Boston, MA. April 17th, 2003 Caleb John Clark
At the Seder we’d had a lively debate over Dunkin’ Donut’s coffee. For those of you West Coast natives, Dunkin’ Donuts is a chain of seemingly benign donut shops that has a death grip on the psyche of New England. It’s been like this since the dawn of time, at least since time was recorded coherently after the advent of morning coffee.
Dunkin’ Donuts sprinkle the country side like snow flurries, especially in blue collar areas. I remember growing up in the 70s and 80s they had scary older people working there and lots of cops hanging out. It was a place to stay away from during the rebel teens, unless you were working during the summer in construction and had to buy the donuts for the crew, or you were driving late at night and needed a wake up. But I know they were popular and I guess I’d figured that by now they’d just be steadily lumbering along to their death like an old bowling alley, wounded and bleeding from hits from Starbucks and any number of new chains with modern methods, marketing and healthier products.
But no. Turns out Dunkin’ Donuts is doing fine thanks. They’ve heard the call of the customer and have bagels, croissants, and other healthier stuff in new stores. They’ve partnered with Baskin & Robbins in some places so they do coffee in the AM and ice cream in the PM in the same place. They have not left behind their blue collar base though and still have plenty of heart stopping donuts, which I’m sure also are for the “rare” slips thin professionals all have from their endless diet, which I suspect are not that rare at all and might be something Starbucks might want to look into providing for. They also have location-location-location. They are on the street, in the towns, deep in subway stations, bus stations, train stations, malls, etc.
A guest at the Seder, a sane young professional mind you, admitted with pride and out loud that she loves their coffee, and the fact that they employ more older and poorer people who seem to really need jobs then the young Starbucks types. Others admitted it was a high scorer in the category of American swill drip coffee. I remember their coffee as being like McDonald’s coffee, but a little better. Prior to traveling to Europe and living in California I’d no coffee reference. After, I’d say it’s hot and tastes kinda’ like coffee on the front end, but unlike low grade swill, has a back bite of some actual coffee bean taste. And it has plenty of caffeine. This is coffee much like New England itself, hard working, not pretty, no frills, not that healty, but getting the job done and tough as nails. Tough in this case is being able to taste fresh for long periods of time past actual freshness. I decided I should re-experience a Dunkin’ Donuts before my departure.
Spring sprang back into hiding as I left Boston with a no-breakfast-necessary Seder stomach. Walking to the T stop at 6:45am, the high 70s had became the high 30s. My bare hands got that pain I remember from the cold. Clouds had packed in at night. Rain was coming.
The Big Dig is still evident if you’re sitting on the left side of a bus leaving South Station. Rubble strewn mounds fill the spaces between curving highways, a few cranes hang out wishing for the old days of the Dig when they had a lot more company. Or perhaps this is not The Dig, but just some highway work doomed to be forever associated with the all encompassing Dig by outsiders for years to come (The Big Dig was a massive project to put regular into tunnels highways under the city). Our bus driver was of the gruff mid-50s, gray crew-cut variety. It’s $19 one way from South Station to the Providence airport and about 8 passengers littered the big Bonanza bus. Leaving the city three story row houses appeared. Old sagging back porches with sagging paint suggested sagging people inside. An all night bowling alley with 50s style rounded roof was spied. Then the naked gray trees started to fill in around the highway and were only contrasted with a few darker pines.
On the highway out of Boson, Rt. 93 I think, people are treating the right breakdown lane as a full lane. This gets a little tricky around exits when some people exit and some continue and then bunch up against cars entering. The bus even used the lane way before our exit and I saw a sign that said “Route so-and-so, use breakdown lane.”
Downtown Providence is a really cool looking. Totally colonial, surprisingly clean, huge brick or granite city buildings and a river. Two ladies get on in Providence. 60ish, with heavy local accents sounding a little English. They talked steadily. Leaving Providence for the airport things also got real. The river became lined with oil refineries, a huge old brick factory with broken windows and spray paint everywhere sat vacant on the side of the highway like some giant public art project on the industrial revolution. Then electric companies, row houses, water towers, brick factories with ornate brick chimneys. Out further the trees again and then the airport.
A Dunkin’ Donuts was in the airport with a hefty morning line, but I wanted to get my boarding pass and flew by it. But there was another one by my gate with another hefty line. I joined. The place was pumping out breakfast from a very small space. Employees were jamming and yelling back and fourth gettin’ stuff done. I got a egg sandwich on a bagel and a medium coffee for 3 bucks and change. I noticed a rack of packs of their coffee being sold for home just like Starbucks.
The cashier asked “Cream and sugar?” I said “Sure,” a little surprised but figuring she meant, “room for cream and sugar?”
I got the coffee and went to find the fixing’s stand but there wasn’t one. Circling around for my sandwich I noticed the staff putting cream and some kind of sweetener in peoples coffee FOR THEM. I took the top off my coffee and sure enough, they had put in the cream and sugar and stirred it. This was downright STRANGE, people messin’ with my coffee! I tasted it. It wasn’t bad. I loitered and heard the locals ordering “light sweet, heavy cream,” “Large heavy both” and such and got the picture. The bagel was competent bread, but not bagel, and the egg was actual egg with noticeable whites and yokes. Nothing to write home about, wait a minute, that’s what I’m doing…OK, how about no great shakes. But it was cheaper then a fancy latte, and that included a big breakfast. And it had a good jolting caffeine kick.
Safely in the familiar and consistent womb of Southwest Airlines, I asked some Chicago bound folks about Dunkin’ Donuts. They liked the coffee, said it wasn’t as strong as the Stabucks and that in Chicago they are all run by Indians. The flight attendant heard me and said Southwest recently chanced to coffee from the same company that supplies, them, but that she likes Chrispy Cream donuts better, but she’s “From the South.”
Secure in the feeling that some old standbys evolve and survive, the East Coast fell behind me covered by a gray cloud layer, keeping it safe and insulated until my return.