Friendship at Oakland’s Golden Gate Donuts is Deeper Than Church

Golden Gate Donuts, a greasy spoon in Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood, is where people congregate. The walls are pink, the $1 refills sign is hand drawn and the shop’s booths sit beneath massive windows that invite people watching.

A constant flow of customers, many of whom are regulars, lounge around the shop and on the sidewalk. People living on the street can come in and wipe down the tables in exchange for donuts and coffee.

Golden Gate provides a casino-like sense that no time is passing. There is a continuous stream of movement, from lottery vending machine to donut case to register. The people playing the lottery here, many of them for hours, seem also to have come for something else.

Most people demonstrate a kind of ownership of the shop.

Golden Gate is a place where you can holler a question to the owner only to have the woman sitting at the front, who you’ve seen once or twice somewhere, chime in like she knows you.

The first customer I meet is a middle aged black woman in a brown sweater and clip-on earrings. She and other female regulars call Golden Gate their dose of joy.

My request for her name is met with a coy smile.

“I can’t have people knowing my name because this is my piece of privacy on earth,” she says.

She decides to be called Ms. Howell.

Ms. Howell makes clear that Golden Gate’s uniqueness comes from the range of people to whom it appeals. She motions toward three men who come in speaking Spanish.

“That’s our Central American contingent,” she says.

The two men at the table beside us are from Ethiopia.

“Oakland tries to be very diverse,” Ms. Howell says. “This place is what Oakland is trying to be.”

Ms. Howell gushes about Brian, the petite, dark-haired man who co-owns Golden Gate with his wife. Ms. Howell tells me that he remembers every customer’s personal circumstances. Brian’s attentiveness was apparent in the two minutes it took to buy my donut.

Brian behind the counter at Golden Gate.

Brian bought the shop in 2006. He worked for Golden Gate’s former owners, and they ultimately offered to sell him the place.

When I ask him why he runs Golden Gate the way he does, the first thing he tells me is that he loves people. His job, he says, is about doing anything he can to cheer up every person who passes through Golden Gate’s doors.

Ms. Howell tells me about a time that a little boy brought Brian a balloon as a gift. The boy’s mother said he couldn’t sleep because he was so excited.

I watch Ms. Howell bustle out of the store only to burst back in a few minutes later, hands held up.

“I forgot to mention a special thing. We’re able to do a lot of cultural exchanges here,” she says gesturing to Brian. “He’s Cambodian, I’m African American and Scottish, and we’re able to talk about our cultural experiences.”

I am struck by the sense of being sold a utopian vision.

Ms. Howell exits quickly, her smile bouncing around the shop like a searchlight.

A grey-haired black woman in a tank top and checked overshirt ties her dogs up outside before coming in for a lottery scratcher.

“How many dogs today?” Brian asks.

“I brought two,” she says.

“Only two?!”

Brian, who is full of stories, recalls when he babysat for his daughter’s dog and it ran away.

The July night that Black Lives Matter demonstrators shut down the highway, customers crowded around the shop until it closed. Other storefront windows on Telegraph were broken, but Golden Gate emerged unscathed. The next morning, the phone rang off the hook with calls from people checking to make sure Golden Gate was OK.

“The whole neighborhood was here. That felt so good,” Brian says.

A middle-aged black man in a T-shirt and work pants says Golden Gate is “deeper than church.”

“It’s not singing and kumbaya and trying to fit in,” he says. “It’s where the rubber meets the road for black men who feel displaced.”

I overhear a grandfatherly black man and a sunburned white guy talking in line.

The older man points to a Rosie the Riveter tattoo on the arm of the younger man and tells him, “That’s my era. You a little bit young to have that.”

“I’m 41 man,” the tattooed man responds.

The two chat about the decline of industry in America. The older man reminds me of my grandfather, who routinely asks for directions as an excuse to chat with strangers. He tells me that the donut shop opened in 1972, the year he moved to Oakland.

He reminisces about how the neighborhood used to be. There was a lesbian bar across the street, an apartment building full of people who met in a psych ward and a little liquor store where he and an Irish neighbor would buy half pints to drink on the steps.

“When the money comes in, the interesting people leave,” he says.

The neighborhood changes have been dramatic. A space down the street, where Temescal Brewing just moved in, rents for $7,500 a month. But some things, like the nearby Harmony Baptist Church, remain unchanged. He points to a wiry black man in a baseball cap who is a deacon at the church.

When I ask him what he still thinks is special about Oakland, even with all the changes, he says that Oakland still has neighborhoods like his where “everybody knows everybody.”

[Thanks for reading. If you like what you read, please check out more of Nina’s Ripple stories.]