Joe the Donut Man

What garbage bag donuts and gasoline chocolate taught me about humble giving

Ellen Catherine
Human Parts


Close up of assortment of colorfully designed donuts
Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash

Many things keep you up at night in a home where there are two to three kids per bed. We did not have all that much in the way of extras or luxuries, so daydreaming about the finer things in life could occupy the hours as we waited for sleep.

Most Friday evenings, the thirteen of us went to bed wondering if garbage bag donuts and gasoline chocolate would be waiting for us in the morning. It was a lot to hope for admittedly, but depending on what the week had dumped on our doorstep; some would be praying harder than others.

Nearly every Saturday morning during those years, I would wake to my sister’s stale hot breath on my face asking, “Did he come?”

And nearly every Saturday morning, Joe the Donut Man would indeed deliver the goods — a black garbage bag half-filled with assorted day-old donuts. If we were lucky, a mammoth block of solid chocolate — stamped off into 2 x 2-inch sections and reeking of gasoline — would be resting alongside the pastry sack.

Joe was a quiet, unassuming mechanic who ran a small, respected repair shop in our town. But that was only his day job. He rose to near mythological status in our house because of his covert movements up and down our heaving, bumpy driveway. We kids had no idea who Joe was, or when exactly the future-root-canal-causing treats were delivered.

What was an even bigger puzzle to us, was why he did it. Surely, Joe did not think we were poor; that we did not have breakfast every morning? Our cabinets were chock full of Cheerios and Carnation Powdered Milk. We had stacks of baloney bursting out of our refrigerator for crying out loud.

Yes, we were the biblically huge family, living in the cramped colonial, defying all safety protocols by only having one car. And yes, I am sure people side-talked about us as we moved through the streets often in cloned-like packs. But it was my mother’s life mission to make sure we were always cleanly dressed, well-fed, and on our best behavior whenever we were in the eye or earshot of potential town gossipers. She used to make us take a freaking shower and put on our Easter best before we left for the emergency room — open head wound or not.

Our concern about being considered poor and our interest in the how and whys of those secret deliveries quickly faded though. These were confections we would never have set our lips to save for the generosity of our mystical concierge, and we were not going to risk it by asking stupid questions.

We also did not give a hoot if the donuts were squished down or squirted out, half the fun was wondering what the selections would be from week to week. As for the gasoline smell on and in the chocolate, what self-respectable child of the 70s was going to pass up a free block of pure brown bliss because of a nasal affront? Not a one of us; we lived with farts to the face on the regular.

We enjoyed our self-induced ignorance of the particulars for quite some time. It was not until my sister Joanie made friends with a gal from another big family in town that the dark truth was unearthed. The Garcia family was more of a second-tier bunch with only eight kids in their lot. In her talks with one of the Garcia girls, Joanie learned they too would get bags of day-old donuts delivered to their doorstep on Saturday mornings.

When she reported the news back to me, my mouth and a small part of my stomach dropped open. That could not be true. What was she talking about? We were the gifted recipients of Joe’s generosity. How had that Garcia girl found out about our sweet secret? But the more we talked, the more I realized what she told me was probably true.

When she delivered the final intelligence report to me, that he also delivered to the Berrys (only seven kids) AND the Laughlins (a mere six!), the betrayal I felt was seismic. As she dished out the details, my face became flushed with the weight of so many emotions.

Joe had been double-dealing — nay quadruple dealing his generosity about town. He had donut-cheated his way across our hamlet with reckless abandon. We were not Joe’s one and only. We were just part of a bunch of common charity cases. I felt a perceptible tilt in my world as I sat dumbstruck and embarrassed by the news. The longer I sat, the shock of her words curdled in my stomach and the burn started to rise.

I was hotter than a hooker in church and screamed the news about the house later that day careening around as if I were reporting a murder. The older kids shrugged it off in a, “Well that kind of makes sense” way, and the younger bunch only wanted to know if this meant the magical donuts would disappear.

But it was the middle crew, specifically me — number nine — who felt a sense of personal assault, a collapse of sorts. It was as if the underpinning of our reputation had been untethered. I could feel our narrative kind of floating above me. We were not that special after all. We were not unique. We were not “THE big family in town.” We were just another big family.

When you exist in a herd that size, feeling unique is a rare experience. It is difficult, and frankly, not an efficient use of time and resources, to attempt to stand out on that crowded a stage. Your number defines your place in the pecking order and the doings of your predecessors lay much of the groundwork and direction of your life, whether you want it that way or not. Your actions work the same for the cohort below.

To have any layer of specialness, whether real or imagined, ripped off, leaves a hot red mark. It stung for a while as I reworked my footing. With time, however, life-changing lessons from Joe the Donut Man began to rise like sweet yeast. Although I came to realize our family situation was not singular in our small town, that tidbit of info now afforded me the comfort that we were not the “others” in town. There were other “others” and deep in my heart, and in my realigned narrative, this made me breathe a bit easier.

Most importantly, I learned what it was to be a humble giver. Joe the Donut Man did not have to make such a selfless effort for so many snot-nosed kids who would never thank him or even acknowledge his generosity. He did it because he cared about his neighbors, even when they did not live on the same side of town. His loving acts of service largely went unnoticed, but he did not seem to really care. He was not in it for points or glory. He was not looking for a shout-out from the pulpit as an example of how to live your faith in action. He simply and humbly went out of his way to offer tiny bits of excitement and joy, to tiny bits of lives all over our community.

As a parent later in life, I gained a deeper appreciation for what his offerings did to help ease the minds and hearts — and, yes, wallets — of stressed-out, struggling moms and dads. Although I fail regularly to offer my hand without the expectation of receiving, I try to remember Joe’s way of serving, and act in his spirit. But clearly, I have work to do because I must confess, I still carry a bit of secret information that helped soothe a wounded ego during that unsettling time.

When I was shaking down my sister about her talks with the Garcia gal, I queried about any chocolate, did she say anything about gasoline-smelling treats? No, my sister confirmed, in all their detailed discussions, not a word had been mentioned about the smelly sweets. The sigh I released left me a bit light-headed as I tucked that warm blissful, benzine love letter safely in my heart.

Maybe we were a little bit special after all.



Ellen Catherine
Human Parts

Lifelong writer of essays, memoir pieces, and poetry who is working to release the ball of angst, worry, and guilt associated with said writing.