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Learning to listen: A review of Chris Arnade’s Dignity

Back in the mid-1970s, I was working as a receiving clerk at the Old Corner Bookstore in Boston. I was making $90 a week, maybe a little less, $40 of which went to the room I rented on Joy Street on the backside of Beacon Hill. Though I had a degree and two years of graduate school under my belt, I also had no car, no insurance, and no savings. I was living that way because I wanted to become a writer, and the job afforded me that time, and because I wanted to live in Boston for a year, which I did.

I never regarded myself as impoverished because life blessed me with limited desires and wants. My income met my needs. Besides, if too much trouble came my way, I knew I could always head back to North Carolina and find a job more suited to my education. I never thought of myself as poor. Despite those low wages, I never thought of myself as anything other than middle class.

I had choices and I made choices.

But what about those who don’t have choices? Those souls destitute from infancy? Those people living in towns where the factories have closed, where Main Street features shuttered businesses, where the unemployed are made to feel like beggars, where reality means waking up every day hoping to find change for a cup of coffee or enough money for a fix?

In Dignity: Seeking Respect In Back Row America (Sentinel, 2019, 284 pages), Chris Arnade introduces us to those Americans whose choices are few, the human beings at the bottom of the economic ladder. In these photographs and Arnade’s prose we encounter men and women just like those we see begging for money in the streets of Asheville, the ones we pass outside Open Door Ministries in Frog Level in Waynesville, the broken and busted people we find in almost every town and city in America. 

Arnade captures the people we see on our streets, but don’t really see. 

Dignity is Arnade’s photo-essay of these people, ranging in its coverage from the Bronx to Milwaukee’s North Side, from Lewiston, Maine to Selma, Alabama. Black, white, brown: poverty and homelessness don’t pay much attention to skin pigmentation. 

In all Arnade’s travels, an enormous percentage of the poor he encounters are either on drugs or alcohol, or are recovering addicts. To pay for their habits, they prostitute themselves, collect disability, steal, or beg money. 

And where do these back row Americans go to find physical comfort, companionship, and solace?

To McDonald’s and to churches.

“Often the only places open, welcoming, and busy in back row neighborhoods were churches or McDonald’s. Often the people using McDonald’s were the same people using the churches, people who sat for hours reading or studying the Bible at a table or a booth.”

In fact, McDonald’s is a main character in Dignity. In town after town, city after city, Arnade visits the local McDonald’s to find the people he wants to interview, the down-and-out pilgrims who come to that restaurant for heat in the winter, air-conditioning in the summer, cheap food, coffee, a restroom, a resting place from life on the streets. To those critics among us who sniff at McDonald’s — and if you are one of them, here you and I part company — you might want to remember that fastfood joints are indeed gathering places for the lost and the lonely, for the down-and-outers, for the hard-pressed.

Bear in mind, too, that these restaurants allow low-income families to enjoy a meal and a night out together. Rather than snobbish condemnation, McDonald’s and all the other restaurants like it should receive rewards and applause for offering the poor and the downtrodden a safe place and cheap food.

Religion also offers solace for many of these people. Though not a man of faith himself, Arnade “tried to go to as many denominations as possible — Pentecostal, Baptist, Catholic, Muslim, Evangelical.” In his “Introduction,” he notes “They feel disrespected — and with good reason. My circles, the bankers, business people, and the politicians they supported had created a world where McDonald’s was often one of the only restaurant options — and we make fun of them for going there …We tell them their religion is foolish and that they shouldn’t be able to earn a living unless they leave their hometowns.”

At the end of Dignity, Arnade offers some thoughts that deserve full quotation:

“We have created a society that is damningly unequal, not just economically but socially. We have said that education is the way out of pain and the way to success, implying that those who don’t make it are dumb, or lazy, or stupid.

“This has ensured that all those at the bottom, educationally and economically — black, white, gay, straight, men, and women — are guaranteed to feel excluded, rejected, and most of all, humiliated. We have denied many their dignity, leaving a vacuum easily filled by drugs, anger, and resentment.”

Two pages earlier, Arnade writes, “We need everyone — those in the back row, those in the front row — to listen to one another and try to understand one another and understand what they value and try to be less judgmental.”

Dignity is an excellent first step in that understanding. 

(Minick is a writer and teacher. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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