America Runs On



I’ve worked in medical publishing of one kind or another for nearly 30 years. I sit in offices, respond to email, talk on the phone, and attend meetings where people say things like, “We need to T up resources,” “What’s the opportunity cost?” and “Are they a stakeholder group?“ Everything I need to do my job is contained in a 14” laptop weighing 4 pounds.

But most of what I know about the business world I learned years ago from pouring coffee and bagging donuts at Dunkin Donuts. I worked at franchises in New Jersey and Boston, throughout high school and college. Here’s what I took away from those years:

  1. Understand where your paycheck comes from. I was 16 and thrilled when I got my first real job at Dunkin Donuts. Surrounded by racks of glistening French crullers and jelly donuts bursting at their sugary seams, I breathed in the scents of fried dough and chocolate frosting the way other kids breathed in pot smoke. For a girl teetering on the edge of chubbiness, it was a dangerous environment to work in.

I never drank coffee, so hadn’t given much thought to selling it. But I quickly learned that “America—does indeed—run on Dunkin.” Though we sold a lot of donuts, it was the coffee that lured customers in. Starting at 6:00 each morning, they’d queue up in lines that ran out the door and along the front of the building, sometimes enduring rain and snow just to get a cup of coffee. As a non-coffee drinker, it amazed me. Why didn’t they just make it at home?

Identify your company’s priorities so you know where to direct your efforts. At Dunkin Donuts, that meant we were grinding beans and brewing a fresh pot or two of coffee at all times. That’s what kept the registers ringing, and that’s what allowed the owners to pay us the grand sum of $2.50 an hour.

  1. Anticipate your customers’ needs. At first, the “regulars” annoyed me simply because they were always there: Taking up seats on the long Formica counter, lingering for hours at a time nursing a mug of coffee and a cigarette (back when Dunkin had counter service and allowed smoking. I’m really dating myself here). But I quickly realized that regulars tipped well and made my job easier. As soon as I saw them getting out of their cars, I’d pour their coffee, grab their donut, and have it waiting on the counter when they walked in. If they did take out, I’d have their coffee bagged and ready to go. In the midst of the morning rush hour, it was a relief to have regulars stream through because I didn’t have to stop to take their order.

Everyone likes to be known. To be understood. Give people what they need before they even ask for it, and you’ll (possibly) have a customer for life.

  1. Show up. According to Woody Allen, “80% of success is showing up.” In the world of fast food, where staff are often young and always underpaid, and the work is physically draining, it’s a constant problem: Somebody assigned to a shift doesn’t come in. Doesn’t call. Up and quits without telling anyone. The rest of the staff are left scrambling to wait on long lines of angry customers. I still remember the names of co-workers who called in on Saturday nights claiming to be sick. I’d stay on after my own shift to work midnight to 6:00 am (we were open 24 hours), serving customers, filling/frosting donuts, and trying to keep my donut-tree smock clean. So please: Show up, punch the clock, do your job. Your colleagues are counting on you.
  1. Plan your vacations far in advance. While we’re talking about time off, let’s talk about the planned kind. One night while working in the kitchen, I noticed that the baker’s hand was bandaged. He’d asked for a few days off, but the manager wouldn’t let him take it. So he stuck his hand in the fryer. They had to give him a week off to recover.

There are less painful ways to get a vacation, of course. Submit your request far in advance. Get somebody to cover your work while you’re away (if needed and possible). And work your butt off before and after your vacation.

  1. Accept that some trade secrets are better left unknown. I was in love with Boston crème donuts long before I worked at Dunkin Donuts: The plump shell of custard. The thick layer of chocolate frosting. Sometimes I wonder if I chose to go to college in Boston because it was my beloved donut’s namesake.

When I wasn’t waiting on customers, I was in the kitchen finishing donuts for the “showcase,” as we called it. Giving me the job was akin to appointing an alcoholic as bartender: A Munchkin here, a cruller there….I’d eat my way through my shift.

