Studio of Edwin & Marcia Ward

Sunday, November 19, 2017


Free Donuts

as always for Marcia

            Sixty years ago, my favorite thing about mornings as an elementary school student was plotting my departure time to coincide with Bobby Leonard and his mother Amy leaving their house. Because they lived across the street, from behind the glass of my front door, I could see their front door open. And then, as if by sure chance, I would catch up with them as they reached the sidewalk.
            Bobby was an only child and thus somewhat spoiled. Amy and her husband had divorced – a circumstance quite unusual in our Irish Catholic neighborhood – and, consequently, both she and her ex over indulged Bobby. Because Bobby liked trains, his father, Chick, had built in the row home basement a model miniature train platform as sophisticated as any found in train museums, complete with scale size houses lit from within, people, switching stations, flora, trestles, fauna, trains, tunnels and mountains. Chick, who visited once or twice a week, had also taught his son, me and Bobby Ethridge how to swim one summer; on the car ride to Spring Lake in Jersey, he taught us the words to the first bawdy ditty of pre-adolescence: “I love you . . . without no pants.” In hindsight, understanding the divorce of the wild and crazy Chick and the extremely devout Catholic Amy is a no-brainer. For her part, Amy always pampered Bobby with things outside the reach of the poverty that most of the neighborhood was mired in. For instance, every morning Amy and Bobby would stop at the corner market and purchase a glazed donut for him, which at the time cost a nickel, an amount beyond my three cents a day allowance that my mother gave me for the purchase of three penny soft pretzels to be eaten at ten AM recess.
            Well, I had learned almost a year ago by chance, that if I happened to be in their company, ostensibly for the purpose of walking the half mile to school with Bobby after Amy embarked on the trolley that took her in the direction of the arsenal where she worked, Amy would kindly ask, “Eddie, would you like a donut?”
            Needless to say, I always answered, as if surprised by the question, “Well, I guess so. And thank you Mrs. Leonard.” The only days this didn’t happen, where the days that the devout, yet excommunicated, Amy left early for work, intending to go to seven AM Mass before work. 

            So, I’ve always had a weak spot for donuts. And pastries. In my late teens whenever I had occasion to visit New York City where the drinking age was eighteen, did I, like most of my companions, head for the nearest bar? No, I headed for the nearest bakery. Hell, if I’d been swayed by all my eighteen year old friends who encouraged and cajoled me to get a tattoo as they had, I would be sporting, not a fifty year old shamrock or heart with an inscribed Mom, but rather an Italian cannoli or Greek baklava or a cherry Danish on my bicep. Such a breakfast sweet aficionado am I, back in the late 70s - believe it or not - I actually was extended cash credit at a Winchell’s, because I was a religious regular, frequenting the all night donut shop at 1301 South Broadway on the way to my South Pearl Street home in Washington Park West after late nights at the Boston Half Shell in downtown where I waited tables. I’d purchase sweets for the remaining car ride and for the morning’s breakfast. I mean the elder clerk there knew my name and would fill my order – two glazed and a cherry Danish – when he saw me pull up in my van. The first time I took Marcia to Winchell’s after she left Laramie and moved in with me was not after work, but after eating at Cagino’s, an Italian eatery in North Denver where I’d spent most of my cash on Heineken and Grand Marnier and pasta. At Winchell’s I came up short when presented with our donut dessert tab. The clerk told me, “Hey, Eddie, no problem. I know you’ll be back, and you can settle up then! In fact, let’s just call it, ‘My treat.’”

            Anyway, I did outgrow my poor choice in sweets once I had children. My teeth have always been a nightmare and not wishing the same for my kids, I rarely indulged them. Still, as with any habit, I always wondered what was new in the world of donuts every time I drove or walked by a bakery or donut shop. And then a couple of years ago, VOODOO DONUTS opened on East Colfax Avenue, and it began voodoo-ing my name, with a Cajun accent, “Eddie, Eddie, Eddie.”
            Now Marcia and I live in Mayfair east of Colorado Boulevard, and East Colfax Avenue, given its sights, characters and urban milieu sure beat 14th Avenue as a route home from The Mercury Café, one of the few places in Denver that we regularly patronize. We had a running joke every time we passed VOODOO DONUTS.
            “How ‘bout we stop for a few donuts?” I’d ask, and Marcia would answer, “Only if you promise to take me to Potage.  Hardly a quid pro quo, given that donuts for two at VOODOO come in at about ten bucks, while dinner for two at Potage tops a C-note. So I must admit that when I had the chance, I began stopping at Voodoo when I was alone in the neighborhood. I also would stop at the nearby ICE CREAM RIOT and devour a quick serving of Philly Water Ice, another indulgence not satisfied enough growing up in Philadelphia.
            Two years ago, I became friends with Bill Snyder, another Philadelphia departee. It was Bill who had hipped me to the Philly Water Ice at ICE CREAM RIOT as he lived north of there at Park Avenue and Court Place. Bill doesn’t drive and Marcia and I often chauffeured Bill & his wife Vicky to and from their apartment whenever we did things together. So one night we’re driving home after dropping off Bill and Vickie, and I announce, “If there’s a parking space in front of VOODOO, I’m gonna run in and get some donuts for the morning.” And, as I like to say, “The Muse is with us;” for indeed, right smack in front of VOODO there’s a parking space.
            Tired as she was – I mean it was approaching midnight – Marcia did not offer her usual stern resistance: “OK, but I’m staying in the car. This stretch of Colfax is a little too sketchy. But know: our next dinner date will be French!”
            I can hear the locks of my Hyundai engage once I’m on the sidewalk.

