I love donuts.
In fact, I do. Very much. But that’s my son, Linus, talking, outside Earl’s Donuts in Chatsworth, California. Inside we had just plowed through a big box of raised and glazed and cinnamon and crumb, watched a man in a gold wheelchair feed an apple fritter to his pet parrot and played the California Lottery. Twice. Losing twice. We got in our car, drove a few miles to Stoney Point Park and scrambled across huge rocks, burning the calories of a single chocolate old-fashioned between us. This was a good morning.
For six months every Saturday, Linus and I visited a different donut shop in Southern California. He was two, his sisters were busy with ballet, and we had a list: Earl’s. Stan’s. Bob’s. Randy’s. These were the men in our lives. Donut men. Donut friends. Donut kings. Which meant, of course, a visit to Donut Man in Glendora and Donut Friend in Highland Park and Donut King in Culver City. On some days we would hit two shops, and on those days Linus would ask, sweetly, “Daddy throw up?” I never did.
The donuts got us to these places – to Azusa and Arcadia and Burbank and Bellflower – in the same way Mt. Rushmore gets you to South Dakota. You probably weren’t going anyway, but now you’re here. Make the most of it. Learn something. Explore. So, we'd package our donut scouting with a visit to a local playground, a scooter ride through an unfamiliar suburb, a scramble across huge rocks. We strolled through the Venice canals eating Primo’s long johns and we slid down dragons at Vincent Lugo Park in San Gabriel clutching warm KC crullers and, on one chilly April morning, we reenacted the 4th quarter of Super Bowl XXIII outside a church in Sierra Madre, a bag of Mr. Good’s buttermilk bars by our side. These were mornings of much that I love: A list. Exploring. My son. Donuts.
I love donuts.
In the fall of 1976 my dad opened a small bakery in Carpinteria, California not far south of where we lived, and where I grew up, in Santa Barbara. This was not Oprah’s Santa Barbara. It was a real California beach town, with an East and West Egg and scrambled in between – middle class, funky, politically progressive, the kind of place an elementary school teacher and itinerant hippie could make a home, or many of them, and did. We moved constantly, my dad appearing and disappearing at (his) will, the promise of a new career with every entrance and exit. Realtor. Beekeeper. Galapagos Tour Guide. Now, suddenly: baker.
My dad’s bakery was rather blandly called The Baking Co., but it was distinguished by an almost pathological self-destructiveness. Like the man who owned it. The selection was inconsistent; the hours irregular; the pricing absurd. He battled endlessly, and eagerly, with his customers over smoking and pets and politics. It was too much and too little and before too long, it was gone – like so many of my dad’s businesses. Like the man himself.
What the bakery did well was donuts. My favorite donuts had been from Dream Fluff, in Berkeley, especially the ones in the shape of a foot. My dad’s were better. My dad made good donuts. One of the fondest memories of my childhood is standing with him in the back of that bakery, silently watching dough float in a great vat of hot oil. I’m sure in fairness there’s been more, but over time his legacy to me has narrowed to a nagging and unproductive restlessness, an irrational belief in the probability of impossible things, and an appreciation of fried dough. The last has long felt the healthiest.
Toward the end of my donut adventures with Linus, I called my dad. He lived close, but we had not spoken in five years. He had never met my son. The three of us got together outside Palmdale, at a dusty outcropping called Vasquez Rocks, where Star Trek was sometimes filmed. He was older, more infirm. I asked him about the bakery. He didn’t remember how he got the money to start it – forever a curiosity in our family, even for my mom – but he knew why it failed: his customers wanted donuts and he didn’t want to make donuts. He wanted to make bagels. “I never really liked donuts,” he said that morning.
Daddy throw up? I wanted to, but didn’t. I actually didn’t totally trust my dad’s narrative – he had spent a lifetime not earning that trust – but I knew enough to be disappointed. Maybe crushed. Among many things we didn't have, we now didn't have this. We sat there for a few more hours. We talked, around things mostly. Linus chased my dad’s dog across the dirt. It got hot. After lunch, we stood up and said goodbye. Grandfather, father, son. The circle of life. Something missing.
Linus and I stopped at a donut shop on our way home. I don’t remember which one. He ordered something enormous and garish and therefore perfect. I ordered a twist. Wrapped. Bound. Unbroken. Whole. “I love donuts,” Linus said, which he said a lot nowadays. “I love you,” I said, which I already didn’t say enough.