Finishing donuts was a messy, time-consuming, and potentially unclean process, depending on who was doing the finishing. Custard and jelly were stored in big plastic buckets and scooped—with a spoon, a spatula, or even bare hands—into tubs with spigots on the end. The tubs attached to a machine that made the custard or jelly shoot out of the spigots into the warm, yeasty interior of the donuts, two at a time. The donuts were held by bare hands.

Sometimes the plastic buckets of jelly and custard were left uncovered and you’d find flies or cockroaches in them. Similarly, the glaze we dipped donuts in sat exposed for hours, subject to the same insect invasions. I had other issues with the cleanliness of the kitchen, and I’m sure those issues are shared by all commercial bakeries.

Over time, it became more and more difficult to enjoy the gush of custard in a Boston crème donut without imagining the bucket from which that custard came. Or the hands that might have held the donut as it was being filled—I worked with a lot of strange people (see below). I stuck with donuts like chocolate honey dipped that weren’t handled very much after frying. It seemed safer.

There are similar trade secrets at all companies that may dampen your enthusiasm for the product or service you sell. Try to accept those things if you can’t change them. I did. Despite all I knew, I never got tired of eating donuts while working at Dunkin, and to this day, I still enjoy a Boston crème from time to time. Go figure.

  1. Learn to get along with different types of people. People are weird, and I’m not just talking about customers like Moon Man, who brought me stories he’d written for a fictional publication called “Moon Magazine.” My co-workers could be challenging as well: The lazy ones who never mopped up counters or washed coffee pots; the competitive ones, who tried to pour coffee and box donuts more quickly than anyone else (yes: seriously); and the ambitious ones who aspired to be key holders and flirted with the manager (again: seriously). Go with the flow and don’t try to make people act less weird than they are (it won’t work). Ultimately, you’ll be happier and more successful.
  1. Don’t shit where you eat. My friends and I called him “Kinky Kevin” because there was something a little seedy about him. He’d come in every day or so dragging his club foot and settle onto a stool at the counter. Staring up at me through glasses so thick they made his eyes look fuzzy, he’d order coffee and a plain donut. Even when he wasn’t sitting, the top of his balding head only came up to my shoulders. He wasn’t an attractive man by the usual standards, of course. But I had a crush on him. I was young and naïve.

The night we were supposed to go to the drive-in, he got lost trying to find my house. Suddenly overwhelmed with just how seedy he might be, I sat in my bedroom listening to the phone ring on and on, frightened at the prospect of being alone with him in a car.  There was no such thing as a GPS back then, so he never found the house. Much to my relief.

Needless to say, it was awkward every time he came into Dunkin after that.

Don’t get involved with somebody you work with—or around. We all know this, of course, but it’s difficult to follow. Sometimes such relationships work out—I dated a baker for 5 years. But usually, you’ll end up like Kinky Kevin and me: Embarrassed, resentful, and unable to look each other in the (fuzzy) eye. But hey, the way I figure it: He could have gotten his coffee elsewhere.


(Sue, Jake, and I have been sitting near telephones since last week when we thought our daughter-in-law was ready to give birth to the twins. Sherri kindly offered to pinch hit since it sure looked like a road trip to New York was about to occur. Well, Alyssa hasn’t had the babies and we’re still by the phones. Thank you Sherri for covering. Zach)

Vital Signs by Sherri Frank

Maybe it’s time, maybe it isn’t. With my other cat, Cleo, it was clear when I needed to put her to sleep. She’d had surgery to remove tumors in her belly. A year later, cancer filled her lungs with fluid and she was panting, her mouth hanging open as she breathed. At the animal hospital, they drained the fluid but said it would come back. I had three more weeks with her before she started panting again. When an animal is in pain and struggling to breathe, the decision is clear—though never easy. I called the hospital and took her in.

But with Gino, it’s not so clear. For months, he’d been losing strength in his back legs. He went from limping, to falling over, to not being able to stand at all within a year. Diagnosed with a degenerative spine disorder, he dragged himself around the house using his front paws, his lifeless legs trailing behind. But his appetite was the same, his energy was the same, his spirit was the same. Surgery wouldn’t fix it, a specialist said, and his functionality would only get worse. But he wasn’t in any pain.Gino 2014

So be it, I thought. He just needs a little help.

