston Creme, with the mixture of chocolate on top and Bavarian creme in the middle. It was fun to go with my father or brother to get a dozen and be a part of picking out the 12 donuts from the myriad of mouth-watering choices.
When we lived in Woodbury, New Jersey, the DD’s was across the railroad tracks in the not-so-nice section of town. We always went in the daytime, mostly because that’s when you get donuts, but also because it didn’t seem like a safe place after dark. Some folks in town suggested not keeping your back to the windows, lest you get shot. That was a bit of an exaggeration, I’m sure, and of course you had to stand with your back to the windows to place your order. But we habitually looked around nervously, just in case. We never sat down at the counter to drink from one of those thick ceramic mugs that my husband so loves now and partake in the ambrosia of sugar and dough. The clientele at the Woodbury DD’s was a bit scary.
So it was a bit of a terrifying thing to me when my choices for a summer job in the summer of 1985 grew slim, forcing me to apply at DD’s. The manager, Doug, could always be found during the day sitting at the counter with the regulars. He wore a white undershirt with a pack of cigarettes rolled up in one of his sleeves. I think he sampled the goods fairly regularly, as his pot belly peeked out from underneath his T-shirt, spilling out over the top of his jeans.
When I approached him at the counter that May, I reminded him that the previous summer he’d told me there’d be openings that year. He looked me up and down through his thick, black-rimmed glasses and nodded. “I remember you, sure.”
He pushed his massive body back off of the stool and motioned for me to follow him to the back. We walked through the kitchen where donuts were stacked in trays on the rack, waiting to be iced or filled. The baker, a petite, short woman in blue jeans, nodded at me. I filled out an application in Doug’s tiny cluttered office as he lit up a cigarette. They needed people on the evening shift, from 6pm – midnight, he said, and I would begin in two days.
6 to midnight? The shop was open 24-7, so I was grateful I wasn’t on midnight to 6am, but I knew my father would be more than concerned that I was working there in the dark. I was a bit concerned myself.
Back then we wore short pink and brown dresses with an apron and a little cap. I was not excited about this job, but was grateful to have a job, nonetheless. The bonus was that we got to eat whatever we wanted for free, but honestly, after smelling donuts all day and coming home with it on your clothes, they seemed less appetizing.
We made $2.40 an hour, which was far below minimum wage, but they insisted we would make it up in tips. (Yeah, right) I had a day job, thankfully, for a few weeks, office-sitting Pam and Alex’s surveying firm while they were away in Europe. My father tried to forbid me to work at DD’s, as he was afraid I’d get mugged or something in that part of town at night. Being ridiculously sheltered and naive at the age of 20, I was afraid for myself as well, but since Dad was so much against it, I took the job. As I did so often in those years, I felt like I had to prove I could do it.
The first few nights I stayed by the cash register and didn’t go near the customers at the counter unless they called for me. Back then, we served soups, coffee and donuts mostly, and some of these regulars could nurse one cup of coffee for hours. I realized a lot of these people hung out there every evening, paying 40 cents for a coffee that we kept refilling hour after hour.
“Hey, why don’t you come talk to us, pretty lady?” one called to me that first week. I’d smile and wave to him, looking in the other direction. The other waitress I worked with was a rough character. She flirted and teased the customers, sometimes pulling up her skirt or straddling the countertop. She was middle-aged, had a few teeth missing and looked like she could pin anybody who tried to mess with her. I steered clear of her. She immediately caught on that I was a bit out of my element, and teased me a lot.
“Jim over there wants to kiss you, what are you going to do?” she’d sneer at me. I pretended not to be afraid and just rolled my eyes. But I stuck to my spot at the cash register, a safe distance away.
Finally, the boss stayed later to talk to me when I came in. “You have to mingle with the customers,” he said, “you can’t just stand by the cash register. They want to talk, that’s why they’re here.” He patted me on the arm and winked at me. “They don’t bite.”
Oh God. I started lingering in the little cul-de-sac of the counter space after I poured their coffee or gave them their bowl of soup. I stood back a few feet, though. I pretended to be more confident than I was, and tried to joke with them. They’d ask about college, where I was from, what my “Daddy” did. I was nervous every night, and I always parked close to the store so I didn’t have far to walk in the dark.
One night particularly got insane. Lois, the hard-living, flirty waitress, acted like she was drunk. She was mean and harassed me all evening, pushing me, yelling at me, scolding me for every little thing I didn’t do right. She stood back and let me do all the work. I took the donut orders at the counter, filling the boxes as people chose, and also had to respond to the requests for refills at the other end of the counter. She just smiled, and took many cigarette breaks, leaving me on my own. The boss wasn’t around, and Lois’d been there for years, so I didn’t feel like I could complain. I also wanted to prove I was tough enough to be there to the end. That night, however, it got out of hand.
