I’d unlock the doors sometime between five and six, usually just before sunrise. The cold and the dark always made me a little depressed. So did the job. I was twenty years old and instead of working on graduating from college to become a marine biologist or archaeologist, I was filling glass cases with donuts and prepping salsa for the eleven o’clock hour when Helen’s Donuts transformed into Helen’s Mexican Restaurant.
The morning crowd was regulars; construction workers and teachers, mostly, with a few neighborhood retirees who would shuffle in to socialize over apple fritters and coffee. I didn’t get to know any of them because I was never awake enough to know myself. I’d jab at register keys, eyes glazed as the pastries, and focus on moving through a queue of small needs. By the time enchiladas replaced éclairs, I was awake, but by then the regulars had moved on, replaced by college kids and people unlucky enough to work in one of the nearby strip centers. I had a crush on one of the college girls who came in with friends a few times each week, but I never learned her name. I like to think it’s because I didn’t work there long enough, but back then I’d never have found the nerve even if given a decade of half smiles over dusted donuts.
The owner of Helen’s was a man in his early fifties named Joe. Joe was a throwback, an Italian or wanna-be Italian who wore stained wife beaters and yelled a whole lot. Everything was a problem and every problem was addressed at full volume. For the first few weeks, I was not a problem. In fact, Joe loved me. I was the best slack-jawed cashier he’d ever had. He even bumped my wage up a quarter, which was a big thing for the tight-fisted tyrant.
But then one day, as they tend to, things changed. It was payday. Joe showed up in the middle of the lunch rush with our checks. At that time I was either living in my VW Scirocco or couch surfing, so I was extremely budget conscious. When I mentioned to Joe that my check was eighteen dollars light, he told me to suck it up and take home some free donuts to cover the difference.
I’d prefer the cash, Joe.
Aint gonna happen, kid.
You’re right, Joe.
I apologized to the cooks for bailing during the rush and walked out. About a half block away I realized I was still wearing my apron, so I turned around, went back into Helen’s and set it on the counter. Joe yelled something or other, but I didn’t hear it. I was done. In an instant, he was nothing more than a living memory. Anyway, that was the first and last time I worked in a donut shop. Or a Mexican restaurant.