What you’re about to read is a mixture of memory, hearsay, fact, and speculation. Believe it at your own risk.
The first year I was out of college, I worked for the fine arts department of my alma mater, in exchange for a pitiful salary, a chance to work with the sculptor, and studio space with access to all the clay I could desire. The foundry master, the sculpture professor, a few others, and I used to go to Dunkin Donuts a few miles up the main drag. The waitress got to know us so well, even to the point of knowing where we’d sit, that when she saw us coming in she’d had our coffee and doughnuts at our places before we sat down. I’d get a coffee, sugar no cream, and a chocolate honey-glazed. I don’t remember what the other guys got.
This was back in the days when Dunkin Donuts was a place where you’d want to hang out. A big counter snaked through the center of the store with a space in the middle where the waitress worked, you sat on a stool facing the waitress and the counter on the other side. Think white patterned Formica countertops with metal edges, dark red vinyl stools. It was all very companionable. In my memory, the sun was always pouring in the floor-to-ceiling windows on the front and side of the place.
The Dunkins we frequented stayed open 24 hours a day. Seems like all Dunkins stayed open 24 hours a day back then. There was a regular crew of people who would start drifting in sometime after midnight, and stay through the wee hours of the morning. My friend Johnny H. was one of them — he was still in college, and he’d bring his books and sit there and study. I remember going in once late at night (as a sculptor’s apprentice, I kept really odd hours) and seeing them sitting around the counter. They were nearly all men. They all seemed to know each other. They each kept a pool of loose coins on the counter in front of them, and when they ordered another doughnut or cup of coffee the waitress would just slide out the right number of coins. It looked like a companionable scene, but I never stayed, I was always headed back to the studio to work.
Anyway, Johnny H. used to tell me stories about the different characters who were regulars. That’s what they called themselves, “regulars.” Maybe it was a pun on the way you order coffee at Dunkins: “Gimme a coffee please.” “Regular?” “No cream, just sugar.” I don’t know.
Johnny H. told me this one story about a memorable night at Dunkins:
The regulars all drifted in, chatting with each other and with the waitress. On this one night, conversation veered from the normal topics, and some of the regulars got to bragging about themselves and what they could do. One of them was a phone phreak, that is, he knew how to make long distance phone calls for free. He had a little black box, a gizmo that would fool AT&T (this was back in the days when telephone service was still pretty much a monopoly) into putting through your call without charging you. Then another one of the regulars said he had an Uzi submachine gun. “No you don’t!” “Oh yes I do!” “Prove it.” So he drove off, allegedly to get the Uzi submachine gun — a thoroughly illegal modified assault weapon — but nobody believed he would be back.
Some of the regulars, fascinated with the phone phreak’s little black box, went over to the pay phone in Dunkins and used it to make some prank long distance calls. Maybe things were getting a little out of hand at this point. Then the second braggart came back with his Uzi submachine gun. He really did have one. God knows where he got it. As Johnny H. put it when he told me this story, you really never knew with the regulars. Some of them were into some pretty strange stuff. Nowadays, I might call them “marginal” or something like that.
Next thing you know, the guys with the little black box decide they’re going to call the White House. By now, it’s maybe three in the morning. They call directory assistance or something to get the number. Someone answers the phone (I imagine it was a sleepy-eyed Secret Service agent). They say, hey we don’t like the President — remember, this would have been in the Reagan years, after the assassination attempt that put Reagan in the hospital and left James Brady in a wheelchair for life — and we’ve got an Uzi submachine gun here, and we’re going to kill the president. Then they hang up, and start to laugh. Then the guy with the Uzi walks out to put it in his car.
The Lower Merion Township police are waiting outside Dunkins, and they arrest him and the phone phreak. According to the way Johnny H. heard the story later, any time a call came in to the White House, it was automatically traced. Any threat against the life of the president was taken very seriously indeed. The call was just a joke to the guys who made it, but whoever answered the phone at the White House probably had the FBI on the line within seconds after they hung up, and the FBI called the local cops, who were there before the pranksters could walk out of Dunkins, still laughing. The phone phreak, said Johnny H. later, was back at Dunkins within days, minus his little black box, but they never saw the guy with the Uzi again.
Carol and I just walked up to our neighborhood Dunkins, which is open from four in the morning until midnight. Can I help you? asks the waitress, and I get a small decaf no cream no sugar and an old-fashioned. “Hey,” says Carol, “I don’t see those Dunkins doughnuts anymore.” She asks the waitress, don’t you have those plain doughnuts with the little handle on them? But the waitress clearly doesn’t know what Carol’s talking about.
These days the waitresses and waiters (really, they’re just cashiers now) at Dunkins hide behind big orange and brown cabinets. Who can blame them for hiding back there with all the crazies in the world? No more counters where the regulars can sit around facing each other and the waitress or waiter walks down the middle. Yes, there are a few tiny unsociable tables stuffed in the back corner of the place with those chairs that are designed to be uncomfortable so you won’t want to sit for long. Hardly the place where you’d want to spend much time. Starbucks has taken over that niche of the coffee market; you go into a Starbucks and you want to sit for hours and relax; but at Dunkins it’s obvious they want you in and out as quickly as possible.
Just as well. If I were a faceless corporate beancounter at Dunkins, I surely would not want a bunch of phone phreaks and the like sitting around in my stores, even if they did leave their piles of change in front of them, waiting to spend it, even if they were pretty interesting human beings. But I sit here eating my plain donughnut and drinking my small decaf no cream no sugar (always order a small at Dunkins because a large comes in a styrofoam cup that makes the coffee taste kinda funny), I do wonder what happened to Johnny H., if he still stays up through the night and into the early morning, if he still talks with all kinds of strange and wonderful people.