Here is a story I wrote some time ago, a story about an incident that took place quite a while before I wrote it down. Every word is true:
DONUTS AND BEER: A STORY OF THE GOLDEN AGE
A long long time ago, me and Dennis and Bobby had finished up at Toolan’s Bar on Broadway under the El (not a Hebrew word for G-d). The places closed at 3:00am on Sunday mornings as many of you may know only because it was the law in New York City. The three of us, and quite a few more sons of Sons of Ireland, had been in there getting fluorescent light burns from early the previous evening. talking about this and that, ball games and ball peen hammers, dying Englishmen and dead Irishmen, sirens (police and female) and song, truth and not-so-truth from early the previous evening….and drinking huge amounts of beer.
Such work can cause in one a huge appetite. It was in the knowledge of this fact of biology that Arthur had established his diner in the midst of a nest of many such places as Toolan’s Bar on Broadway, within which would gather of a night many of the same kind of yours trulys. The lights dimmed inside, last call had long ago disappeared into our waiting beer swollen bellies and we, perhaps a bit unsteadily, went into the dark outside; the silent pre-dawn streets, the setting of many of film-noir. As overhead trains rumbled by overhead, carrying the earliest or the latest to their destinations, from out the other places came small groups of kin, all headed for Arthur’s and a hearty breakfast, a worker’s breakfast, a drinking worker’s breakfast.
Now, it is a law of the universe, as fixed as the law of gravity, or any of Newton’s axioms of thermodynamics, that after three drinks everything is a great idea. All of us were more than ready to propound greatness, then, by orders of magnitude; to advance humanity any number of steps on its path to glory, or whatever. And all of us were ready, well oiled as it were, for adventure. I cannot remember who of us said it, but all of us saw the simple, and thus beautiful, symmetry in exchanging, not money, but doughnuts, with Arthur for our breakfast. In a moment we would repay him in kind for the many good things his amazingly talented short order cook, and his tough but beautiful waitresses would prepare and serve us. And, we would provide our friends and neighbors with the grease and fat their alcohol soaked systems craved at this time of the morning; and the sugar fueled energy to see them home to waiting mothers and fathers, or wives and daughters. This was an Irish crowd, may I remind you, and damn near celibate where its drinking life was concerned.
It came to us, this equation of mathematical beauty, because God, in His infinite wisdom, had ordained from eternity that across the street, and just a bit north of Arthur’s now brightly lit and crowded diner there should be an A&P supermarket. Furthermore, He had so ordered the universe, and arranged its constituent molecules, atoms and sub atomic particles that, at the very time we were conceiving this great idea, a delivery truck was being emptied of its cargo of delicious Ann Page donuts in a plethora of styles and flavors. Large skids piled with trays containing dozens of boxes of dozens of freshly baked donuts were being placed before us only mere yards away.
Dennis, who toiled as a clerk in some many windowed office building far to our south in Manhattan, and had a head for such figures, quickly calculated that one of those skids held trays containing five hundred dozen donuts. Bobby, a scholar, was able to compute further that five hundred dozen donuts would be a very even exchange for three of Arthur’s special breakfasts of bacon, eggs, delicious home fries, juice, coffee and toasted english muffins. Bobby would go on to make a lot of money in the commodities market I believe. I was able to see that the truck driver was pulling away and leaving at least twenty of these skids on the street…by themselves.
With catlike grace and cunning, and with equal amounts of charity and hunger motivating us, we approached the outlying skids and culled the nearest one to push to our destination. It was so easy. And that only confirmed us in our purpose. Had it been more difficult, it would not have seemed God’s own work we thought at the time. Simplicity, symmetry and beauty obtained. It was, as we were well used to hearing in liturgical rhythm, “..right and proper, and helpful for our salvation…”
Such a good feeling to be fostering a cure for hunger prevailed among us that none of us noticed our company as we pushed the nearly six foot high skid down Broadway and across the street toward Arthur’s diner, and the now gathering crowd of, no doubt, doughnut hungry and appreciative late drinkers/early eaters. “Excuse me, lads, where are you going with that?” The question could only have come from someone so uninspired as to be sober at this time of day. Or to be what in fact he was, a cop. Dennis, ever helpful, answered truthfully, “We’re taking them to Arthur’s and exchanging them for breakfast.”
The prowl car stopped. We had already stopped pushing our cargo. The policeman, and his partner driving, looked at us. “Get in the car,” said the officer, reaching behind him and opening the door. We were good boys. We were Catholic youth. More to the point, we were Irish-Catholic youth and this was an Irish-Catholic cop speaking to us. It might as well have been God. As a matter of fact there was no discernible difference.
