28th Avenue at 7th
New York City, 1992
This donut shop has two U shaped counters, a shape that encourages conversation between customers and customers and staff. Midnight. Several of us are sitting at the U closest to the door. There is also a steady stream of people coming in off the street to order take-out.
The red and white linoleum check floor and chrome stools are the only indications that, when new, this was a fashionably designed place. A real ‘50’s diner in the ‘50’s. Now, the floor is old and scuffed, and, except for the stools which are well made, the fixtures have a cheap, temporary look – white chipped plastic counters, wood grained plastic paneling, display cases that don’t match and don’t quite fit. Signs are written in different styles, some very crude. WHEAT DONUT, for example, is written in pen on a piece of cardboard in a hand nearly that of a young child. The air smells of grease and the clock face, which long ago lost its cover, is stained yellow. The window and doors are new – I should mention that. New black aluminum metal front with lightly tinted glass.
A steady stream of donuts and are being put out:
MARBLE CHOCOLATE KREME
APPLE ‘N SPICE
SUGAR OLD FASHIONED
CINNAMON OLD FASHIONED
CHERRY CHEESE CROISSANT
The two men working behind the counter speak little English and don’t share the same native language. The younger man is Hispanic. The older is from some part of the Arab world, perhaps Lebanon.
A customer, also weak on English, comes in and orders two coffees, “One one sugar one no sugar.” This man places his order every evening, always the same, and provides the Hispanic waiter with a standing joke. Back turned to the customer, he calls out as he pours the coffees, “How many sugars, three?” And the customer responds in exasperation, “One one sugar one no sugar.” Even after he has paid and left with his coffees the waiter repeats out loud “One one sugar,” and laughs. But now several people are talking about sugar. A Russian customer, as part of his contribution to the one one sugar conversation announces that he has put five sugars in his coffee. He has to say this several times to catch everyone’s attention. The older worker, big belly, round face, white hair, not too clean apron who has been putting out trays of donuts pauses with a tray of fat drenched and sugar laden pastries to say to the Russian that “Sugar no good. I reading in paper sugar no good.” Which elicits the response from the Russian, “I drink strong get headache. What am I going to do? Go to hospital?”
Regulars come in. “You’re late Sammy, how come?” says the older waiter. Sammy, large, slow moving wearing a lightly soiled grey windbreaker carefully moves onto the stool nearest the cash register, but doesn’t reply. “Sammy. Sammy, your early,” says the younger waiter. Sammy, cigarette in hand, slowly looks up and says without expression, “Coffee. Bun.” Bending down towards his cigarette hand he takes a deep drag. And another. And another. He takes drag after deep drag without looking up, without stopping. “No sugar, Sammy,” says the waiter as he puts coffee, cinnamon bun and water on the counter. Drag. Deep long prolonged drag. Sammy doesn’t look up. Sammy smokes the entire cigarette, and then, slowly, takes lots of time putting it out. He spends as long putting it out in the ashtray as he spent smoking it. Slowly, he works the end around in the ash tray. And when he is through it is still smoking.
Bun, coffee and water, slowly Sammy eats and drinks. Crumbs all around his mouth. Slowly, deliberately, he moves. He lifts his cup to his mouth and he lowers his mouth to his cup. Sammy drinks as he smokes, stooped, lips meeting rim near the table top.
Six of us now sit around the counter nearest the door. Sammy, then the Russian, then a young black couple who are waiting for a hamburger, and and old and infirm white couple, the man with cheeks collapsing into mouth, trembling hands, wearing an overcoat and a hat from prior era. And me.
Sammy has finished his cinnamon bun but even though he was careful, even though he took his time wiping his mouth with a napkin he missed the right side of his mouth and so he leaves with crumbs on his lips.
I get up and pay for my honey dip donut, which tasted of rancid fat, and for my orange juice. As I am leaving I hear from the the other U shaped counter the end of a conversation about an umbrella.
“Is that a real wood handle or plastic? mmmm mmmm mmmm. I couldn’t tell. They did such a good job buffing it.”