Saturday, April 02, 2011

Nanook of the North VI: A Snowstorm on April 1? Got to be an April Fool's Joke, Right? Wrong!

Come back! Hear me out for a few seconds --  please?

Thank you. Yes, Nanook of the North VI is unthinkable.  I couldn't agree more.  But so was V and IV and III. So was this winter. So was a major snowstorm on April 1, today.  April 1!

After months of record-breaking snowstorms and hibernation, we expect by April 1, finally, to crawl like bears out of our holes. Normally, it would be 70 degrees or so and we would be outside in shorts and tee shirts.

Instead, we get a snowstorm that causes schools and colleges to cancel classes. The storm was too much for Worcester State University around the corner from me, for example. I couldn't play tennis at the Y because of the storm. Wachusett Mountain sent out an e-mail on April 1 saying, "No Foolin' -- we have tons of snow!"  The ski area said it got "8-10 inches of new snow today."

In other words, it's April 1 as I write this and still winter.  Of course, I was up at 5:00 A.M. and out the door by 6:00 A.M. -- to play in the snow. It's what I do. And then I write about it. Today, boys and girls, we have a special treat for you: more photos than usual and a couple of videos.

First, so you know that this April 1 was a serious winter day, here are some scenes that caught my eye.  This was a neighbor's house, his cars covered in snow.


A few houses down were these wintry scenes.
One glance at them should remove all doubt  that April 1 was the real deal, a wintery day.

What was it like walking out in the wee hours of this winter morning on April 1? Here is a short video .

Got the scene? Good.

Well, I made it down the hill to the Donut Cafe, where I go during big snowstorms.  I was hoping Lisa Walker would be working today because we have a lot of fun, always at my expense.

Lisa thinks I'm a little nuts and of course she is right. I'm okay with that. At least I know I'm not completely right in the head. I feel sorry for people who are nuts when everybody knows it but them. I like to think that I'm one nutcake who at least knows it.

On this April 1,  a snowplow was clearing snow from the Donut Cafe parking lot as I arrived. Outside on the intersection island, I did a little dance, jumping up and down and waving my arms.

Inside, leaning on the counter, Lisa caught my silly performance. She broke into a big smile and began waving. She has read all five earlier Nanook stories and treats me like a VIP.

But when I went inside, some guy was sitting at the VIP  table by the window, which I thought was reserved for me. "What's this?" I implored with raised hands. "Somebody sitting at my  table?"

The man was not amused. "It's okay," Lisa said soothingly. "He's the boss." She introduced me to Bob as "the guy who visits during snowstorms and writes a blog." He barely looked up.

Obviously not impressed, he went back to eating his breakfast.  I stood there trying to get a laugh by putting  on a hurt face and making a plea for respect due a VIP.  The skit bombed. There was an awkward silence. Pointing to the other seat at the table,  Bob growled, "Sit down."

It was not an invitation. It was an order. I sat down and a relieved Lisa came over and asked, "Your usual, black coffee and raisin toast?" I nodded.  Now Bob and I were both sitting across from a complete stranger.

Then something completely unexpected happened. Bob began telling me his story. It turned out that he is more than the boss; he is the owner. He is 65 and has owned the Donut Cafe for nearly 20 years. He also owns a Donut Cafe in Shrewsbury.

He has spent his whole life making and selling donuts. "I began when I was 14 and I have never done anything else," he said. He said that he went out on his own after his last employer, for whom he had worked several years, reneged on a promised bonus.

"Okay," Bob said to the owner. "I quit." Pushing age 30, he walked out and has never looked back.

Except in one important respect. He still makes donuts the old-fashioned way, the way he learned as a kid and with the same basic ingredients. At the Donut Cafe, he said, every donut is hand-made. "No machines here," he said. "The only machines we have are our arms."  Bob shook his arms.

By contrast, he said, donuts at the big chains are mass-produced by machines. Also, at the big chains you can never be sure exactly what you are eating.  Bob didn't say that. I do. If you want to know what is in Bob's donuts, all you have to do is ask and he'll tell you. The answer will probably be "same as always."

