I pass my neighborhood Dunkin’ often on my walks home. The Nostrand Avenue branch, in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, might be the only Dunkin’ Donuts in New York City with an outdoor patio (a Google reviewer wrote that he was “both surprised and elated to make such a discovery,” calling the space “a necessary requirement for me when dining al fresco”). It’s one of 10,858 Dunkin’ Donuts around the world, one of 500 franchises in New York City, and one of 100 or so here that are open 24 hours.
The Dunkin’ sits in a perfect in-between space, equidistant from the very-gentrified bars and cafes of Franklin Ave. and the not-quite-gentrified takeout joints and discount stores over on Utica. I’ve never been inside for longer than a few minutes to pick up a late-night French cruller.
From the sidewalk, though, I often see customers framed in the window, with their heads propped on their arms for a nap, working at their laptops or having heated conversations. I’ve been living on-and-off in Crown Heights for the past few years, and I’ve grown to love my neighborhood. Yet the customers of this Dunkin’ Donuts felt like complete strangers who lived in a different world. I didn’t want to be so far away from that world: I wanted to get to know them. So I decided to spend 24 hours there. This is what it was like.
I arrive with an arsenal of distractions (laptop, phone, headphones, reading book, sketchbook, art supplies, origami paper) for the long day ahead and set up at a table near the window, not far from the cashier. It seems like a good spot: I can watch passersby on the sidewalk, or study the other patrons in Dunkin’. For breakfast, I get a bacon, egg, and cheese on a croissant — they're two for $5 — and a black tea (I’m not a big coffee person, although I do like donuts).
I’m nervous and self-conscious. I watch a pair of older ladies having breakfast at a table near me, talking about retirement. Construction workers and FreshDirect delivery men with their gloves half-tucked in their back pockets order their morning coffees. I eavesdrop and study the layout of the shop. It’s very small, not more than 10 tables around a small room. My croissant is not very good and I can’t find salt anywhere. I don’t eat the second one. After deliberating for awhile, I end up tossing it in the trash.
It doesn’t seem appropriate to be at Dunkin’ Donuts without having eaten a donut, so I buy a classic glazed for $1.35. I talk to my first Dunkin’ Donuts customer, a pale elderly man with a suitcase by his side. He’s wearing a newsboy cap and a yellow shirt and speaks with an air of elegance, sometimes so softly I have to lean close to hear him. Frank is 85, an actor who lives on the Upper East Side. He says he is in the neighborhood for an audition. Acting is his latest venture in a life full reinventions: he tells me he’s been a pharmacist, a lawyer, a corporate executive, and a teacher. “My daughter jokes that I should apply to medical school,” he says.
Frank only started acting five years ago, when he took improv classes. But it wasn’t enough to do it for fun — “I like to get paid for my work,” he says. Lately, finding work has gotten harder. At a recent audition for the role of an 85-year-old, the directors asked him his age. When he told them that he was actually 85, he says, “you [could] feel the air going out of the room.” I ask him about life lessons, hoping for gems of wisdom. “Just keep busy, live one day at a time,” Frank says. “Otherwise you go to Florida and wait to die, and you don’t wanna do that.”
An energetic black man in rosy, copper-tinted glasses tucks papers into a folder at the next table over from me. When I ask him how he's doing, the answer is an enthusiastic “terrific!” His name is James. He’d just returned from a visit to his accountant down the street. He finished his taxes just in time to get his refund in the summer. I’m shocked to learn he’s 65. His youthful exuberance made me think he was much younger. He wears a purple and gray bracelet on his left wrist, beads of the all seeing eye. “I was told it's for good luck,” he says. Does it work? I wonder. “I can't remember the last time I had bad luck!” James said.
Recently, he bought a house on the beach near Coney Island. Last summer, he biked a total of 600 miles. He heard on a news broadcast that the entire New York City shoreline is only 520 miles (it’s actually closer to 578 miles) — which means he’s ridden more than the entire coastline in a summer. Before he moved to the beach, James lived in Crown Heights for 40 years.
