Time to Make the Donuts
It was destiny that brought Dunkin’ Donuts and I together. More accurately, it was getting fired from an ice cream shop in the summer of 2005 that facilitated our blessed, caffeinated union. But fate works in strange and soul-crushing ways. As I began looking for jobs in my small New Hampshire hometown in between my freshman and sophomore years of college, I had visions of wearing a cute red-striped hat and dress while crafting perfect banana splits and hot fudge sundaes for smiling families and cute boys I went to high school with because apparently, my imagination had been binge-watching Happy Days.
The reality for those brutal five days was unfortunately quite a bit different — far more Soup Nazi than soda fountain. Despite my complete lack of experience in the ice cream industry, the store owner took what she called a “hands-off” management approach, presenting me with a thick three-ring binder to study independently at the beginning of my tenure, then retreating to her upstairs lair for an hour or two. She would return, stealthily and unannounced, standing in the doorway between the counter and the kitchen as I nervously scanned the cash register buttons for “1 scoop” and “bkd good” and her eyes pierced through the back of my head.
I felt set up to fail. Sure, I wore completely impractical lime green flats that were probably a slip-and-fall lawsuit waiting to happen, and I had to muster all of the strength in both of my weak, frail arms to wrench each scoop of Butter Pecan out of the tub. But hell, I was trying my best. By the end of the week, the writing was on the wall. My boss cleverly and cruelly invented a “five-day trial period” loophole to can me in a slightly kinder, less awkward manner. And I didn’t even get to make a single banana split!
So, desperate for some dough of the non-cookie variety, I waltzed into one of the approximately 500 Dunkin’ locations within a two-mile radius of my parents’ home to fill out an application. In my eyes, it was a last resort. I had yet to discover the beautiful, habitual necessity that is coffee; that epiphany wouldn’t occur until the following summer, when I became reliant on the communal cubicle sludge during an internship at my dad’s employer. Creating PowerPoints about defense contractors from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday was my first taste of the brutal monotony that is life in corporate America, and I soon realized that drowning my sorrows in the the tar-colored water — made palatable by an ungodly amount of sugar and powdered creamer — was really the only answer. Well, that and long lunches with my fellow interns, spent gnawing on Hooters wings and giggling over the Sextrology book at Barnes & Noble.
But before all of that, there was the Summer of Dunkin’. Those three months were a blur of 4 a.m. alarm clock rings, walk-in freezers, headsets buzzing with static, precut yellow-and-white egg patties and slices of processed orange cheese, bathroom cleaning logs, unlimited free danishes and gritty chai lattes in the break room, Coolatta brain freezes, car exhaust funneling through the drive-through window, “Have a nice day” on a loop for six hours at a time.
My boss was a delightfully snarky, mustached caricature of a New England man, always sighing, or shaking his head, or saying things like, “Another day in paradise. Or is it hell?” with such a breezy sense of resignation that I still find myself quoting him to this day.
Much to my dismay, the red striped hat and dress were nowhere to be found here, either. Every day, I tucked a steel blue shirt — two sizes too big — into my equally ill-fitting khaki pants, topping it all off with a visor that added an extra layer of embarrassment to the whole ensemble. For three months, my hair smelled like a combination of donut glaze and dark roast, an unmistakable scent that still knocks my olfactory sense straight back to 2005 every time I stop into a franchise for a medium iced. When I got my wisdom teeth out at some point in August, the headset amplified my pain tenfold as I silently cursed my fate and horrible knack for timing when it came to dental procedures.
If there was any joy to be found, it came in the form of my regular customers. In particular, my most major high school crush: a shy, sweet, Phish-loving stoner who transferred in at the beginning of junior year from somewhere in South Florida. I’d decided instantly that I would be in love with him — sight unseen — when I glimpsed his incredibly distinctive, almost literary name on a textbook purchasing list at registration day the prior summer. So I couldn’t believe my luck when I finally laid eyes on him and he was not only my exact type, but also in nearly all of my classes. I swooned as he quietly fashioned pipes out of aluminum foil in the corner during Creative Writing and read a haunting, strange story he wrote about a nursing home while blinking a mile a minute and rubbing his telltale bloodshot eyes. He had all the elegance and mystery of Timothée Chalamet in Lady Bird without any of the ego or governmental conspiracy theories. I was head over heels; so much so that I even downloaded a Phish song from LimeWire that I listened to exactly one time before deciding that I would do anything for love, but I wouldn’t do that.
When I went off to college, I mostly forgot about him, getting caught up in the cute boys that were part of my new life — as one does when they’re 18 and surrounded by faces that they haven’t seen five days a week for the past decade and a half. So when he reappeared a few days into my coffee slinging gig, I quickly moved past my self-consciousness and immediately became giddy at the opportunity to reconnect. Maybe we’re meant to be! I thought. Spoiler alert: we were not meant to be.
His daily drive-thru visits were comically on-brand. He’d roll up, obviously and aggressively high, usually laughing at the Howard Stern Show and sometimes nodding at me to listen in. One morning, the automatic window opened to reveal a massive pile of loose coins on his lap, and I couldn’t help but chuckle along with him as he slowly and painfully attempted to pay for his coffee and breakfast sandwich with exact change. I soon learned that he had an equally draining summer job working on the back of a garbage truck, which was the icing on the cake.
Our brief, inconsequential exchanges were the bright spot in an otherwise grueling environment. While I had made a few “friends” among the crew members, I felt out of place with the already tight-knit and slightly dramatic group—at least one of the girls was sleeping with the assistant manager and things were apparently not going well. Another used her shift lead title as an excuse to boss me around and assign me toilet-cleaning responsibilities any chance she got. Plus, as you might expect from people who have to work at 5 a.m. every day, everyone was grumpy the vast majority of the time. To one another, that is. As this was my first foray into the food service industry, I came away with an incredible amount of appreciation and respect for the patience, skill, diplomacy, and amazing memory of my coworkers. I’d watch in awe as Jeff made a highly-specific latte while simultaneously taking another order at the drive-thru and coaching me on how to resolve an issue at the register. Or as Rosie remained sweet as pie as she de-escalated a situation with an insanely rude customer.
Despite the drudgery, I took a small bit of pride in knowing that I was supplying people with the energy necessary to make it through their morning, and I had to smile as the summer wore on and I realized that I could identify my regulars in an instant by the sound of their voices over the crackling speakers. There was the cute, tan, muscular construction worker: large Coolatta and a sausage, egg, and cheese on a plain bagel. The mousy, middle-aged woman who got a medium hot latte, even when it was 90 degrees out. I also might have witnessed the originator of bulletproof coffee — a man who asked that a pat of butter be placed into his large hot, a request that was not only denied outright (we gave it to him on the side) but mercilessly mocked among the staff for days afterward. One evening, my dad came home from work, chuckling, and told me I was famous. “Huh?” I quickly racked my brain, slightly concerned. He explained that one of his colleagues had come into his office and pointed at my senior photo on his desk. “That’s the girl who rings up my coffee every day at Dunkin’ Donuts!” he exclaimed. Oh. Not exactly the legacy I imagined at 19, but there were worse things to be known for, I suppose.
It’s practically a New England rite of passage to pay your dues at Dunks, and I still see my goofy, dreamy 19 year-old self in the kid making my coffee or toasting my bagel, especially when I can tell that they’ve just started their own Summer of Dunkin’. “Sorry,” they’ll mutter and blush. “No worries,” I always reply, dropping my change into the tip jar. “I know exactly how you feel.”