I helped him walk upright by looping a cotton sling beneath his back legs and walking alongside of him. When he had trouble getting into the litter box, I cut the front part of it so he could drag himself in and out. I held up his hind quarters while he did his business: Love, it seemed, had no limits.

But little by little he became incontinent, leaving a trail of urine—and sometimes feces—wherever he went. Soon, he bypassed the litter box altogether. I tried puppy diapers, but they slipped off his skinny haunch no matter how tightly I secured them. Most of the time, he stunk like piss and shit, so I bathed him on a towel in the bathtub, holding him so he wouldn’t fall over; soothing him while he cried.

“Maybe it’s time to put him down,” a friend said.

I shook my head. “Not yet.”

I spent a fortune on paper towels, bleach, and Swiffer wet cloths, wiping up urine and disinfecting floors. It was a lot of work and took up a lot of time.

Still, he was my “Gino Love.” The same “Little Man.” “Handsome Boy.” “Sweet Potato Fellow” whom I’d loved for 17 years. Eating his food with gusto; sitting on my lap with a puppy pad beneath him. How could I consider ending his life just because it was getting difficult to care for him?

At night, I used plastic garbage bags and towels on my bed so he could continue sleeping with me. Good thing I was single. I’d lift him onto the bed and he’d pull his body up to my pillow. Nuzzling his head in my neck, he’d fall asleep purring. Several times each night he’d slide off the bed for food or water, crying when he was ready to get back up again. I kept a flashlight nearby so I could find him in the dark.

To be honest, there were days when I couldn’t take anymore. Days when work had been too long and too demanding, and when others in my life were also clamoring for attention. Coming home to a house that reeked of piss, and a cat that kept pissing even as I tried to clean him up, was more than I could handle. I’ve yelled at him. I’ve picked him up roughly to move him to another spot in the house. I’ve wished he were gone. Though I know those feelings are normal for anyone who’s taking care of a sick person or animal, they left me with a guilt that was difficult to shake.

“It’s selfish to keep him alive,” my friend said. “You need to think about his well-being, not yours.”

But it felt selfish to even think about putting Gino to sleep. I worried that I’d be doing it for my own sake: So that my house would smell clean again. So that I could come home, drink a beer, and eat dinner right away instead of mopping floors and washing towels. So that I could go out after work and not fear the mess I’d find when I returned late at night. In short, I worried that I’d be putting my cat to sleep because it would make my life easier; not because it was the best thing for him.

In the absence of pain—or other obvious signs like vomiting, listlessness, and loss of appetite—what constitutes suffering? What constitutes a diminished quality of life for an animal who can’t tell us what he thinks or feels? That’s what it came down to.

According to the American Humane Association (AHA), it’s a judgment call. “You may ultimately need to make the decision based on your observances of your pet’s behavior and attitude.” I wasn’t sure I trusted my own judgment, which was blinded by love and (sometimes) exhaustion. Yet, because I knew Gino so well, there was no one more qualified to make the decision. The AHA provides a list of signs that might indicate a pet is no longer enjoying a good quality of life. Gino displayed two of the seven signs:

  • He cannot stand on his own or falls down when trying to walk
  • He is incontinent to the degree that he frequently soils himself

Rather than help, this only made it more complicated. We don’t put people to sleep when they can no longer walk, or when they’ve lost control of their bladders and bowels. Should it be any different with our pets? The answer is debatable, of course.

These days, I remain diligent about watching for signs of Gino’s deteriorating health. I take him to the vet for regular check ups, where we no longer talk about treatments, just palliative care. It’s getting more and more difficult to keep him clean, keep the house clean. But he still enjoys lying in the sun curled up next to my other cat, Josie. They groom each other. If I’m late feeding him, he slides over to the electrical outlet and gnaws on my computer cord until I pay attention. He paws at my feet when he wants to sit on my lap. He purrs while I pet him and bats at the ties on my sweatpants. He wants to investigate any new box I bring into the house.

