My father would have recognized the poor and working class men Duneier describes as having values that run counter to popular depictions of them in sociological data characterizing their type. Grouped among the numbers of incarcerated, high school drop-outs, divorced, unhealthy, volatile, angry masses are black poor and working class men who value their responsibility to paying their debts; who are honest with themselves and others about how they interpret their own vulnerability; who are reserved; who are forgiving. The difficulty for my father was finding his way into this community as an elder rather than as one in constant need of counsel.
Duneier understands the tremendous achievement of having principles in a depressed environment where wages are low and costs are high and where work takes up more time than leisure; perhaps this accounts for why others imagine inner-city life being without virtue. My father recognized this achievement but he could never get beyond imagining money as the key to his being considered a respectable man. I conducted an interview with my father in the summer of 2006. (I haven’t figured out how to digitize my tape or else I would offer the audio.) At one point, my father discusses his father and my maternal grandfather in terms of being cool and what they chose to wear. I’ll share the transcript of that portion of our talk because it reveals some things about how my father contemplated respectability, money and dress.
Dad: But my point is, this saga, if you will, about cool and how a behavior is handed down and the way that you want to be seen–there’s a thing about clothing-my father was known as one of the best dressed dudes–he was an innovator when it comes to clothes; good dressing guy.
Me: Well he had to be, he was invested in the image.
Dad: Thank you. Check my wardrobe. I picked it up from my dad. Wanting his acceptance, wanting to take that part of his legacy and not just wear it but [extend] how I wore it. Now, as I’ve gotten older as many clothes as I have, and I have too many for the same person, I don’t even wear them; they mean nothing. It doesn’t define who I am. I don’t want you to see me as cool by them, by my designer clothes. See what kind of man I am today because I’ve learned lessons well about what’s cool.
Me: Yeah. Well it seems to be a shift that happens with black men who are critical of the cool because my grandfather, from what I hear, used to be that kind of man; would dress up and look nice but I didn’t know my grandfather that way. My grandparents would wear the same clothes day after day and I was appalled. But what’s interesting is that now I’ve become just like that. So now my husband will say, “you know you had that on yesterday.” And I’ll say “but I didn’t move around much” which is what they used to say. “You know I didn’t do anything, I just sat on the porch” or something like that. But there’s this shift.
Dad: Let me give you this shift with Charlie Hite that I saw years ago and I saw this as a young man. He would go to church in his overalls and his lumberjack shirt-
Dad: And his apple cap-
Me: Mm hmm.
Dad: And other people-the cool people would go dressed to the nines-I’m talkin’ ‘bout they sharp, they Cinderella sharp, she’d a come to the ball and she wouldn’t a knew which one the prince was–
Dad: But after they visited the house of the Lord, the people in the suits was coming to the man in the overalls and the lumberjack shirt and they were asking him for money to pay the bills to their homes to take care of their children and he always gave it to them and he always had it and that’s why he was always known as cool. They were cool fakes, he was a cool man. Never saying you owe me. Never saying anything other than “you know you take care of them kids man, you going through so and so,” telling him when to pick up some money–and he was always there. And there’s a certain kind of respect that I had for his cool that I always said I wish he was my father. I wish he was my daddy. I wish Charlie Hite was my daddy.
My father was funny. He was also a good storyteller; so was Charlie Hite, my grandfather. My father’s admissions about his own father as well as his feelings for my grandfather reflect the vulnerability that Duneier attributes to the poor and working class men at Slim’s table.
Clothes meant a lot to my father. He owned a lot of clothes but his life most days did not call for his many suits. Most times when you saw my father, he wore jeans and a shirt with cut-off sleeves. My father certainly had more money than most of the men he spent time with and I think that he was comfortable with how he dressed most days because he was confident in knowing that the men around him knew of this relative wealth. I say this because my father always talked about money. He also flashed money. He didn’t carry a wallet, preferring rubber-band banks that revealed big number bills on the outside. He gave money to the homeless men he worked with; he gave me money anytime he saw me; he sent me money; he told me about money he gave away or loaned to friends. My dad thought that money could fix anything.
I’m not surprised that my father would think about my grandfather in terms of the money he gave away. And while I don’t doubt that my grandfather was generous, his generosity was typically not marked by how much money he gave away. My grandfather gave his careful attention to problems confronting the many people who came to talk to him; he gave his sympathy and compassion; he gave his sobering perspective; he gave people reassurance about the worthiness of embracing alternative ways of thinking about what made for a successful life. I think that my father knew all of this but ultimately, money defined how the meaningfulness of this example could best be explained.
My father was thoughtful and interesting but I think that his view about money deprived him of celebrating the wealth of his complex inner-life. If that wealth couldn’t be turned into money, it didn’t matter as much. I get the impression that many of the men who sit at Slim’s table have an alternative view of wealth that sustains them. What do you think?