It’s just a donut. There’s a shop in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, just off the G train at Nassau called Peter Pan Donuts. They do good donuts. In fact, Tina Fey has confessed she’d like to have sex with their white-cream-filled powdered ones. Personally, I prefer sex with their red velvet donut ice cream sandwiches, but I can only get them in the summer. But once a year, this single day, Peter Pan offers paczki for Paczki Day, the day before Ash Wednesday, the day before our Lent. And on this day, this singular, cold and clear-skied day, you get on the friggin’ train first thing in the morning and you go get some paczki before they sell out because when they’re gone, they’re gone until next effing year.
Don’t pronounce them like “pahzhky.” It’s “punch-key.” They’re Polish, like Greenpoint. At least until the gentrifiers hollow out the buildings lining the streets of Manhattan Avenue, with its tall, red brick Catholic steeples and more photos than you can count of their beloved and canonized JP II. Polish dailies and signs for Old World beer line the many bodegas. The Polish tongue is alive and well in Greenpoint. It’s Polish working class and Lent starts tomorrow and that tongue has a taste for paczki.
Upon entering Peter Pan, even before you noticed the rows and rows of donuts in the window and behind the counter, you notice how very white it has been painted. The counters, the walls, the floors, the ceiling, everything. It is very, very white and clean. And various tans and chocolates and colorful sprinkles and fruit fillings of all the pastries just pop out all the more and are all the more inviting. Alongside the engraved signs for standards like crullers and chocolate glazed, yellow post-it notes mark the place for paczki still available on the shelves. Bavarian creme and cinnamon raspberry are all that’s left this year, this singular day. I order one of each from the brightly dressed woman in white and pastel blue and pink. She’s been up on her feet for hours, I’m sure. She might, in fact, hate donuts. Hate everything about them. Still, she smiles at me and takes my three dollars. As I turn, I nod to a man hunched at the counter, a paper cup of coffee beside his empty paper plate.
It’s just a donut. But it’s not. A paczki is the kind of donut you expect from the filled style. A bit larger than a hockey puck. A thin chocolate glaze atop the bavarians. A flirty dusting of cinnamon surrounding the raspberrys. Injected stickiness coyly winking behind a small, discrete fold. Tina Fey is on to something, obviously. To eat them on the street is unseemly, crass. I wait to get home to devour them. They’re a tiny treasure in this urban jungle. Sweet warmth in mid-February. You either know about them or you don’t. It’s a secret.
In the age of the donut shop, a donut is never too far away in either time or space. In my part of the United States (and exponentially so as one approaches the city of Boston), donuts are a constant of both society and science. Donuts are universal. Except on Paczki Day at Peter Pan Donuts in Greenpoint, Brooklyn off the G train at Nassau Avenue. Today is that day. Today is Paczki Day and when they’re gone, they’re gone. And from the decadent mixtured high of bread and fruit and cream and sugar and cinnamon, we will wake up tomorrow with the taste of ash on our tongues and its oily smear on our foreheads.
In my hand, out in the blinding sun, I held in a little white paper bag containing two paczki of my own, each wrapped in wax paper. I was careful not to smash them as I strolled back to the subway station, having gone a full forty minutes to Greenpoint just for this singular occasion on this singular day. Getting on the train, I saw a bundled man squatting forward on one of the dingy, well-scarred orange seats. He was smiling to himself and occasionally made the sign of the cross. Next to him sat an African Muslim woman, eyes closed, having a quiet, opportune moment to herself. This is a common scene on our subway. We are all New Yorkers, all our many kinds of New Yorkers. I found a space further along the car and sat, careful not to crush my confectionary reward.
Soon, a junky sat next to me. He crossed himself constantly and fidgeted with his hands and face, sniffing and nurturing muttered paranoia to himself, grey strands in his ponytail that hung over his heavy brown winter jacket. I stared down at his new brown Adidas sneakers. A long black scarf twisted around and framed his unshaven face. He seemed to know the day to come, the season that approaches, because it’s already every day for him. His hands clenched and he popped each knuckle to a sharp unheard beat. A large silvery metal cross hung from his neck. Two thick rings on the chain, not on his fingers. He was haunted, haunted by himself and so much more. His furies watched him through the subway window. There would be no relief for this man.
“Peace be with you,” I thought, as I gazed at his trembling knees. “Your Lent is now and forever.”
The stop before my own, he got up and strode to put his back against the door at the far end of the car. There was more open space there, more space for his thoughts and his furies to gather, to cling to him and to the center pole.
I wondered too late, after I had returned home and eaten each tiny miracle of pastry, if I should have offered him one of my donuts, something to distract him from his troubles, if only for a moment. But here in New York, there is the unwritten rule that you do not bother the agitated, lest you attract agitation toward yourself. Still, missed opportunities for kindness such as that one can turn one’s sweetness bitter and cloying. Now, my paczki, already in my stomach and lingering on my tongue, have begun their transfiguration into dust, even as my sky remains cold and clear and bright outside my window.
This is the day. This is the day for that singular kind of donut, that most meaningful donut. Take. Eat. This is just that donut that is made for you and for many for the fleeting enjoyment of now. Do this in remembrance that you are dust and to dust you shall return.