When I look at him, I see an animal still engaged in living and loving, despite his disabilities. And perhaps that’s the best indicator of what he wants.

For now, it’s all I have to go on.

Spider Season by Sherri Frank Mazzotta

Spider season is coming. Spring, summer, fall:  Every time the weather changes, those 8-legged predators appear. Clinging to the kitchen ceiling. Scuttling over counters. Rappelling down walls in the shower like….well, like Spiderman. I’m not one of those shrieking, jump-on-a-chair girly-girls. I don’t mind cockroaches and I love mice. But spiders scare the bejesus out of me.

We have a variety of breeds in our house. True, these are not the spiders of my Jersey youth; those baseball-sized “beauties” that lurked in our toothbrush drawer and under garbage bags in the garage. But they’re just as evil.  With their segmented bodies. Multiple eyes. Spindly legs stretched like claws. Waiting-sometimes hours at a time, I’m sure-to catch me alone.

Spiders are intimidating, and they know it. They have motive. They mean harm.

I get up before my husband each day, when it’s still dark. Nervously, I turn on the kitchen light but don’t step into the room until I’ve scanned the ceiling.

“If you hear me scream, it’s always a spider,” I tell him. “So come quickly.”

I don’t care that they eat flies and ants and other insects-I want them out of the house. I want them dead. Though I sign the execution orders, my husband is usually the one who kills them. He uses a wet paper towel to squash them with his bare hands. If they’re too high to reach, he grabs a mop and crushes them into the plaster. That’s what I call an action hero.

At one point he bought an expensive bug vacuum that was marketed as a “keep your distance” way to capture pests. It touted a telescoping nozzle and a 22,400-rpm motor that sucked insects into a tube and stunned them on an electric grid. According to the catalog copy, the stunned bugs could then be dumped outdoors. “Screw that,” I said. No spiders would be set free as long as I manned the vacuum.

It worked beautifully the first time we used it. Steve positioned the nozzle over a quarter-sized beast and turned on the power. The spider whooshed backwards into the plastic tube and we heard a sizzle. I smiled.

A few days later and alone-once again-in the early morning hours, I was confronted by those creepy legs. Confidently, I grabbed the vacuum  I placed the nozzle over the spider and hit the switch, but nothing happened. There was a sucking sound but no sucking. The spider began to move, so I pressed harder on the tube. I turned the vacuum off then on again, but the spider still clung to the wall. It was a terrifying moment of face-to-fangs intimacy, but I was losing confidence and the spider knew it. Finally, I dropped the vacuum and backed out of the room. I woke up my husband.

The “Keep Your Distance” vacuum hasn’t been used since.

Arachnophobia is one of the most common fears in the world. According to the website, Celebrities with Diseases (, Andre Agassi, J.K Rowling, Jessica Simpson, Rupert Grint, and Justin Timberlake all have an aversion to spiders. Johnny Depp, Emma Watson, Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, and Woody Allen….the list goes on. Perhaps the real question is, who isn’t afraid of spiders?

“Various therapies and self-help groups can work wonders to overcome arachnophobia,” the Celebrities site claims. “Gradual exposure to spider’s pictures or even touching the spiders can be of great help in beating arachnophobia.”

I’m not interested in beating arachnophobia. I think it’s wise to avoid anything that has fangs, injects venom, and liquefies its prey. But spiders seem hell bent on making my acquaintance. I’ve had spiders appear on the inside of my windshield while driving. Skitter across my table at a coffee shop. And parachute onto my salad while eating al fresco. Charlotte’s Web be damned, I’m not going to pet them!

One summer, I walked into our bedroom and found hundreds of spiderlings crawling over the walls and ceiling. Of course I screamed. It was my personal Nightmare on Elm Street. I’ve read that a female spider can deliver as many as 3,000 eggs-and judging by the number of tiny creatures scrambling over the walls, that sounded about right.

