Pacific and Van Ness

Winchell's Donuts, San Francisco

While not the Winchell’s that I was familiar with, this was the only example I could find of their glowing golden signage in a San Francisco setting. Photo: Memory Alpha

In this city, it’s rare when a business remains on the same corner for decades. But people’s love of fried dough products remains constant. Winchell’s Donuts was a popular after-school snack spot for St. Brigid’s students—especially for those of us who played sports after school in the gym beneath the church. Some kids even got to start their day with hot, sugary goodness, but my mom was very health food-conscious and would have sooner voted Republican than let me have a donut for breakfast.

Growing up, I rebelled against my mom’s healthy habits when I had access to mood-altering sugary substances. My mom didn’t forbid me from having occasional treats but highly-processed junk food was never stocked in our house. When I visited my aunt and cousin, I gorged on sugared cereal, knowing it was verboten. Other students brought coveted single-wrapped Hostess products with their lunch, while I had whole-wheat raisin bread with unsalted peanut butter.

Oooooooh....forbidden donut!

Oooooooh….forbidden donut!

Once I gained some financial independence with my allowance, I often turned to sugar as comfort food, sometimes bingeing on it. I often stayed at my grandparents a couple of blocks away from the donut shop. One Saturday afternoon when I was about 12, I headed up there, cash in hand, and bought a dozen donuts. I took the box back to my room and devoured half of them in one sitting. I hid the box in my closet and ate the rest over the course of the day. I made myself sick, but unlike the tequila effect, where you never indulge again, the presence of the right kind of donut in our break room at work still inspires a Pavlovian response to grab and devour.

Winchell’s was also where I had my first date—a shift from pre-teen sugar binges to other kinds of sensory experimentation. My date was with Chris, the bass player for DEATH TRAP, my classmate’s band who played a gig in our gym. Our first date consisted of us getting donuts (a cake donut with chocolate sprinkles for me, most likely), sitting at one of the tables with the mustard-yellow plastic chairs for a while, and then walking around aimlessly. Eventually Chris walked me home so that my mom could meet him. Many parents would have automatically bristled at the sight of their daughter with a long-haired guy sporting a metal t-shirt and denim jacket with band names scrawled on the back. But my mom was always drawn to people who stood outside the norms and took a liking to him right away. As she got to know him more, his quick wit, intelligence, and humor won her over as much as they had me.

Happy Donut, Van Ness and Pacific, San FranciscoAfter I graduated from St. Brigid’s, the donut shop wasn’t a hub of social activity for me. But since I was always taking busses up and down Van Ness, it was one of my neighborhood landmarks. At some point in the late 80s, Winchell’s pulled up stakes and moved out of San Francisco, but an independent donut dealer came in and converted the spot to “Happy Donut,” which is still in business today. I guess that the continuing presence of St. Brigid’s students and the Academy of Art athletes using our old gym help them survive in the city’s boutique donut snob economy. Keep on frying, Happy Donut!

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7 comments

  1. Love dem sugary donuts but especially love that one “happy donut” and look for it every time I go in (which is rarely). I think it has very quick “happy feet” and manages do run for cover each time I go in. Still looking….

  2. Nice story S! I spent a lot of time at the donut shop on the corner of 9th and Judah. Since I lived out at 46th, that was the transit hub for me to get almost anywhere, so I would stay warm in there while waiting for the N Doodah to show up… raised glazed was my fave. That place is still there too!

  3. So many great details! Love how show the contrast between your mom and the mainstream-type mother. Instead of bribing you with junk food and judging the looks of your boyfriend, she strived for health and saw his character. Thanks for another enjoyable post!

  4. Heather–I love the fast-footed Happy Donut (singular!) visual. Gen–i hadn’t made that connection-thanks for those observations! Reba: N-Doodah–hadn’t heard that one before! I know that donut stop at the Inner Sunset intersection well but have never had a donut there. I might have to indulge next time. 🙂

  5. There was a time when I got addicted to apple fritters, and used to get one in the morning at the donut shop on Mission on my way to work as a bike messenger. Luckily about the time I stopped bicycling, the fritters started giving me heartburn so I stopped eating them, otherwise I’d still be trying to work them off now!

  6. Marc Wilson · · Reply

    That your mom “would have sooner voted Republican than let me have a donut for breakfast” is one of the many things I really liked here.

    Last weekend I drove around my hometown with my new-ish wife and couldn’t stop telling her pointless things like, “That’s where my friend used to live”, or, “I went to third grade there.” We all form ghostly bonds to the spots where our lives were lived. Which will mean nothing to anybody without a snip of a story. It doesn’t need much. So during the weekend I taught myself to move to: “Okay, this is the corner where my girlfriend and I waited for her best friend to ditch her abstemious prom date, so the three of us could go drinking with our friends.” That worked a lot better.

    What you write in these pieces brings my mind to certain corners of SF in a new way. It doesn’t hurt that I know just enough to be able to visualize your mother – unlike nearly any other mother – cottoning to the sensitive young metalhead you brought home.

    1. Thanks for the eloquent encouragement. And extra thanks for giving my mom a shout-out–I’m glad you got to meet her. She was a huge fan of your work in the SF open mic circuit and if it wasn’t for her, we probably wouldn’t be friends.

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