All I know about the donut scene in Champaign, Illinois, I owe to a man named Pete.
I met Pete three years ago when I came aboard the Champaign Park District as a seasonal. Pete works as the on-staff electrician, and although, officially, my position requires me to assist all the district’s tradespeople, in practice I log most of my hours with Pete. I like this arrangement. Over the past three summers, I’ve helped him pull wire, troubleshoot faulty refrigerators, and mount 50- pound light fixtures. And in return, he’s kept me in the donuts, scouting only the best crullers and long johns from the finest establishments, all the while excusing his generosity by dubiously asserting the importance of “keeping my blood sugar up.”
“One of us has to have energy,” he likes to say, grinning behind his walrus mustache. “You can crash once you’re off the clock.”
It goes without saying, of course, that Pete, who’s pre-diabetic, never eats the stuff himself, elevated blood sugar meaning something very different to him. Fifty-plus years of sustained research in the field of confectionary science will do that, I suppose.
Today, though, my donut comes from a gas station—not because this particular gas station has good donuts (I should know), but because Pete’s in a rush. At the end of the week is Taste of Champaign-Urbana, a two-day food festival that Pete has spent the better part of three months planning for. It’s all logistical, number-crunching work that I only vaguely understand. How many circuits do we need to satisfy this row of food trucks? What sort of amperage can we pull from the plug in that Quazite vault without tripping the breaker? Setup starts in earnest today, and judging by Pete’s stretched-taut silence as he tools truck No. 55 out of the congested Thorntons parking lot—a paper tray with a Boston cream donut (mine) and a plain hot dog (his) resting on the console between us—I can tell the strain is getting to him.
The silence, however, doesn’t last long. As much as Pete, at times, can project a kind of frowning gruffness and as much as his stooped, 6’ 2” frame can reinforce that impression, he’s friendly and talks to fill silences. Glancing sideways from behind his sunglasses to check that I’m listening, he begins, slowly at first, to lay out all that he wants to get done today. Generators. Bucket lights. Drop cords. He gathers speed with the truck.
Depressing the gas with a stained, size 15 boot, he’s speaking at a steady clip about how he wants the transformers arranged when a tiny Camry leaps out in front of us, and he has to hit the brakes.
“Jeez. Careful, guy,” I say to the car already zooming away. “That’s a whole lot of truck you pulled out in front of.”
And it is. At an easy seven tons, No. 55 not only outweighs the dinky little Camry but also, I suspect, scrapes the upper weight limit of my class D license, a fact I conveniently ignore whenever I get behind its wheel.
I can hear the smile in Pete’s voice when he speaks again. “See?” he says, the open window riffling his thinning hair as the truck growls back up to speed. “I doubt you’d ever’ve noticed a thing like that before. But now, now that you’ve driven a truck like this, you really know—you got a real sense of the weight and how hard it is to stop this thing.”
I nod, shrug. Conversations like these are common with Pete, as regular as visits to Carmella’s Creme. Although he ranges on a scale of skepticism to polite indifference about my graduate studies, Pete takes a great deal of pleasure in pointing out the education I’ve received from him. Occasionally, this means flagging the actual knowledge I’ve banked— which is fair because I’ve banked quite a bit. Where previously my electrical-mechanical knowledge was basically zilch, I now know how to wire in ballasts, trace for buried cables, and operate boom lifts. I can install outlets, add breakers to an electrical panel, and check fuses.
But more often the education that really interests Pete is subtler, quieter. Coming at it from the perspective of the humanities, I’d use words like “disposition,” “know-how,” and “habitus” to describe this kind of learning. Pete just calls it “seeing.” I see things I wouldn’t have seen before because of the park district. I see marking paint for proposed excavations. See a concrete light pole with electrical tape wrapped around its base.
See a Camry, for instance, whose driver’s appreciation of physics may be cognitive, sure, but definitely does not reach into the way-down of the gut.
Pushing the wheel around with the flat of his hand, Pete swings No. 55 left and bumps over the curb into West Side Park where, in a few days, three month’s worth of work on his part will vanish into a haze of conversation, laughter, and fried food. He pulls the truck to a stop and takes a moment to survey the empty park. Then he grins and nods at the paper tray between us, empty now for some minutes.
“You enjoy that donut?”