Steve and I grabbed wet paper towels and started crushing the seething mass. In the face of such an invasion, I was suddenly brave. Fueled by fear and anger, I dabbed hard at the walls. It took more than an hour to kill the ones we could see, and afterwards, I still imagined I felt them crawling on my scalp. Lice, I wouldn’t have minded.  But spiders?  I’d have to set my head on fire.

The only place in the world that doesn’t have spiders is Antarctica. But since the job market is especially tough in that neck of the woods, I’m resigned to fighting these seasonal battles. Sometimes I wonder if the spiders are keeping track of how many of their relatives I’ve killed. I wonder if they’re plotting revenge and just waiting for Steve to take an extended business trip. Then they’ll corner me in the basement and ensnare me in their silky webs. Descend upon me with thousands of fangs….It’s a horrifying thought.  And one reason why I’m thankful that my husband doesn’t travel much these days.

 “Naturalists have pondered this for years: there are spiders whose bite can cause the place bitten to rot and to die, sometimes more than a year after it was bitten. As to why spiders do this, the answer is simple. It’s because spiders think this is funny, and they don’t want you ever to forget them.”   – Neil Gaiman, Anansi Boys

Phantom Gourmet

This past Thursday I had shoulder  surgery which knocks me out of the writing box for about 3 or 4 weeks.   Rather than close shop I’ve asked people to substitute for me.  First up is Sherri Mazzotta:


These days, food is big business.  There are “Food Phests” in every city.  The Food Network offers 24 hours of programs such as “Good Eats,” “Cupcake Wars,” and “Barefoot Contessa.” Book stores are filled with food magazines and food “memoirs.” Chefs are now celebrities recognized by first name alone:  Giada, Paula, Emeril, Nigella.  And it’s no longer just the Phantom Gourmet helping us find the best pancetta-stuffed pork chops in town.  We’ve got plenty of food bloggers and restaurant reviewers pointing us in the tastiest direction.

My husband and I like to think we know “good” food, though our definition sometimes stretches to include the pancakes at several north-Jersey diners. We have our own way of judging the quality of food, and it has nothing to do with Michelin stars.  For us, it comes down to a simple question:

If we were on death row, what would we choose as our last meal?

We often debate this over a weeknight dinner of spaghetti or cereal. I hope that doesn’t mean we’ve run out of conversation after eight years of marriage.   Never mind what we might have done to get on death row.  Never mind that we don’t live in a state that sanctions the death penalty.  And never mind the politics seething behind the issue of capital punishment.  The important part of the conversation is the food.  What foods are so deliciously stupendous that we’d choose them over all other foods as the last thing we’d want to eat before exiting this world?

Truly, isn’t that the highest praise we could give a meal?  Isn’t that worth far more than any Zagat’s rating?

Steve envisions a day’s worth of meals, though I told him that was cheating, since you’d only get one meal.  One choice.  For breakfast, his menu includes eggs benedict with steak.  For lunch, a pepperoni pizza.  And for dinner, the Capital Grille’s filet mignon, asparagus with hollandaise sauce, and potatoes au gratin.

“I don’t think the Capital Grille does take out,” I tell him, because I’m a stickler for detail.

“Somebody from the prison could go pick it up.”

“Why would they do that for a convicted felon?”

“They’d have to.  It’s my last-meal request.”

I shake my head.  “You couldn’t eat all of that in single day.  You’d get sick.”

But really, does it matter how much indigestion your last meal causes if you’re going to be put out of your intestinal misery–and all of your misery–at the end of the day?

Since I first selected it, my last meal hasn’t wavered.  Despite all of the warm goat cheese salads, Kona-crusted sirloins, and chocolate lava cakes I’ve eaten over the years, when it comes right down to it, I’m a Jersey girl at heart and like the simple things in life.  My last meal would be a Bertucci’s pizza with roasted zucchini followed by a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food ice cream.  And don’t forget the Rolling Rock.  If I’m going out, I’m not going out sober.  The only question is whether or not to add pepperoni on the pizza.

“Bertucci’s isn’t that good–not if it’s your last meal on earth,” Steve says.

As if there’s a right answer.  As if this isn’t all about opinion.