Every donut served at the Donut Cafe is a rare treat.

The Donut Cafe is also known for its great breakfasts. Bob says flatly that it's the best breakfast anywhere for taste, fresh ingredients, and price.  The big guys can give you a standard, mass-produced breakfast, Bob says, but they can't make the made-to-order breakfast that he and his staff serve.

Two of the servers are pictured here.  Lisa Walker, left is the "weekday girl." Sam (short for Samantha), right, is the "weekend girl." Sam says that the most popular breakfast is two eggs, home fries, toast, and meat.

Meat? "Bacon, sausage, or ham," Sam said. "Three kinds of pigs." Sam said some customers ask for extra eggs and "we give it to them." Breakfasts cater to individual customer tastes. Another favorite breakfast is the western omelet with home fries and toast. 

Sam  says she is famous for her blueberry pancakes.  She makes them "big and thick."  She says that people came in asking, "Hey, can I get one of those great big pancakes?"  The answer is always yes -- and the way they want it.

Still, Bob said, business is down because these are tough times. People are hurting financially and  not eating out as much as they used to, he said.  He talked about the many ways that the Donut Cafe is adapting to people's convenience and pocketbooks.

"Are you getting all this," Lisa asked.

"Sure, I remembered Michael Collins' name, didn't I." He was a customer I had joked around with on an earlier visit. His son Tim was hoping for a major league baseball contract.

Lisa frowned. "His name is Larry Collins,"  she said.

Every time I come in, Lisa somehow manages to expose me for what I am or am not -- in this case, no memory. It's not her because she's sweet and wouldn't knowingly hurt a flea. It's flawed me. Without missing a beat, I said, "Ah, do you have a pencil and a piece of paper?"

She brought them.  She also showed me the big photo, shown at left, of Tim Collins that was in the morning Telegram & Gazette. The Worcester native was shown pitching for the Kansas City Royals. "He got a pro contract," Lisa said. 

"Four hundred thousand a year," a male customer said while paying his bill. "Minimum wage in the majors.  Imagine that, at twenty-one."

"Forty three thousand a month," Lisa said. "Whew."

Now back to the real world and Bob's efforts to offer even more to his customers. He recently installed an ATM machine. "People were coming in with credit cards and we couldn't take them," he said. "We couldn't serve them and lost money." That is no longer the case.

Bob said that the Donut Cafe will soon add three new drinks: expresso, cappuccino, and smoothies. "I have no clue how to make them," Bob said. "I never made them." Sam immediately piped up, "I'll make them. I know how to make them."

When Bob was done with me, he just got up and went out back. I lingered at the VIP table, getting a free coffee refill from Lisa, and watching the plow outside clearing snow from the parking lot. I was just about to leave when Bob emerged from the back room.

He flicked a finger at me. "Come here," he commanded.  It's how you would call a puppy. Having little pride, I obediently got up and let Bob escort me out back. "I wanted you to see this," he said. "This is where we make the donuts. See, no machines."

It was a tiny work area, given all the donuts made there.  There were counters, a deep fryer, and vats. He pointed to a vat of chocolate. "We have just what we need. Everything is by hand." He wanted to make sure I got that. I did.
Repeat: every donut at the Donut Cafe is handmade.

I also noticed something else about that little back room. The place was spotless. You could eat off the floor. It was as neat as a pin. (Yes, I know, three straight cliches. But how do cliches become cliches? By being everlastingly true.) 

When the next big snowstorm hits this month, or possibly in May, and I trudge through the snow as usual to the Donut Cafe, I'm going to take a really long look at those handmade donuts.

I don't eat donuts. But if Bob takes a donut and puts it in my hand and says, "Eat!" I'll do what I'm told. And, to tell the truth, I'm looking forward to eating that donut.

Meanwhile, it is April 1 and I have to get back home in the snow.  For the return and wrap-up, check out this video

So long and keep moving.

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