I helped celebrate my friend Steve’s birthday at Lula’s Pub a day after the Michael Brown shooting and the night Robin Williams made his exit. Those deaths are still raw, and as Steve said, a different matter for a different night.
That night Steve and I tilted pints and chatted. We even talked about money for nearly 10 seconds. Like most of us, money visits me from time to time, but never long enough to weigh me down. Many of my investments have poor return, such as buying a sandwich for the haggard dude outside Subway. But I’m not troubled by my monetary return on investment. What concerns me is that I’m not particularly motivated to chase money. In America we have a word for folks like me: “slacker.”
After the birthday pint, I went home and sat on the front porch feeling guilty. As Labor Day approaches, I feel like a “slacker.” I’ve been gainfully employed for 25 years, but why shouldn’t I feel guilty and ashamed? After all, by whining about inequality and not working even harder, slackers like me threaten to destroy the American dream and global economy.
A ghostly hand woke me. “Hey, slacker,” my decade-dead Dad said as he grinned.
“You should talk,” I said. “Welder. Union. Government worker. Democrat. Never took a job you didn’t have to. How many promotions did you turn down?”
“Only five.” My dad laughed. “They wanted too much of my soul.”
“Slacker,” I sneered.
“No sin in slacking. Got a smoke?”
“You quit years ago.”
“No cancer in heaven,” he said. “Crack a cold one and celebrate, doctor! You’re doing better than me.”
“I’m not so sure,” I sighed.
While Dad grabbed a beer, I explained that despite my degrees, his peak real earnings were slightly more than mine, and my buying power less than his. According the Census Bureau’s June 2014 report, we’ve experienced a 24-percent increase in high-concentration poverty areas between 2000 and 2010 in North Carolina, which leads the nation. High-poverty areas mean low school funding and low educational opportunity. Reduced educational opportunity means reduced economic opportunity. The American dream—“work hard and play by the rules, and you can go from rags to riches”— has been replaced by the American reality: “Work hard and play by the rules, and you may go from Walmart to J.C. Penney rags.”
If you want more upward mobility, move from Leland to Finland. There opportunity isn’t tied so tightly to accidents of birth, such as race, place and father’s income. We’ve seen an increase in the concentration of poverty areas at the same time as a significant concentration of wealth and political power has fallen into the hands of the few. We can’t or won’t see a link between opportunity inequality and discontent, distrust, paranoia, and violence in places like Ferguson, Missouri. How can we possibly have class warfare in a color blind and classless society?
“What’d I always ask you?” Dad interrupted.
“While you’re up, get me another beer?” I smirked.
“Not that,” Dad gulped. “Whenever you started a new job?”
“Are you helping someone? Are you happy?” Those were Dad’s only questions as I floundered from failure to failure in my 20s.
I asked him why he was such a perfectionist, welding ships at a federal Navy Yard. He said, “I didn’t want anybody’s kid to be on any ship where my weld fails, especially my sons and grandsons. I was a happy welder.”
“Never wanted to be rich?” I asked.
“Never felt guilty about it, either,” Dad said. “I liked my work and loved you guys.” He broke into Sinatra: “That’s life!”
I laughed. Religions can grow guilt and shame about everything. Poverty is only sin in our secular society, and the only shame is not wanting to be rich. Dad lived and died unblemished and unashamed.
“I never chased camels,” Dad said.
“Chased camels?” I asked profoundly perplexed.
“Let me tell you a story,” Dad said. “Like my drinking buddy says, it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get a beer at the bar here in heaven.”
“Sounds like the Moral Monday Movement’s Reverend Barber and Pope Francis,” I said.
Dad smiled. “They’re singing the same tune,” he said, draining his last drop. “Be happy. You’re a man with a heart—not a camel without a soul.”