A week ago Monday, after returning rented bikes to a bicycle shop early on a sunny morning, my wife and I were sitting outside a kosher donut store in Madison, Wisconsin having mediocre coffee and cold donuts. We were wrapping up four nice days in that town, which as a state capitol is about as unlike Illinois’ as you can imagine. Had I been forced to make overnight stays and countless trips to Madison rather than Springfield during my career as an agency exec I may not have retired.
In any case there we were, minding our own business, wondering what has to occur in order for a donut to be deemed kosher, when a giant red SUV with Wisconsin plates that read “Donut Man” pulled in the parking place, scaring away a tiny sparrow pecking at a bit of blueberry cake donut Colleen had just thrown there.
Emerging from the SUV was a big guy in an American flag tee shirt, shorts, and bright yellow green tennis shoes. A cap, complete with the gold scrambled eggs embroidered (or glued) on the bill, told the world he was a Navy vet. Before he closed the vehicle door he immediately posed a question.
“How do you like those donuts?”
I’m not sure he waited for our answer before launching into his life story. He had cornered the market on kosher donuts, the one and only provider of such in Southern Wisconsin, hell the whole state for that matter. Starting on a shoestring, now employing I forget how many people, paying their health insurance, everyone earning over $12 bucks an hour, creating a new donut store on the north side of town, all take out, no seating, because that’s what donut buyers want. He doesn’t know the first thing about donuts, he admitted, leaving that to the bakers, but he DOES by God know everything about the donut business. As he talked the hungry sparrow returned and peered tentatively under the vehicle before disappearing beneath the bumper to retrieve the abandoned crumbs.
The Donut Man was the kind of guy that talked a lot about money. He told us what everything cost; the store we were sitting in front of in 1989, the property taxes then and now, the custom made bench we were sitting on, the neon signs hanging in the windows, also custom made.
“You know why you hardly see neon signs anymore?”
As my wife began to say no he talked over her, providing his own answer
“Because they’re damned expensive that’s why. But I don’t care. I love the damn things. I designed these myself. $600 a pop. See that neon coffee cup?”
We turned to look, being polite I guess, and in doing so became captive participants in both his display and discussion of the art of gas and glass.
“The outfit I bought these from, local place, had made plenty of neon coffee cup signs before and showed them to me as examples. But none of them really caught my eye. I had something else in mind. And when I told them my idea they just looked at each other. They never had considered making one with a donut being dunked in it. They loved it. Original as hell they told me.”
I looked hard at that mysterious neon creation, finally able to make out the donut half submerged in a coffee cup. At first glance it appeared to be a UFO landing in an above ground swimming pool.
He smiled proudly. We smiled back. What else you gonna do really? There you are on vacation with little else to do listen to a small business man brag about his accomplishments. He went on and on. These are only the highlights believe me.
“See that neon pineapple? You know what the pineapple represents?”
“The international sign of welcome?” I managed to get it out quickly before he could provide the answer.
“Nope, the international sign for accommodation. Sailors from all over the world, you know they didn’t know the languages in all those ports, they would see a pineapple painted on a business or home and know they would be accommodated there. Had to have a neon pineapple for my business.”
He was wearing down a little a bit and surprisingly asked us a question for a change.
“You folks from here?”
“No, we’re here on a long weekend from Illinois.”
“What do you do?”
“We’re retired,” I said.
“I ran a private not for profit agency for kids and families. We did counseling, foster care, day care, worked with immigrants, lot of things.”
Colleen answered for herself. “I was a public high school teacher for 34 years. Special Ed math.”
“Oh yeah? Is that right?” I could see disapproval in his face. We don’t usually get that response when we talk about our work. I was surprised.
He turned and shut his big red SUV door. The sparrow flew out from under his truck. He turned back and took a few steps toward us.
“Well let me tell you something. I’m a maker not a taker. Been running this place since 1989. Started with nothing. Raised my family selling donuts. Never took a dime from the government. Not one dime. Never will.” He was getting loud.
I was stunned at the implication. He said it as if my wife and I identified as takers. What does that mean? That we’re a problem? That we’re greedy? Does he assume we concede that private businessmen like him are somehow superior to us? My wife and I stood as one and quickly said goodbye. Perhaps he was looking for an argument, hoping to engage in some kind of economic debate. Or God help us maybe he wanted to spout off about the presidential election. He kept talking and was saying something I couldn’t make out as we continued to put distance between him and us. We were on vacation for Christ’s sake. We didn’t need to listen to that. But I’ve been thinking of it ever since; amazed at how damn rude strangers can be these days, and also wondering where that kind of thinking comes from. Makers and takers.
The Donut Man boiled him and us down into a tightly confined phrase with two nouns separated by a conjunction, the kind Americans like so much. Makers and takers. Win or lose. One or the other. Love or hate. This or that. Republican or Democrat. Black and white. It’s not helpful. It’s too simple, and always false I think.
I’m not sure how others view the work my wife and I have done but we have never felt like takers. If you had to reduce our contributions to the world in a word that ends in r I would call us givers. My wife has a sort of gift. She can engage kids who hate math, who have never been successful in math, who panic when they see an equation and show them that they are indeed smart enough to get it. She’s still sharing that gift with kids part time, now with the help of a computer and self paced software instead of the pencils, erasers, and calculators she began with in the 70’s. She has touched a lot of kids’ lives not only in regards to math but about getting along in school, finding help, calming down, looking beyond the moment, any number of things. I think she gave a lot of herself. She’s 5’2” and used to break up fistfights in her behavior disorder classrooms. She worked hard. I think she made a difference for the young people in our community. Did the Donut Man intend to paint her as someone who simply took from society rather than contributing to it? What was he getting at? What exactly was she taking? Is it that she was paid from tax dollars? That she receives a public pension rather than social security?
Of course a lot of people don’t make the distinction between private and public agencies. The child welfare agency I worked for, like virtually all child welfare agencies, receives government contracts along with privately raised dollars to work with the families who need their help. I don’t get a public pension because I was not a state employee but that was a choice I made. I knew what I was doing. I saved money for retirement and am using that as well as social security to get by from now until I no longer need money. Does that make me a taker? As the head of a not for profit I put together all the resources I possibly could and fulfilled the intent of every government contract we were fortunate enough to obtain so that the community I served got maximum benefit from them. My job was to bring resources to kids and families so they could be whole and healthy, escape poverty, and live independently. So in this limited little two category version of the Donut Man’s world, am I a taker because I was associated with government? How about the jobs I created, the programs we started, the people to whom we provided therapy, the families for whom we provided child care? Not enough still to be a maker? Even though my wife and I worked our whole life to give people the tools they needed to get jobs in their community, perhaps work in an agency, teach school themselves, or even start donut shops? Do we still get labeled as takers?
We do each other harm when we generalize to category. I’m may be doing the same to the Donut Man. Had I argued with him he might have seen my point of view or yes possibly I would have appreciated his more. I didn’t engage him further because because he pissed me off. Instead I wrote this, because I write better than I think up angry retorts on the spot. And also when you write after the fact you usually get the last word.