Mornings at Al’s

I wrote this several months back and feel like sharing it now. Best enjoyed with coffee and doughnuts.

When I was bachelor, living in a not-as-romantic-as-its-sounds little apartment above an old theatre in downtown Plainfield, I would smell the alluring scent of fried dough at about 2 o’clock in the morning. I was rarely asleep at this time and the smell of doughnuts frying mingled with the musky odor of my apartment was reassuring.

Al’s Donuts in Plainfield is, without a doubt, the best donut shop around. Better than Long’s, better than Dunkun’s, and oh so much better than those cloying pretenders called Krispy Kreme. Al’s occupies a corner off Main Street in downtown Plainfield. The building is small, unbecoming, easy to miss as you head east toward the sprawled “development” of recent years. But therein lies the real treasure of Al’s. Though providing Plainfield with superb doughnuts is a worthy service, the greatest gift Al’s provides is found among – or better, in the form of – the gathered “regulars” who frequent the shop. This is a genuine community, a place where people engage in the intimate act of sharing food. Of course, like family meals, church pitch-ins, birthday parties and wedding receptions, food is the least important thing being shared. This is true at Al’s and it’s what Paul Mullins calls “Doughnut Morals” in his recent book, Glazed America (University Press of Florida, 2008). For all the rough-around-the-edginess of Al’s, I can’t help but think that a place like this encapsulates everything a community should strive to be.

The sign outside notes that Al’s sells “old fashioned” doughnuts, but I wouldn’t know old-fashioned doughnuts from new ones. Al is just a name on the sign now. The owners are Chuck and his wife Linda, and they begin each day’s production at seven the night before. Al’s has been a Plainfield institution since 1960; Chuck and Linda have owned it since 1990.

Inside, the shop is small. Three tables along the wall seat ten, while another four could sit at the counter. The walls are fake-wood paneling, the kind that was in vogue thirty years ago. Adorning the sitting area are old Pepsi-Cola signs, calendars from the Johnson administration and tractor memorabilia. Among all this hangs an FBI Most Wanted poster for Osama bin Laden. Of course, there’s a large selection of doughnuts prominently and proudly displayed. The largest display is of the glazed doughnuts. These are life-changing doughnuts and will sell the fastest. An appealing variety of applesauce cake, jelly filled, Bavarian cream filled, chocolate iced, pecan topped and a few others round out the selection.

When I arrive one Tuesday morning at about six o’clock, several of the regulars are already in their assigned spots. Plainfield is, you might imagine, not a happening place at six in the morning, but this little corner shop is bustling and the light leaking out onto the sidewalk is a welcome invitation from the chill of this February morning. I order one glazed doughnut because there is beauty in simplicity and one Bavarian cream filled doughnut because there is also beauty in Bavarian cream. I round out my breakfast of champions with a cup of coffee. Grabbing a seat near the door at the only unoccupied table, I alternate between sips of bitter coffee and bites sweet doughnut, listening to “regulars.” They blend in – or I should say, fit in – perfectly with the decor. What good is a John Deere sign without a flannel and overall clad farmer sitting beside it?

Like the theme song from Cheers, Al’s is a place where everyone knows your name. Chuck, Linda, Susan the cashier, and all the regulars greet each person who walks through the door by name. They’ll do the same for me after I’ve established myself with another visit. For now though, I’m content to sit quietly and observe. Susan, cashier and mother of three, chats with Norm about the basketball sectionals. The Plainfield Quakers take on the Northview Knights; I gather both teams have struggled this season. Talk of high school basketball sectionals reminds me of a time when sectional tournaments were community events, but class basketball has wrecked that. Plainfield’s team must travel to Terre Haute now (and few Quaker alumni will follow them so far). The team rarely plays in-county neighbors anymore.

Tim sits at the counter reading the newspaper. He offers a running commentary on the stories. “Hey Chuck, Obama’s gonna address the nation tonight. Be sure to tune in,” he says sarcastically. Chuck responds from the back room, “Oh he’s full of shit. What’s he gonna do? Tell us we’re still out of money?”

Tim is middle-aged, probably in late thirties or early forties. He’s the youngest of the regulars, and the most talkative. His commentary continues. “Hey [this is directed to no one in particular] did you hear about that Senator from Illinois – the one Blagojavich appointed?” He enunciates the former Illinois governor’s name very carefully. Another regular, whose name I don’t catch, wears a fake badge declaring “Doughnut Police.” He orders a cinnamon roll and takes Tim’s bait. “I’m not surprised. Bunch of crooks.” Nods all around.

Across the street, a new restaurant has opened. It serves breakfast, but several of the regulars note that it’s too expensive. A good gauge of how reasonable or unreasonable a restaurant is seems to be the price of coffee. Anything over $1.50 is too much. The new place and Denny’s both earn the scorn of the regulars for expensive coffee. Chuck and Linda charge a much more reasonable $1.20.

Sitting in the far corner is an elderly man – a farmer, I later learn – wearing a Colts hat and a Pacers jacket. His name is Dale, and he doesn’t say much until the conversation turns to medicine. Dale, he informs us, has had “the gout” in his foot. The gout is resolved after Dale sees a doctor and is given a shot.  Says Dale, ” Didn’t know they even had a shot for the gout. Just thought you had to live with it.” Most of the regulars join in his surprise at the medical advancements against the gout. Dale, we also learn, was fifth in his graduating class – out of five classmates. Everyone agrees he should leave off the last bit of information and stop at “I was fifth in my class.”

Joe, a deputy sheriff, strolls in. He, like the men he joins at the corner table, is quite old. I’m frankly surprised to see someone his age still in uniform. I think I could outrun him if need be, though I’m guessing he’s not chasing young hoodlums anymore. Joe is taking his wife is to an oral surgeon today to have “the rest” of her teeth pulled. Many of regulars can empathize. Linda suggests that Joe take some doughnuts to the surgeon’s office as a sort of bribe. Maybe oral surgeons aren’t the sugar-nazis that dentists are.

All the talk of the gout and dentures and other hazards of aging is a bit disorienting. Sort of like watching the commercials during Jeopardy! and realizing that they’re all appealing to a much older audience.

As all these conversations are happening, a steady stream of people who rush in to get their doughnuts to go. Several parents come in with their school-aged children. The sudden rush of school children leads the conversation to the grandkids. They all have them; they’re all proud.  Dale hosted his granddaughter’s elementary school class on his farm to see sheep and pigs. “Those kids don’t grow up with those things anymore,” he explains. He’s glad to have imparted a bit of rural wisdom to suburban kids.

It’s a quarter ‘til seven now and Chuck the owner comes out from the back room – he’s getting ready to leave. Every day, Chuck and Linda make a set number of doughnuts and are out the door by seven. When the doughnuts are gone, it’s closing time, though the cashier gets to stay behind and close up. Many times have I pressed my luck and taken an extra half-hour of sleep only to arrive at Al’s too late. I’m guessing today they’ll be sold out by eight, half past at the latest.

Chuck tells an off-colored joke: a lady gets a boob job; the doctor doesn’t do a very good job, consequently one is much larger than the other. To cheer her, the lady’s boyfriend takes her to a bar. When they arrive at the bar, they see there’s a wet t-shirt contest. The lady enters and wins first and third place. With that, he and Linda leave. They’ll go home to bed, sleep during the day, and rise again this evening to begin Wednesday’s production.

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