He’s seen the neighborhood change from a being mainly Hasidic to minority-majority to white. He tells me that the stretch that we’re on hasn't changed much — he used to go to the medical clinic around the corner. He remembers biking down Eastern Parkway with his buddy, from Utica Ave. all the way to Prospect Park, riding around the lake from his friend’s house and back. He misses the neighborhood, though it doesn’t beat being a walk away from the ocean.
A customer complains emphatically about the state of the bathroom to Jana, the 22-year-old store manager. I’d been warned away from the bathroom earlier by another customer: there was no more toilet paper, the floor was wet and sloppy, and it’d been a daunting enough experience for me to hop out to the hospital around the corner for my next bathroom trip. I’m both glad someone mentioned it, and surprised by the ferocity of the customer’s complaint. Jana apologies, and disappears to clean it herself.
For lunch, I get a toasted everything bagel with cream cheese ($2.79) and a iced tea-lemonade mix ($1.99). I meet Mr. Hawkins, 87, a sleepy, austere black man sipping a coffee. He’s a retired teacher; he's seen the neighborhood change, too. It's “so much better than it was then,” he says.” Before, “I would not come out of my house after 9 p.m.”
Mr. Hawkins has a military bearing, a seriousness in the way he talks. “You can be anything you want to be in New York City,” he says, and that’s why he loves it. He comes from a family of six siblings, none of whom are alive anymore. “We were very, very poor. I didn't know anyone poorer than we were,” he says. After being discharged from the Air Force, he got his accounting degree from North Carolina Central University. “I tell my students: you owe it to yourself to get your own education or you’ll wish you had gotten it.”
A woman throws a fit about her bagel, which had been waiting for her on the counter for maybe five minutes. “I don’t want this bagel, I want a new one,” she snaps at Jana, who is trying to explain that the already-made bagel was perfectly fine. “Do you speak English?” She raises her voice, then watches while Jana gives in, head lowered, smearing butter on a bagel in front of her.
“Some people are nice and some people are rude,” Jana tells me later. “We try to understand them. Because if you are rude back to them, they wouldn’t come back tomorrow.”
Jana started working at another Dunkin’ Donuts branch in Brooklyn when she was 18, shortly after moving to the U.S. with her family. She graduated from high school in Bangladesh, but has no education credentials in the states. Dunkin’ Donuts was a easy first job to pick up. Jana says she likes the work, though she says she eventually wants to get her G.E.D., start something new.
School is almost out at Medgar Evers College Preparatory School, a public high school of more than 1,000 students with a 99-percent minority student base, just down the street from the Dunkin’. Michelle and Brittany are juniors at the school, and best friends. An after-school stop at Dunkin’ is part of their routine. Michelle likes the Boston Creme donuts while Brittany opts for vanilla lattes.
Michelle has freckles and upswept hair, and Brittany has the air of an almost adult. Michelle wants to be a ballerina, Brittany a doctor. Both girls are in AP English together and taking Chinese, Michelle because her mom wanted her to, and Brittany because she says it sets her apart. The girls love to talk about politics, Drake’s new music video, Instagram, gossip, each other.
They talk about being disappointed by Selena Gomez, who’d hypocritically backed #marchforourlives in a Instagram, calling it “#notjustahashtag,” yet dismissed the #blacklivesmatter movement up by saying that “hashtags don’t save lives.” They talk about how people don't understand how much work school really is. Michelle and Brittany don't need extraordinary adventures to be happy, they tell me. “We don't have to do anything, we can just sit here and laugh all day,” says Michelle.
I’ve been watching a man nap at a table for a while, leaned back against the wall, eyes closed and oblivious to the sounds and motions around him. He wakes up when a friend joins him, and I say hello. Justin and Aubrey have known each other for 29 years. Both come from Guyana. Aubrey compliments my copper ring, and shows me his copper bracelets. It's an essential element, protects against radiation, he says. Both men have been vegan for most of their lives; they don’t eat anything that has a face.
Justin explains that he loves all animals. “I go to the subway to feed the rats,” he says. He takes out a can of cat food from his pocket and sets it on the table, as if to illustrate. Justin has lived in the neighborhood for almost 30 years. He used to sell weed on the corner. “Police against us selling ganja. For years I don't go into Manhattan, we call it buy-hattan,” Justin says, and we all laugh.
