Revisiting The Alabaster Donut Farm, and wondering who and what comes next.
There’s this donut shop in Ohio, just off Belmont Avenue, housed in a rectangular building next to a laundromat painted several shades of brown. Plaza Donuts purports to offer 54 flavors, or one for nearly each of its 58 years of existence. It is indistinguishable from any number of local donut shops, but like so many small-town haunts, it is beloved because and in spite of its ordinariness. As of 2020 it is an empty shell.
I’ve never been to Plaza Donuts. I don’t live in Ohio and have only seen this building in photographs. I only know about it for its closure, memorialized by news clips reflecting on its loss and speculating what might take its place. Even during a pandemic, no storefront can be left empty.
There is something so earnest and lovable about donuts. They have no purpose, are little more than hot air and wax, and yet embody such an unmistakable warmth. We all love donuts. They are as meaningless as they are essential; a bizarrely flexible metaphor and endlessly reinterpretable pastry.
Touching down at The Alabaster Donut Farm (Afterglow Games, 2020), there are no signs of delight. A crusty rock floor extends in all directions, bits of broken metal protruding like dead mechanical flowers. Before me is the factory, stacks of donuts left haphazardly next to barrels, atop shelves, looming ominously in the yard. I wonder if this was a gas station once, or if the overhang sheltered picnic tables.
Inside I find two corduroy armchairs and a brick-occupied pet bed. Dusty posters speak accidental eulogies to the donuts that once were, oblivious to their age, the broken doors and cluttered closets. Strange prisms float in some of the rooms, but even these seem lifeless. Are they part of the farm, or did they come after it expired, long before my arrival? No clues point to the cause of the desertion. It would seem that one day the farm was there, and the next it wasn’t.
But even soaked in grime and isolation, The Alabaster Donut Farm is somewhere to be loved. I stumble around the yard and find poems tucked in forgotten objects. Strange missives to lovers, political rants, comedy drafts, bits of whoever used to be here. The digital voice stumbles in their reading but I am charmed by the attempt. They’re trying their best, and they’re the only company I have. It is a joyful archaeology, recollections of something lovely lost that cannot fully be erased. This building is dead, it will never run again, but still it holds something powerful for those who take the time to listen.
Bitterness pokes through these letters, but it is purposeful, targeted. Institutions failed us, had always designated this place a grave. The loss of one donut shop hardly registers on the scale of tragedy we are experiencing, but there is something particularly angering in its ordinariness. Just a donut shop, just one of thousands closed for good. What dark comedy that it should be what survives in this desert.
As I step aboard my ship—a ship I have been pining for, even as I investigate this mundane relic—the digital voice starts to slow. As it stutters and breaks, it somehow becomes more human, and I am struck by how something I had regarded as inert could suddenly feel as real as anyone. I want to go back to the farm, but already my ship is moving.
Nobody knows what the world will look like when this is finally over. The loss of life is immense, the shapes of cities are crumbling, and so much of it is entirely avoidable. Even if we get through COVID, there will be more pandemics. There will be fires, hurricanes, disasters we have only seen in movies. It is easy to wonder if there will be a world left to mourn.
Each time I visit The Alabaster Donut Farm, I wonder who might come after me. Who will touch down in Ohio, visit Plaza Donuts, and attempt to parse why it was there. While not quite hope, the idea that there could be someone else enraptured by something as useless as a donut gives me some kind of peace. I may never make it to Belmont Avenue, but someone will, someone has. They will look at this donut shop and know people used to live here. It may be just a curiosity to them, but as they board their ship, some part of this life will be remembered.