            Speaking of sidewalks, there’s a lot going on right here on this south side block of Colfax. Three young men, with pants so sagging that the red of their Cripps inspired boxers would infuriate a bull, and with unbuttoned shirts exposing their self tattooed chests, and exuding an air of “we don’t belong, we’re high, and we’re gonna raise hell” are hassling a young intoxicated wasted-eyed Goth of a kid who’s sitting on the cement, legs splayed, back against the wall, and hoping his antagonists will get bored and leave him alone. “Come on, man, buy a copy of our paper,” they’re insisting as they tease his face with some newsprint they are holding, ending with “You can simply donate if you can’t fuckin’ read!” What I guess to be a working girl leans against the car in front of mine, her stance suggesting that she’ll do what’s taboo, miming her I-wanna-party availability to a pair of young geeks across Colfax, implying with raised arms and fingers pointing in the direction of her front and back that she’ll even do two. In complete contrast, what I assume to be a Congress Park family of four – Mom, Dad, teenage girl and elementary school age boy – is entering VOODOO as I approach the door. They avert their eight eyes from the avenue’s shenanigans. I think, “Christ, what people, my self included, will put up with for a donut!”
            Inside there’s queue of some twenty people, slowly zigzagging its way forward through the maize of belted stanchions. Judging by how long it takes each customer to order, given the overload of Voodoo choices, I estimate it’ll be twenty minutes before I get back to Marcia. I’m resigned to figure that I’m going to have to include dessert as well into my next date-night budget to make up for my donut diversion.
            Fifteen minutes into my wait – I’m now behind the family who’s about to step forward and place their order – the three thugs I’d seen earlier hustling copies of Denver’s The Voice – they enter the store. “Storm the store” would be a better characterization of their entry. Puffing themselves up and shrugging their shoulders as a boxer might upon entering the ring, they by-pass those waiting their turn, duck under the queue ropes, and strut to the counter, asking the rather easily intimidated cashier, “Where’s your toilets?”
            No one in line says anything to the young men. How politically incorrect would it be for donut connoisseurs to chastise three boys-to-men about their rudeness and ill regard for everyone waiting in line? Most people in the shop, including the two cashiers and a baker refilling the display cases, avert their eyes, assuming there is no evil if you see no evil. And then, with a gloat of a smirk upon his pimply face, the apparent leader of the pack turns towards all of us waiting customers and, with feigned distraction, unzips his zipper with a mockery of good graces that suggests he’s asking, “Don’t you just wish you could have some of this?” before heading off in the direction of the restrooms. It’s so quiet now and the air in the store is so charged with unspoken annoyance you can hear the cake donuts rising in the ovens.
            One of the two cashiers taking orders is free now as the two young men pace and lurk and stare at everyone from the area of the restroom door. Before the family in front of me can leave the queue and step to their right to approach the free cashier, the leader of the gang of three exits the bathroom and blocks their path, asking the young teenage girl, with a feigned sincerity, if she’ll help them out and buy a copy of The Voice, a query she’s unsure of how to answer. “Come on, help a homeless homeboy. I’m sure you gat a dollar.”
            Apparently not sure of how to play this bullying request, the girl’s Dad reaches into his pocket. But before he can fumble his way to retrieving a dollar or his wallet, I step between the thug and the girl and remind the Dad, “You’re up. Please, go place your order,” a command of a suggestion that offers him and his family a way out the corner the bullies had painted them into.
            “Thank you,” he tells me with a gracious wink, as he ushers his wife and children away from Mr. Pushy.
            “How about you, Grandpop, you gonna buy a paper?” the man-boy then says with all the menace his eighteen year old countenance can muster.
            Time stands still and I have the sense the whole world of the donut shop is watching, awaiting my response. In reply, after alerting my entire being to the present danger and summoning every fiber of memory of my once upon a time eighteen year old gangster Philadelphia self, I step close to him, so close to him that his arms and fists are taken out of any fisticuff equation, and do my best taxi driving Robert Di Nero: “‘You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me?’” following up with “Listen up kiddo, my mother taught me a long time ago, ‘Don’t talk to strangers, even if they’re offering you a donut,’” and end with the advice, “Back away from me, now, before the clerk dials 911.”
            Astounded by my humor and my sixty-nine year old moxie, the kid’s bafflement gives way to fear as groups of people in line applaud. Whereas previously, no one would look him in the eye, the entire contingent of donut seekers, mostly men, is staring him down. He and his pals do back away, assess the odds, maybe twenty-five to three, and hightail it under the ropes and out the door like the defeated rat pack they are.
            When I finally get to order my donuts, the clerk tells me “No charge. The house of Voodoo’s got you covered.”


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