I teach them how to fold origami cranes. Some of the cranes come out a little crooked, but it doesn’t matter. Before Aubrey heads off, he offers to buy me something with cash — an unusually large stack of what appeared to be $100 bills — in his wallet. I request a bottle of water, and Aubrey leaves me with his email address. He advises me to get rest and “live like a queen.”
I step outside for some fresh air. I’m only one-third of the way through my 24 hours, and my notion of time and space is disintegrating. I’ve lost any sense of self-consciousness about being incongruously glued to my table.
No one who works at Dunkin’ Donuts seems to care about who comes and goes. Back inside, I eat an oatmeal bowl and lay my head down on the table to nap, eavesdropping on a woman having a tearful, intense phone conversation. “You choose not to put me first, and you say how much you need me there, Michael?” she says, sobbing. “I shouldn't be sitting in this Dunkin’ Donuts crying my heart out.”
Tina sits across from me and marvels at the task that I've set up for myself. “Life inside the Dunkin’ Donuts, 24 hours on a Monday,” she says, laughing. Tina has a cheerful, sweet disposition that makes her easy to talk to. She’s just come back from a day at the medical clinic around the corner — she's got a respiratory problem, something to do her lungs.
The first attack she ever had, she says, happened when she was at home alone. Suddenly, she couldn't see, couldn't breathe. She was terrified. Finally she heard Jesus’s voice, she says, whispering, “You gotta call 911.” She stayed on the phone with the operator, who told her she had to get up, to open the door…“That was an experience!” she says.
She asks me about my rent, and when I tell her it’s $800-something per roommate, not per apartment, she’s astonished. She’s seen the neighborhood change, too, and thinks it’s for the good — “better services.” Her apartment is rent-stabilized.
A few of my friends and my boyfriend come visit,. They bring me snacks from the outside — jerky strips, cashews, and a bottle of kombucha. I am extremely relieved to see them. Dunkin’ Donuts becomes a surprising playground. We make paper cranes in increasingly smaller sizes, laugh and gossip.
I’m a little delirious. Aside from my table, the Dunkin’ Donuts is quiet. When I glance out the window, I am stunned by the sight of the most beautiful dog I have ever seen right. He feels like a guardian angel, an apparition: a tall, young, handsome German Shepherd with giant ears. He looks like a prop dog, unreal. His owner notices the noises from inside and sees us cooing at the window. He looks displeased.
I get a vanilla chai latte ($2.79) to spark some energy. A woman walking past pauses outside the window to stare at our funny little group, finishing the last folds of cranes. We wave her inside. Debbie is delighted. “Where is my bird? Gimme my bird. I gotta take these to my grandbabies,” she says. She gets a paper bag from the counter, and we brush a small arsenal of paper cranes into it for her to take home.
A fresh shipment of donuts arrives under parchment paper on trays. Every Dunkin’ Donuts used to bake their own donuts onsite, but these days, far fewer do. When I try to learn more about where they come from, the employees are evasive (“English is not my first language,” they tell me). Some, apparently, come frozen from other stores, which might explain why they are not actually very good.
After midnight, things start to feel increasingly surreal. A man comes in loose, dirty overalls, gesturing empathetically with big, swollen hands, speaking in a language no one can understand. He pulls up a pant leg, pantomimes something like an attack. His voice changes. It’s emotional, almost lyrical, and desperate. I wish I could understand what he’s trying to tell us. Another customer attempts to shoo him out, while the night shift workers behind the counter watch, impassive. Eventually, he leaves.
This Dunkin' Donuts, at least, seems to have a slightly complicated relationship to the homeless. Although Jana had been affable about most customers, she mentioned that she regularly called the police about the homeless who come into the store.
Elsewhere, there are a few customers, some sleeping, some awake. I invite one of them to join us for paper cranes. His name is Christopher. He’s from Jamaica. He's writing down numbers in rows in a notebook. Lotto numbers, he tells me. Combinations that he tries again and again. Once, he won $15,000 from the lottery. He's got a face mask on his hat, when I ask about it, he tells me it’s to protect himself from dust from ceilings, for his work. He has a great smile.
