If you glaze a cake donut too quickly after it leaves the fryer, it will fall apart. If you wait too long, it will dry thick like frosting on the donut’s surface. You have to wait for exactly the right moment, when the donut is just warm enough for the glaze to penetrate its outer layer and form a thin, sweet crust around it. By the time I park my car and walk through the back door into the kitchen, the overnight bakers, Matt and Jose, have been hard at work, frying and glazing for hours.
I arrive at 2:30 a.m. on the dot, depositing my keys and bag on a side table before sliding my paper timecard into the ancient punch-clock. While the town around me sleeps, I put in my headphones and dance around the dimly-lit restaurant brewing coffee, filling cash registers, and stuffing box after box with what travel writers at Huffpost named one of “The Dozen Best Donuts in America.”
That was my weekend morning routine at Mrs. Murphy’s Donuts, an Irish-themed, Southwick, Mass. institution opened by Earl and Rose Murphy in 1976. The shop boasts an almost mythical status in rural New England, attracting locals and leaf-peepers alike with the promise of a cup of coffee and a homemade donut for the small price of two dollars and 50 cents — but only if they’re willing to do without the to-go cup, sit down, and stay awhile. My mother first tried to secure a job for me at the shop when I was just 13. Much to her chagrin (and to the credit of child labor laws), the shop did not hire middle schoolers.
The way my mother saw it, working at Murphy’s was my birthright. It was the closest I ever came to being a legacy applicant, and I wasn’t even a member of the place’s titular family. My older sister worked at the shop as a teenager in the ’90s, forcing my father to wake up at 5:00 a.m. on many a Saturday or Sunday morning to ensure that she hauled her hungover body out of bed and into her car in time for her shift. My older brother did a brief stint at Murphy’s as well, but as a mopper. I had no money, no car, and no prior work experience when the Murphy family finally broke down and hired me at age 15. I used the promise of free donuts to incentivize upperclassmen with driver’s licenses to drop me off for my after-school closing shifts. I’d bag them a few donuts before hurrying back into the restaurant to wait on my beloved — albeit demanding — afternoon regulars.
Jen took her coffee with milk and one Sweet’N Low, iced in the summer. I handed her the pink packet, grabbing two Equals for Bruce before rushing to the donut rack for his glazed jelly stick and ice water with a plastic straw. Will took his coffee black with two Splenda and George usually asked for a milkshake, but only if Suzy was working (which she usually was). If not, he’d have a coffee and a bagel with extra cream cheese or a hot dog with raw onions, not grilled. I’d hand Lucy, a nurse practitioner, her cinnamon twist and cup of tea just in time to hear her chide George for his order — after all, he recently suffered a stroke. I identified my regulars by their orders long before I learned their names. They called me “Red” before they learned mine.
I spent more time with my regulars than with some of my closest friends. On birthdays, one might bring a cake for a fellow regular and ask us to hide it in the back. Some of my coworkers found it silly that they brought dessert to a donut shop, but I didn’t mind. Without Murphy’s, there would be nowhere else to go. They fashioned a family table out of a donut shop counter and for four years I stood in the center. I watched them come and go, leaving behind exact change and empty mugs. When I returned from my first year of college, one of the faces was missing. When I returned from my second year of college, I didn’t visit. One by one, they are disappearing, taking the memories of my counter days with them.
I am not ready to be the only one who remembers. A “Murphy’s girl” no more, I often wonder who I am to the baristas at the coffee shops I frequent now. Am I the redhead who orders a small iced coffee, black? Am I the girl who lingers a little too long at the counter? If I turn around, walk out the door, and never come back, will anyone notice that I am gone? I reach my arm across the counter to hand over my debit card or to drop a dollar in the tip jar; I try to send a message with my eyes, with the slight touch of skin to skin before the ding of the credit card machine tells me it is time to go. I was once you, I want to say. I think some part of me always will be.
— Allison J. Scharmann is the Arts Chair of the 147th Guard. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on twitter @allyscharmann.