MBTA One Stop: Wood Island
By Danielle Dreilinger
The week of June 4, attention was on the Suffolk Downs stop of the Blue Line where developers want to build a casino. But what happens at the places on the map you might not know as much about? This is the start of our new web feature MBTA One Stop, where we find one place near an MBTA station that epitomizes the community. Have ideas for our next stop? Let us know.
EAST BOSTON — Almost no one gets off at the Wood Island Blue Line stop at 7 a.m. on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend. Bennington Street — triple-deckers, cemetery and ocean air — is so quiet you could walk right by about the only place that's open.
Inside, Betty Ann Food Shop, est. 1931, seems strangely vacant. There are no chairs or tables and nearly nothing in the glass display case. The walls are mint green.
But back in the kitchen, three people are working: owner Bill Scantlebury, Patricia Luyo and a woman in a pink shirt who readily gives her age (63) but insists on being identified only as "L." — "I'm a retired schoolteacher. I don't want my kids to find me."
Nearly all the equipment comes from an earlier time, though the GE fridge finally gave out last year after over seven decades.
"That's when products were made in America and they lasted," says L. She slices off a strip of dough, cuts it into sections, rolls one into a ball under her palm and places it on a tray. The slab of dough looks like it might creep over and swallow up the table.
To a visitor, "Wood Island" doesn't mean much. To the locals …
"That was a wonderful park," Scantlebury says. "Three beaches — it even had a cinder track. It was designed by Olmstead … and the airport just took it all over."
He lives upstairs. L. lives down the block.
"East Bostonians are provincial, we are. There's nothing wrong with that" she says, slicing, rolling and placing. "And if you live here you're more a North Shore shopper than you are a Boston shopper because it's easy to get to in your car."
The room smells of lemon, sugar, nutmeg, oil and Luyo's perfume. Scantlebury rolls out a rectangle of dough on a thick blanket of flour and starts cutting out rings. The front door slams and Luyo goes out to the ancient cash register.
At 60 cents per donut, how does Betty Ann's stay in business?
"Well, I own the building," Scantlebury says. "What people don't realize is when you're paying for donuts from a chain you're paying for the number of people who handle them." He places the rings on a wire tray that looks like it went through Korea. "I stay ahead of the bill collectors and I'm single so I only have to worry about myself."
When the tray is full, he lowers it into a wide pot of oil. "We've gotten quite a bit of press for being fairly unknown," he says, flipping the donuts over. No gloves protect his bony forearms — "I'm living proof donuts aren't fattening!" he cracks.
He shows off the real coal-fired oven built into the wall. But really, the room shows itself off: the bricks, tongue-and-groove walls and tongue-and-groove ceiling are all painted glam-rock silver. Scantlebury shrugs: "My father did that before I got here … and he's not around to ask."
Good and brown, the donuts come out to drain.
L. says, "Don't put my name in this article, please! I'm a retired schoolteacher. I don't want the kids to find me." Cut, roll, place.
Before she was a schoolteacher, she was a kid back when the women stayed home. Walking home on a warm night with all the windows open, "Oh, the aromas and the smells, they were overpowering," she says.
The screen door slams. Today is unusually quiet, Scantlebury says, going out to the front room: "Fridays are usually pretty busy — ever since 'Chronicle.'"
But it's 8 a.m. and people are starting to arrive. Though they come alone, no one orders for one. One woman is taking donuts to the courthouse; another, to the kids she babysits. Bob Impemba, 59, obligingly stops for a brief interview. He visits from Winthrop every month or so. "Not as often as I like," he says. "It's a dietary thing."
Has the place changed? "Never changed," he says, and with a grin, "Owner's pleasant."
"I'm still crazy!" Scantlebury responds, cheerfully. He explains, "His older brother went through St. Mary's with my older brother."
L. steps behind the counter for a minute. "I've been coming here since I was a little kid," she says. "And truly we survive on repeat customers. Not internet people."
Like JoAnn Rick of Winthrop. "I'm 75. I was 11 when I first started coming here. They used to have the bread, you'd get the hot bread after school," she says. Now $12.85 buys her "a dozen jelly" (no plural) in a box, two jelly and a cruller in a bag, and four jelly and two plain in another bag. "My husband owned a Dunkin' Donuts for years but you know what? These taste better," Rick says.
A woman in a red shirt comes in. She doesn't say a word. Luyo fills her order.
Back in the kitchen, Scantlebury tosses donuts in sugar. "The closest I've come to our jelly donuts is in Cornwall," he says. That's where he vacations. But something's missing in those.
L. is back at her counter. "In this country I really feel we've done a real disservice to people who do hand work or manual labor," she says. Slice, roll, place. "If you don't have a suit and tie your work has no value."
When she was a kid the priest had to warn people from the altar that the donuts would still be there when Mass was done. Times have, of course, changed. "There's a bagel place over in Chelsea — Katz's," Scantlebury says, pronouncing the word "kates." But, the owner told him, "'People don't want to schlep all the way over to Katz's every day to get their bagels.'"
He slides a tray of donuts into the unlit oven to proof. There is a long discussion of the Euro and why it's not working.
L. insists once more: no name. "Once I went to try on ladies' undergarments" and guess who was working at the store?
But you should come back on Sundays, Scantlebury says, when the shop showcase is full with pies and cakes, lemon squares, coffee rolls, brownies. And "it's like a social club sometimes," he says. "They come here, run into someone they went to school with."
Which may be more important than the donut.
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ONE STOP AT HOME: MAKIN' THE DONUTS
About WGBH News Focus: The MBTALove it, like it or lump it, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority touches nearly everyone's lives in eastern Mass. And it's in financial crisis, with newly announced fare hikes not enough to cover next year's projected $100 million budget deficit. WGBH News features special focus coverage of the tracks and troubles of our public transit system.
Danielle Dreilinger is an author and news producer for WGBH.org.
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