Some Food For Thought: The Power of a Doughnut

How Sugary Fried Dough Encouraged Human Contact in a City of Millions Who Are Alone, Together


A doughnut is worth more than a dollar, and has more to give than 400 calories, as it bridges the gap between strangers on a subway platform. (Jonathan Armenti/The Observer)

Published: February 26, 2009

My morning began like every other: I woke up way earlier than I wanted to, but later than I should have. I ran around in a frenzy, since under no circumstance will I forego my Starbucks coffee, which of course took 20 minutes to get—why would it be an in-and-out stop when I’m running late? Surprisingly, one thing went my way: I made my train. Let’s ignore the fact that I was squished in a seat beside a man who could have filled it on his own, who munched a muffin and talked on his Bluetooth the whole ride.

After riding the subway, which could only get me three avenues away from my destination, I was surprised to find myself in a somewhat pleasant mood. I had not yet succumbed to shooting nasty glances or sending agitated huffs to the pedestrians who think it’s a good idea to take a leisurely stroll during morning rush hour in New York City. I even mustered a rather genuine smile at the line of construction workers who welcomed me onto 14th Street with whistles, classy pick-up lines (i.e. “Come here baby. I’ll give you something to smile about”) and even some loving gestures.

Perhaps it was the hint of spring in the extremely uncommon 60-degree February day. Or maybe it was my off-the-cuff selection of the “PARTY!” playlist on my iPod, instead of the standard mellow, yet a bit suicidal, The Fray. Whatever it was, it inspired me to give a stranger my doughnut. I will explain.

On my return trip to the subway, I decided to stop for a bagel at a street vendor I had spotted, but as I opened my mouth to order, I was cut off by a man who hastily demanded a doughnut. “That will be $1,” said the vendor, and in response to the ungodly request of a dollar for a doughnut in New York City, the customer hurled the bag back at the window as he bellowed, “A dollar is way too much for a doughnut!” and stormed away. The vendor and I shared one of those silent, that-guy-was-a-complete-asshole looks, before I ordered my bagel and happily paid my dollar.

Appreciating my understanding (which probably equates to hitting on me, but for the purposes of the story, I’d like to imagine the former), he packed me “a little something special.” Looking into my brown paper bag I was amazed to see the rude man’s $1 doughnut, absolutely free. Now I could have kept the doughnut and saved it for later, but the fact that I don’t really like them combined, with how miserable this doughnut-craving-Nazi seemed, convinced me to do otherwise. I caught up with him on the subway platform and found myself a little unsure of how to proceed. It’s not every day I give away doughnuts and was well aware that a stranger handing out treats raises red flags all over any sane
person’s mind.

“Um, Sir? You’re the one who just ordered a doughnut, right?” (Okay, give me a break; I’m doing something nice here!) He paused, took me in, probably assumed that a 5” 5’ blonde girl was as unthreatening as it could get, and simply replied, “Yes.”

“Well,” I said, “He gave me a free doughnut, I’m not going to eat it, so here, you should take it.” Yes, I realize now that it probably wasn’t the best choice to rub in his face the fact that I had just received his doughnut for free, but I was thinking on my toes.

As I held out the doughnut, the transformation I saw before my eyes was utterly amazing. Suddenly the furrows between his eyebrows and the tugs at his lip corners, which I had been certain were permanently engraved in his face, began to lift. Wait! Is this a smile coming? I waited for it and sure enough the grumpiest, most unpleasant man on the platform smiled like a little boy on Christmas morning. This drastic shift in his disposition was enough to convince me that it had been way too long since someone had done something nice and unexpected for this guy.

I’d like to think that my act of generosity, as well as the satisfaction of having that sugarcoated fried dough in his stomach, changed his outlook that day—that he went on and passed a little joy to someone else and that my doughnut-giving inspired a “pay it forward” type reaction. For me, the encounter provoked a subway-ride’s worth of contemplation. It struck me as ironic how such social beings are also the most selfish. People in general, and New Yorkers in particular, are so quick to write off the person next to them in the subway car, on the street, or behind the counter at the deli—so wrapped up in their own day-to-day schedules, some never stop to smile at a stranger or help someone out when they don’t have to.

This may read as a totally cliché, exhausted subject, which it is, but for good reason: no one is changing. Perhaps my thought that people should or can change is overly optimistic or suggests a transformation in an aspect of human nature that has been too long engrained in our way of life. But then again, this whole thing did start with just a doughnut, so chew on that for a while.