Two young women watch my friend Zoë and me, confused. We have regressed to childhood games, making cootie catchers and playing MASH. I watch one of the women lean in to whisper in her friend's ear, a conspiracy, and I'm slightly wary when she pulls up a chair. She stays for a while, shows off how to draw a cartoon-dog face and the three-dimensional letter “S” you learn to draw in middle school.
She tries to teach Zoë to draw the dog face using a series of simple marks, parenthesis and circles. She dismisses her friend's drawings — a childish flower, a face — as amateur. She wants to learn to make a bird, but quits halfway.
Christopher finally joins us at our table. He starts to fold a bird too, but gives up near the end. He shows my boyfriend how to make a paper kite — they even improvise a string, a thread, using a plastic straw and the thin paper wrapper. In Jamaica, Christopher says, he made kites using bamboo sticks. He says his heart keeps getting broken: “My heart’s been broken so many times… it’s in pieces like this,” he gestures at the mess of paper on the table. He starts to play music on his phone, singing along.
A crew of MTA construction guys enter and sprawl out. They’re on their break. I ask to take their picture and they ask for my Instagram. Though we haven’t really talked, all four of them follow me immediately. One of them is a very fit personal trainer, and the other posts selfies alongside his adorable husky. Weeks later, one of them accepts my follow request, and sends me a photo of the origami bird I gave him with a “thank u :).” I was surprised he kept the bird at all.
4:00 a.m (I think)
The Dunkin’ is quiet, empty except for a napping customer. My boyfriend and I are huddled together, my head against his shoulder. I try to nap. The guys behind the counter stare into space. After 17 hours without sleep, my body is behaving like it’s drunk. I keep giving away paper cranes, but no longer keep track of who I'm giving what to. I've abandoned my notebook.
Another shipment of fresh donuts comes in. A young man enters, in a T-shirt and jeans, long hair and purple nails. "Stop!" He yells in my direction. And then, "stop stealing!" He softens for a moment when I deliver him a paper crane, but then starts to shout again, and, finally, flips over a table before he storms out. The guys behind the counter look on, unresponsive. I turn the table upright. I get another oatmeal bowl, made with too much water, inedible. The guys pour out some water off the top when I tell them. I feel dead inside.
Since I’ve had a surprisingly few number of donuts this entire stay (three), I get my last donut — caramel chocoholic — for breakfast. It’s very good. I’ve so far spent $51.64 at Dunkin’ Donuts. When I'm not actively trying to be awake, I feel myself dissociating. A man catches sight of the origami bird on my table, two of the last remaining, and claims it, jolly. “Come fly with me, come fly away…” he sings as I deliver the bird. “What's that?” He gestures to the cootie catcher. I tell him it's a fortune teller. “How much do I need to give to your cause?” He says. I laugh and reassure him it's free.
“A bird will bring you blessings,” his fortune read. “You're not charging anything?” He marvels, and the gifts me a ginger chew as a reward. His friend, frizzy hair and gold bangles, also wants her fortune read. I gather up my last reserve of energy and comply. She gets the same outcome.
When I leave, I bid farewell to a a couple having coffee I recognize from the morning before. There's no way they'd suspect that I'd never left at all.
Before I spent the day in Dunkin’ Donuts, I had the feeling that it would be a lonely place, a modern-day “Nitehawks” in Brooklyn. But my 24 hours there was full of delight. Instead of loneliness, I founded an unexpected community.
Weeks later, I walk past the Dunkin’ and look for familiar faces in the window. I can recognize the rotating staff, and situate them in the rhythm of shop: the morning rush, the indulgent afternoons, the evening lulls, and the late nights, when everything became a little more unusual. One afternoon, I ran into Mr. Hawkins, the accounting teacher. Another time time I saw Justin, the Guyanese vegetarian, who beamed when he saw me. “It’s good to see you!” he said, and it was wonderful to see him too.
It’s funny, how a seemingly soulless franchise started to feel like an old friend, once I spent enough time there.