What I learned from my 'flour power' summers

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My 14th summer, I decided that my days of pedaling to the beach, lathering on baby oil, and tuning my transistor radio to Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" were over. My work life had to begin. I landed a job at the only business in my Massachusetts town that stayed open around the clock: Dunkin' Donuts.

If eateries were department stores, Dunkin' Donuts was a bargain thrift. But since my only "experience" had been babysitting, I was grateful for the hot-pink uniform that glowed like the black-light posters on my bedroom wall.

Once I learned the quickest way to make change, juggle drink orders, box donuts, and refill sugar bowls, I started checking out the hierarchy. I had goals.

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Most of the high school girls blew their paychecks on mascara and nail polish. But money in my family was tight, and I needed to chip in. That meant advancing, which meant impressing the guy in charge.

At this donut shop, the manager may have earned the top salary, but Joe the Baker held the reins.

Joe was really a fry cook, but everyone called him Joe the Baker. A gruff fellow, Joe had graduated from the local high school 15 years earlier. He'd worked the fryer ever since. Joe had little use for us college-bound teenagers who giggled when a varsity football player came in for a baker's dozen.

I guess Joe had watched enough of us come and go while he hauled staggering sacks of flour to pay real bills.

Joe came to work before dawn to punch dough into circles and toss them into vats of simmering oil. His workstation stood behind a wall-sized pane of glass that gave him a full view of the takeout, the counter stools, and the parking lot beyond. He worked in conversational silence, Yes's "Long Distance Runaround" blared from his radio.

A couple of hours into Joe's day, a finisher joined him to roll the yeasty donuts in sugar, fill them, and lay them on pink paper-lined trays. By commuter hour, rows of puffy pastries nodded under the fluorescent lights like morning glories opening in the sun.

I had a knack for the counter, where I kept an eye out for the regular customers. By the time the auto mechanic slammed his pick-up into "park," I'd delivered a maple-frosted to his seat by the cash register. Soon after, the librarian walked in to nurse a hot beverage on her end stool, watching the morning traffic until opening time at the library next door.

Once the rush settled down, I managed the counter and takeout by myself.

If a retiree I didn't recognize headed for a stool, I met him with a napkin and spoon and listened for his order. I delivered his coffee, jogged over to grab his custard-filled, dropped it off and scooped up his $5 bill, then rang up a couple of boxed dozens before I returned with his change.

But I set my sights on becoming a finisher. When we hostesses couldn't manage the line snaking toward the door, the finisher would come out to help, but only until the rush cleared. Then she returned to her mysterious floury world in the back.

I guess my speed and attentiveness paid off, because Joe started looking out for me. When a woman who couldn't decide between chocolate or vanilla frosting kept me at her seat while customers tapped their feet on the takeout line, Joe barked, "Lyssa needs help!" to the finisher, who scurried out to take up the slack.

Once in a while Joe surprised me by wandering out from behind his lookout, sugar flaking off his apron, to ring up a couple of orders himself.

In August, I graduated to the back. At 5 a.m., Joe showed me how to set the filling dispenser and work the pastry bag tip. He helped me figure out when the puffy pastries were cool enough to roll in sugar without melting it. Toss jelly-filled in granulated, and custard-filled in confectioner's, he told me.

Joe laughed out loud as I struggled to make my trays of sweets stand at attention like soldiers. By Labor Day, I could fill donuts four at a time.

When I worked at the finisher's workstation, Joe became a little more chatty than usual, but often we just took turns humming to the radio, a predawn camaraderie filling the floury air between us.

When school started, I switched to afternoon shifts, but vacations found me side by side with Joe most weekday mornings. I filled donuts and poured coffee until graduation, stockpiling enough money to finance the fancy dorm at college.

When I walked out the door with my last paycheck, Joe tossed an offhanded goodbye over his shoulder, as if we'd be feeding breakfast to the town the next morning, same as always.

I never filled a donut again. But at that donut shop, I learned more about working than I have in the 25 years since. I learned that rewards sometimes come to those who work hard, but that working hard is its own reward.

I developed pride in what I did, even if all I did was remember how a regular liked his breakfast.

I began taking care of other people, and I did so during adolescence when it is difficult to see beyond one's own needs. I set goals and achieved them.

And I also made a friend with whom I had nothing in common. Nothing, I guess, except mutual respect. That, and a shared appreciation for that hour before daybreak, our sugary silence broken by the pop of hot oil as we layered our harmonies onto the Jethro Tull tunes crackling from the radio.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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