“Pizza and ice cream are the perfect combination,” I say.  “I can’t think of anything I’d rather have.”

Of course, you’d have plenty of time to think about your last meal while on death row.  But I’m a planner, so I’d feel better knowing that I had this figured out before my cell door slammed.  One less thing to worry about, I suppose.  Troubleshooting, as a friend of mine always says.  But how hungry would you be if you knew you were about to die?  Pretty hungry, I think.  Especially if you’re a stress eater like me.

Steve and I use the last meal as a yardstick when we try out a new restaurant:

“These steak tips are great,” he says.  “Really tender and flavorful.”

“Yes, but would they make your last-meal request?” I ask.

He puts down his fork to give serious thought to this question.  Finally, he looks at me and says, “No. They wouldn’t.”

I smile:  There are good meals, there are great meals, and there are last meals.

Who needs restaurant critics?

There are web sites cataloguing the last meals of criminals who have been executed ( and Here, for instance, you can learn that serial killer John Wayne Gacy’s last meal included a dozen deep-fried shrimp, a bucket of original recipe chicken from KFC, French fries, and a pound of strawberries.  The sites include photos of the criminals as well as their last meals–in case you have trouble picturing what that bucket of chicken looks like.

Not everyone chooses a complete meal.  Aileen Wuornos opted for a cup of black coffee. Timothy McVeigh selected two pints of mint chocolate chip ice cream.  Velma Barfield, the first woman to be executed in the United States after the 1976 return of capital punishment, asked for a can of Coke and a bag of Cheez Doodles.  I hadn’t considered snack foods as part of my last meal, since I’d want to save room for the pizza.  But if calories don’t count, appetite is infinite, and we’re using my husband’s multi-meal approach, I’d tack on a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos, perhaps as an afternoon snack.

One of the strangest last-meal requests came from James Edwards Smith in Texas. Instead of a meal, Smith requested a lump of dirt, apparently for a Voodoo ritual.  Because dirt wasn’t on the approved list of prison foods, his request was denied.  He settled for a cup of yogurt instead.  Maybe yogurt was on the approved list for the Voodoo ritual, because I can’t imagine choosing anything so nutritious.  I’m not going out sober, and I’m not going out skinny either.

And speaking of Texas, which has executed more people than any other state since 1976 (count:  478):  In September 2011, the state announced that it would no longer accommodate the last-meal requests of prisoners on death row (  Those scheduled for execution now receive the same meal served to other inmates in the unit.  Talk about being robbed.  Talk about getting a bum rap.

Inmates can blame convicted killer Lawrence Russell Brewer, whose last-meal request included the following : Two chicken fried steaks with gravy and sliced onions; a triple meat bacon cheeseburger; a cheese omelet with ground beef, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, and jalapenos; a pound of barbecued meat with half a loaf of white bread; a bowl of fried okra with ketchup; three fajitas;  a meat-lover’s pizza; a pint of Blue Bell ice cream; a slab of peanut-butter fudge with crushed peanuts; and three root beers.

Does anybody really eat okra?  Or know what it is?  Maybe if Brewer had left out the fried okra, nobody would have taken notice.   Or maybe if he’d actually eaten any of the food he’d ordered…

Perhaps the Food Network could do a show about last meals.  Apprentice chefs might cook their best beef wellington or chicken parmigiana for a panel of death-row inmates.  The inmates would choose which meal they’d want on their final day.  Again, is there any higher praise?  The show might be called, “Dead Man Cooking” or “Cooking with the Convicts.”  Hey, in a world with programs focused on the “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” and “Dog The Bounty Hunter,” it’s not such a crazy idea.  It would definitely put a new spin on the concept of “Phantom Gourmet.”  The winning chef would get a spot on “Good Morning America” and his/her own show – this time, cooking for people who are likely to be alive to watch future episodes.

But don’t rely on “Bobby Flay’s Barbecue Addiction” or “Rachael Ray’s Tasty Travels,” to help you decide what’s best to eat.  Give it some thought.  Ask one simple question:  What would you choose as your last meal?

“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” Virginia Woolf