The line at Doughnut Vault has a surprisingly genial vibe, considering its length and the fact that everyone is technically a rival for one of the most limited resources in Chicago. Apparently, the possibility of hot doughnuts is enough to sustain the general goodwill. Each time another person comes out the door with another dozen, your desire multiplies tenfold. So does the creeping dread that you might walk away empty-handed.

We had been waiting more than an hour when an excited little girl came bounding out of the Vault with a dozen glazed and tripped on a crack in the sidewalk. The box flew open, and $36 worth of fried gold hurtled through the air and landed on the street, their sticky glaze mingling with cigarette butts and alley water.

“Ooohhh,” groaned the entire horrified line. It was the same sound you might hear from a stadium crowd that has just seen a fan get clocked in the head by a foul ball.

The kid was about to cry. Then the line-dwellers began trying to cheer her up.

“Pick ’em up! They’re still good!”

“Doughnuts have a 30-second rule!”

“Ask for another dozen!”

“Sell them to the people at the end of the line. They’ll never know the difference!”

The girl looked confused, as though trying to decide whether to pick them up or run away and never come back, when her father appeared behind her. Now, one has to assume that they had planned his whole morning around doughnuts—the sole reason he and his family had gotten up early, driven all the way downtown, and waited an hour with strangers. So the moment he saw them, lying face down on Franklin Street like a drunk sleeping off a bender, his face flashed all five stages of grief. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance: all in the span of ten seconds. 

“Get another dozen,” he barked to his wife, who was still in the process of paying their bill. Then he hugged the kid—who seemed like she would never be the same—and assured her it was not the end of the world. It was a sweet moment, though he appeared to be a much better father than husband.

We ended up getting chocolate, glazed, gingerbread stacks, and pistachio, two dozen doughnuts in all, and you better believe we watched where we were going on our way out, where the evidence of the little girl’s heartbreaking blooper was still there on the ground. But I will bet you that someone at the end of that line, some poor fool who hit the snooze on the alarm clock one time too many to score his own dozen, and was about to walk away stymied, saw the soiled doughnuts lying there and entertained some pretty desperate thoughts, if not actions.


Photograph: Esther Kang