I was running here to refill the coffee maker, running back to take an order and the box would fall apart as soon as I put donuts in it. Customers at the other end were calling me for another refill or some soup or a donut. Lois spent hours in the back room doing God-knew-what, while customers poured in the front door to order a dozen.
I was shaking and on the verge of tears as several customers yelled at me, or Lois would come out of hiding smelling like smoke to ask me what the “*#$%*” I was doing, calling me a lard-ass, and many such poetic names. Finally, while she was hovering over me, yelling, pushing and insulting me, I went to the coffee maker to get some coffee and it was empty. I’d just started it to make more! So I pulled out the filter holder to see what was wrong and it was clogged– full of boiling hot coffee which ran in a wave over my right hand. I screamed at the sudden pain and burst into tears, bending over, letting all the pent-up sobs come pouring out. I figured I had a good excuse– my hand felt like it was on fire.
Jim, a young regular, literally jumped over the counter, grabbed my hand and jammed it into the freezer full of ice. He held it there and talked very gently to me. “Hey bitch!” he called to Lois, “Call the boss! NOW!”
As Lois, a bit stunned, ran to the back room, Jim held my hand in the ice. It was burning and freezing all at the same time, but I was strangely grateful for the interruption in the mayhem. I just cried, staring at my hand, while Jim still talked gently to me. The rest of the customers just stayed quiet. One smart guy held up his glass, “Can I have some ice?”
“Shut up,” Jim shot back.
After Lois got back, she took over, taking orders, filling boxes, serving customers.
Doug came and took me to the emergency room where they put stuff on my hand and wrapped it. No permanent damage, the burns would heal. Painful blisters formed all over my right hand, making for a excruciating night.
The atmosphere changed a bit at work. Doug didn’t schedule me with Lois anymore (we had nice long talk at the ER), and the customers were particularly kind to me. There was Jim, a local truck driver, who took care of me that night. His buddy Gene was an elderly man who was always waiting for a phone call from his girlfriend who called him every night on the payphone at DD’s. Rob was another truck driver who was so shy he hardly said a word. There was Pat, a very large man who took up two stools, had very crooked teeth and talked with a lisp. He had the mind of a child, though I guessed he was about 35 or so, and he almost daily confessed his love for me like a shy schoolboy. And there was Digger. I knew that wasn’t his real name. Digger was an elderly African American man who always wore a long-sleeved shirt, no matter what the weather, and a cap that looked like it’d been dropped in the dirt a time or two.
One night Digger said to me, “I’ve been coming here for years, y’know, and ain’t none of these people know my real name. But I’m going to tell it to you because you are a preacher’s girl and you’ll understand,” he said, smiling. His rheumy eyes were lined with red, and his jeans had dirt caked in so deep I don’t think they would ever come clean. They called him Digger because he dug graves in the cemetery in that part of town.
Digger’s pals leaned in. “You gonna tell her your real name? How come you never tol’ us?” Pat seemed legitimately offended.
Digger smiled, revealing yellowed teeth. “‘Cause you ain’t know your Bible, man!” He turned back to me and leaned in. “My name is Hezekiah Wiggins, after the king in the Bible. My mama was a good God-fearin’ woman, and I know you are too, ’cause your daddy’s a preacher.” His eyes were moist.
“Hezekiah??” His buddies laughed. “What kind of fool name is that??” They laughed, saying it over and over.
Hezekiah didn’t care. He was proud of his name and of his mama.
As days went on, I met a lot of strange people. There was Cassie, an obese woman with curly brown hair that wore mumus and talked dirty. She always came in with her skinny little woman friend, Carla, about 11:00 each night. Rumor had it that she was dating Luis, the skinny little Hispanic guy she sometimes sat with, who was about half her size.
One night, Beth, the baker, came out from her baking exile as Cassie went out the door with another man. “You know what they’re doin’, don’t ya?” She was drying her hands off with a dish towel. She nodded toward a van on the far corner of the parking lot. “Cassy and Carla both own that van. They come in here every night at 11:00 pm looking for guys. They take ’em to their van out there for a while. Some men will pay for anything…” she smiled, knowing that she’d shocked me, and pushed through the swinging door into the bakery room. Ok.
Becky was a teenage girl that was new to DD’s, and began working with me most evenings. I had to train her and she was more sheltered than I was. I tried to calm her as she was nervous about the flirtatious customers. One night an older man called me over to refill his coffee. He’d been huddled with a few of the guys, showing them something and making them all laugh. “Hey, Church Lady,” he called me, “Come look at this. I bet you ain’t never seen one of these.” When I approached him with a fresh pot of coffee, he held up a small plastic monkey on a key chain. He squeezed its sides and out popped an oversized penis. I immediately blushed while I poured his coffee while a bunch of the men laughed.
One evening, about 11:30 p.m., Carla and Cassie were sitting at the counter, talking to a couple of men that I hadn’t seen there before. That last hour of my shift always brought in some particularly strange people. I was usually counting down the minutes at that point in the night, hoping to get out without any incidents. But that night, all of a sudden, skinny little Luis came bursting through the glass doors and approached the man sitting next to Cassie on a stool. He shoved him.