We got in.
We got in and arranged ourselves in the back seat, Dennis whispering, “Shut up! Don’t tell them a thing.” I’d have none of that, I thought. So, to the first query of, “Just where the hell were you going?”, I answered, “Down to Arthur’s to trade some donuts for breakfast, as my good friend said.” At about that time we were passing in front of the very same place on our way to the 50th Precinct, then a quiet little Station House in the North Bronx, a refuge for burn-outs from more active houses; a “rubber gun” squad as the term of art had it.
The two in front passed the rest of the trip in silence. The three in back, now that the truth was out, were busy plotting defenses. We all figured that 500 dozen donuts was, as they say in drug law enforcement circles, felony weight. What we had in our favor was the good we intended to do with them; a fact pointed out by Dennis. That, and the fact that no one of us yet had been arrested was a cold comfort, though
Arriving at the Precinct, we were escorted out of the car past a very bored Desk Sergeant into a large room with a long table, not unlike a corporate conference room, and told to sit tight. Our captors both left. Immediately, Bobby suggested an escape. I said it would be just the thing they were waiting for. They were probably just outside the door waiting for one of us to crack it open and try a “run” for it. I was having none of it. Nor was Dennis. He, suddenly filled with legal knowledge and eloquence, said that our chances “looked good” for an early release…whatever that was. He intended to tell the officers that they had arrested us falsely and were in great danger of a civil law suit, if not arrest and imprisonment themselves. (It was the early 60’s and a lot of that stuff was beginning to be heard.) I prayed he wouldn’t.
Shortly, one of the officers returned. He said that they had contacted the A&P store manager, and he had sent out someone from the store to retrieve the skid on which our unexchanged “breakfast” was. We had left it on the sidewalk upon being invited to drive up to the precinct house with the officers.
Dawn was breaking now, the sky turning rosy pink over the Bronx High School of Science on the other side of the Kingsbridge Reservoir from us. Dennis was demanding that he be read his rights, and Bobby was refusing to say anything, to anybody. He was infuriated at having his escape attempt thwarted. I was thanking God that it was early on a Sunday morning, the cops were tired and didn’t seem to want to take anyone down to the County Courthouse. I kissed a little butt and said that in the dawning light and growing sobriety what we had done was a pretty stupid thing to do.
That seemed to make everybody happy, everybody on the “other” side that is. My buddies looked at me like I was a quisling. The officers left the room, and I tried to explain myself, my craven behavior. No use.
Returning with the Desk Sergeant in tow now, we were subjected to a short lecture on how close we had come, and how lucky we were. He was right, really. I think that fact began to dawn on both Dennis and Bobby, who were returning to sobriety a bit more slowly than I was.
I expected then that, as the Sergeant got angrier, he’d give us a smack. He was a big guy, and I didn’t fancy one of those ham sized fists bouncing off the side of my now aching head. But no, our luck held. “Get them outta here,” he ordered, and the other two officers gathered us up and took us back out to the car.
Now, this was a change. I was no stranger to the 50th Precinct. On previous such occasions I had been, more or less politely, shown the door. “Now the beating comes,” I thought. I figured Dennis and Bobby were thinking the same thing as the door was held open and we sat in the back seat once again, silent as the car started back down the hill towards Broadway and Arthur’s and the A&P. Perhaps we were going to be taken back to the scene and made to apologize to the store manager. Strangely enough I even thought that maybe the cops were going to make us buy them breakfast?
We rode on in silence. Past Broadway and up 231st Street going west for two blocks to the next traffic light. We made a left and proceeded slowly down the street for about a hundred yards. We stopped in front of St. John’s Church. The officer in front of me on the passenger side got out and opened the door. It was nearly 6:00am and the first Mass would soon begin.
The three of us got out of the prowl car and walked to the curb. We turned and looked at the two cops, now back in the car and looking back at us. Nothing was said as the one nearest us waved slightly and smiled. We knew what we had to do.
All three of us made it to confession before Mass began.
Several years after Special Agent Frank Shannon, a former NYPD Detective was doing my background for my entry into the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. He asked me if I had ever been arrested and I told him the Great Donut Robbery story. Frank smiled, then he laughed softly and said, ” You’re lucky. It probably wouldn’t happen now. There’s too many judges today. They need the work.”
Frank is dead now. The other two cops may be dead also. Every once in a while I remember them and say a prayer that God is as merciful to them as they were to three jerks one Sunday morning in the Bronx about forty years ago.