My oldest was 9 or 10 the first time I remember letting him loose in the world.
He thought doughnuts sounded better than whatever we’d planned for breakfast that morning, which, of course, is almost always the right call.
Neither his mom nor I had drunk enough coffee to set foot outside, though, so he volunteered to pick up breakfast by himself.
We gave him some cash and heard the front door shut behind him, confident that Brenda and John Taylor at our neighborhood doughnut shop would help him navigate his first solo purchase with kindness and patience.
He soon began making the doughnut run with his little brother, two boys taking care of their business with the confidence that comes from growing up in a friendly little downtown.
That’s the atmosphere you’ll find at John’s Space Age Donuts — for a few more days at least. The Taylors startled downtown Overland Park Dec. 12 with news that the shop would close for good as soon as they ran out of ingredients, meaning a 50-year run started by John’s parents had no more than a week or so to go.
Doughnuts are the main draw at John’s Space Age — especially the fritters filled with little chunks of apple under a thin, crunchy crust — but that’s not what I’ll most remember the shop for.
To me, John’s Space Age Donuts will always be what comes to mind when friends on the coast ask what we mean out here by “the heartland.”
Back when my doughnut-loving boy was a hungry newborn crying in the middle of the night, my wife would rock him in the living room.
She’d often look out the window and see John walking to the shop to start his day while her family, and probably all the families for blocks around, were still sound asleep.
As she sat making sure her new baby was well fed, the sight of John striding through the dark in his white shirt and pants to get started on filling his neighbors’ bellies gave her a sense of quiet fellowship.
My dad settled on the doughnut shop as his hangout from first light until the rest of the family woke up on his visits here with my mom.
Trading talk about the Royals and the Chiefs with locals around the counter, he always marveled at how much friendlier strangers are far from the congested Los Angeles sprawl he’s used to, and how easily he fit in.
John’s parents opened their little shop on the edge of a neighborhood of small homes in 1967. Now most of the houses have been torn down and the shop sits between a big car wash and a bigger community center.
I finally started taking advantage of that community center a few years ago when my doctor gave me the choice of regular exercise or a bottle of pills, but I had to make a decision every morning:
Walk straight through the parking lot to the source of the tantalizing aromas that filled the air, or make a hard turn to the strenuous workout that waited behind the community center’s front doors. I chose right almost every time, and ended up with much better health for it.
A few days ago, when John’s Space Age seemed like it had been around forever and always would be, my 11-year-old offered to make another doughnut run.
Nobody in the house had cash, so my wife gave him a check and explained how to fill in the amount. He didn’t worry about messing up because he knew Brenda and John would be there to offer any help he needed writing his first check, kind and patient as usual.
This morning my younger son and I made one of our last runs to John’s. The older boy and his mom are coming on tomorrow’s.
We’ll still see Brenda and John around the neighborhood, and they’ll still ask after my dad and notice how big the boys are getting, but it’s important that we give their shop a proper goodbye.
John’s Space Age Donuts was where my boys learned to take the reins as young men on their own in the world, and where my dad learned to settle in among strangers like maybe only Midwesterners know how.
It stretched a hand to a new mother comforting her baby in the night. It gave me the immediate satisfaction of temptation dodged that kept me motivated to better myself until my work at the gym started showing up on the scale and in my doctor visits.
It was the heartland distilled. We were lucky to know it.
Richard Espinoza is a former editor of the Johnson County Neighborhood News. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.