The New York Post is reporting that millions of dollars in low-interest post-9/11 recovery loans went to Dunkin' Donuts stores as far away from Ground Zero as Ohio, Georgia and Vermont. (The story's behind a pay wall, but second-day coverage by other local outlets is here and here.) Okay, so this smells like a boondoggle. Or, as it was put by a 15-year-old "visiting with friends" outside a New York-area Dunkin' Donuts, which is I guess how the papers now euphemize "cutting class": "That's so messed up." But I have some experience with the palliative powers of the donut in times of crisis, and it inclines me to cut the offending check-cashers a little bit of slack.
In 1994, on the morning of the Northridge earthquake, my wife and I stumbled out of our wrecked Santa Monica apartment to survey the damage. Santa Monica took a substantial hit in that quake -- in subsequent weeks we learned more about soil liquidity than people outside of engineering school should really have to learn -- and the destruction was extensive. The quake had struck at 4:30 AM, sounding like a freight train rolling past our bedroom window, and when we finally made it outside at about 8:00 there was exactly one local business open: a Winchell's Donuts. I don't know now, nor did I then, why the owners went to the trouble to unlock their doors that morning. Were they from some far-away place where work ethic mattered more than anything, where hundreds of years of natural and man-made disaster had so toughened their hides that a little thing like an earthquake meant nothing? Or were they so attuned to the patterns of commerce that they knew they were, at least for a time, the proprietors of a monopoly, and they were going to get while the getting was good? I didn't care. My wife didn't care. We immediately, numbly, instinctively fell into line.
We'd bothered to get dressed, but not everybody was so particular. We were in line behind people in pajamas, bathrobes, nightgowns. The queue moved slowly, stepping aside at one point for a group of Santa Monica firefighters, who ordered up, grabbed what they could, leaped back on their truck and sped away into the gathering morning as we all applauded. And when we finally got to the front and were handed our sugary little pals... I swear, nothing I've ever eaten tasted so unimaginably delicious. "You're alive," the donuts seemed to whisper. "You're okay. Have some coffee."
That Winchell's is gone now, but neither my wife nor I ever drive past the corner of 7th & Colorado without thinking of the morning when sugar and fats and God knows what toxic stew of gray-market preservatives combined to bring us back to the world. So when I read that some Dunkin' Donuts franchisees far from the scene of the attacks may have engaged in a teeny bit of what looks like, well, fraud (the guy in Vermont actually claimed that he qualified because his customers have been spending less since 9/11) I think: You can certainly argue that it's a waste of taxpayer monies to prop up sweet shops hundreds of miles away from the many small businesses that were leveled on 9/11. But sometimes there's an overriding national interest. Donuts sure do taste good when you're freaked out.