Puck's Doughnuts

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

I have been misled. Maybe it’s only on Sunday that retirees flock here at 6am. Or maybe they come later. Or maybe they never do as they’re rumored to. This morning it’s only who I think is the owner and I. He sits behind me at one of the wooden tables shaped like empty spools of thread, shuffling papers and clearing his nose. I’m disappointed by the absence of any other customers because now I seem to have dragged myself out of precious sleep for nothing. I came here to fix an anthropological gaze on a bunch of old people eating buttermilk doughnuts. I’m miffed like a tourist who, having showed up for the traditional dance of the famous tribe, is told that the tribe is no more and their ways, lost. His airplane ticket wasted, he might well return home to send angry letters to the rainforest timber company that has pushed them out of the tribe’s home. Perhaps there is a nonprofit to which he could donate. Instead, I’m eating a giant glazed old fashioned and drinking cheap, weak coffee.

Puck’s is perhaps more known for its smell than anything else. At night the intoxicating aroma of maple flavoring and hot oil is blown into unexpected corners of downtown Ashland. I almost never come here because by the time it occurs to me that it might be nice to have a doughnut, it’s already past noon and they’re closed. The smell would be great, even devious advertising, except that the smell and the availability of doughnuts never coincide. The olfactory allure depends on people not being impulsive, on people actually planning to come here the next day. I once overheard someone say that Puck’s ought to be open at 2am, when he’s walking home drunk from a bar getting a tantalizing whiff of doughnut. Puck’s, then, comes most startlingly into presence when it is closed.

The other reason I never come here, even just to get a doughnut and leave, is that doughnuts have largely lost their appeal to me. Even when I was a teenager I began to feel sick after half a doughnut, but I would keep coming back, convinced again and again that the doughnut occupied some exalted place in the pantheon of sweets. In part I received this ecstatic notion from my oldest friend, who has an unmatched gusto for eating things. This could be because he sometimes doesn’t eat often enough, so that when he finally does eat he finds an enormous appetite waiting for him. Or maybe it comes of physical exertion. We used to come back into town from a bike ride, and stop here to get a doughnut each. Sometimes it was me who incited us in this direction. Doughnuts were a passion. Now I remember more than I forget the nausea that accompanies so much sugar and fat.

Getting a doughnut from Puck’s requires that a certain intersection of remembering and forgetting come into alignment. One must remember that one wants a doughnut, and one must forget that doughnuts are sickening. One will not sniff an amnesia-inducing reminder on the air at the right moment. How Puck’s has survived all these years, I don’t know.

Puck’s is an island of unambitious pragmatism amid the trendy extravagance of downtown. The walls are a sickly yellow with green trim, with a few potted house plants hanging about in corners. The lights are long fluorescent tubes on the ceiling. There is one of those cappuccino machines. In short, there isn’t much of an aesthetic trying to be achieved here, and it lacks the pretensions of a hip new concept venture. One will not find transcendently fluffy, booze-soaked cupcakes or locally roasted, free trade, french-pressed coffee here. They just sell doughnuts. Everything else is just icing. And this is not Voodoo doughnuts. There is no bacon.

It would be a great comfort that I can soon go home and back to sleep, but after having now drank two cups of terrible coffee, I’m not sure I’ll be able to. Now the day, blasting through the east-facing windows and painfully into my eyes, has become something to endure. Alone in Puck's with a cup of coffee at six in the morning is the kind of desperate purgatory more commonly found in airports. Except in airports at least there are people to watch.