“What the hell you think you’re doing, man?” Luis screamed at him, pushing him again, till the man stumbled off his stool onto his feet. He kept going after the guy who was twice his size, trying to get a rise out of him.
Cassie tried to calm Luis. “Honey, I was just talkin’ to him! Ain’t no big deal!!” Becky literally stood behind me, grabbing onto my arms, hoping I’d protect her. The bigger man shoved Luis back, and Luis went after him, punching and kicking. I was frozen to my spot. Fortunately, the baker saw the fight through the bakery window and called the police. Then she shoved open the swinging door and approached the two fighting men. The bigger man was beating on Luis. Sandy the baker pushed right in the middle of them and put her arms out, her hands on each of the men’s chests.
“Let me at him! He’s after my woman!” Luis screamed, blood running down his face.
“Stop it! Just stop it!” Sandy screamed. I couldn’t help but think she was one tough chick for her tiny size. She wasn’t the least bit afraid, holding the two men apart. Finally the police arrived and shoved Luis down on the counter where they handcuffed him. When he bent over, a very large knife stuck up out of the back of his pants. I was still frozen to my spot in the floor with Becky still clinging to me. The police talked to Sandy a bit, decided the other man was just defending himself, and dragged Luis out the door.
I was terrified, trembling and feeling sick. Sandy approached me. She nodded to the side wall of windows where there was a big smeared blood stain. “Somebody better clean that up,” she said. “I’m going to get a cigarette.”
Cassie just shook her head and asked for a refill. There were some murmured conversations and Becky and I each took deep breaths. The 12am-6pm waitress came in and put her stuff away. I told her what just happened as I was still shaking.
She smiled. “Oh girlie, that happens all the time. You better get used to it.”
As the evenings passed, I talked more with the regulers. Jim was always asking me to run away with him to Atlantic City for a weekend. I politely declined. Digger was always quoting the Bible to me and telling me that he knew I was a good girl and always listened to my “daddy.” One evening, my father picked me up but stayed in the car. He’d wanted me to quit that night the police came, but that made me want to stay all the more.
When Dad pulled up to the shop a few minutes before midnight, Digger turned around and looked out through the wall of windows. “Hey, is that your daddy?” I smiled and nodded. “Well, shoot, I oughta go say ‘hey’.” Before I could discourage him, Digger slid off his stool and went out the door. I watched him approach my father’s car window and make a motion to my Dad to roll down the window. My father looked at me a bit sheepishly, looking a bit panicked, but rolled down the window. Digger stuck his hand through the window to shake my father’s hand. I could imagine him introducing himself by his real name and proudly telling of his “good Christian mama.” I knew Dad was terrified.
Digger came bouncing back in and slid back onto his stool. “Your daddy’s real nice. In fact, I tol’ him, we’ve done some services together in the cemetery. I remember him! I tol’ him what a special young Christian lady his daughter is. Real nice,” Digger grinned.
My last day at Dunkin’ Donuts was the afternoon shift on a Saturday. I was relieved in many ways, but I was also going to miss some of the regulars. I imagined I may not see them again. After the night I burned my hand, the small group of guys got protective of me. Every night when I left my shift at midnight, they all spun around on their stools to watch me walk to my car, to make sure I made it there safe. Before I got in the car, I’d always wave to them. They all waved back in unison.
As the end of my shift got closer that Saturday afternoon, I noticed that all the night regulars were there. Even Cassie and Carla had showed up, and the man with the monkey penis key chain. Jim, Gene, Rob, Pat, Digger and several others I recognized from the evening shift lined the counter with their thick ceramic mugs of coffee. Pat informed me he was wearing a brand new shirt, and his hair was slicked back. Digger wore a wrinkled suit. Finally, Digger slid off of his stool and cleared his throat.
“Everybody, listen up. It’s almost time. Peggy,” he said to me, “We jus’ wanted to tell you how glad we are that you came to work here this summer.” He cleared his throat and his eyes got moist. “You study hard at that college of yours, you hear? You listen to your preacher-daddy and be a good girl. You already is a good girl, right?” He winked his red eye at me. He cleared his throat again. “It ain’t much, but I took a collection and we wanted to give you something.” He pulled out a dirty, slightly wrinkled envelope from his coat pocket and gave it to me. It had my name on it, printed in sloppy capital letters.
“We gonna miss you.” He sniffed and nodded, then led the procession of customers as one by one, they filed past me to shake my hand and say goodbye. I had tears in my own eyes as I shook their hands over the counter and nodded in response to their good wishes. Soon the room was empty, but for me and Becky.
I opened the envelope and pulled out a card with flowers all over it, signed by all the regulars. Inside the card was a crisp new ten-dollar bill.
(picture drawn by Pat)