At the Valois "See Your Food" cafeteria on Chicago's South Side, black and white men gather over cups of coffee and steam-table food. Mitchell Duneier, a sociologist, spent four years at the Valois writing this moving profile of the black men who congregate at "Slim's Table." Praised as "a marvelous study of those who should not be forgotten" by the Wall Street Journal,Slim's Table helps demolish the narrow sociological picture of black men and simple media-reinforced stereotypes. In between is a "respectable" citizenry, too often ignored and little understood.
"Slim's Table is an astonishment. Duneier manages to fling open windows of perception into what it means to be working-class black, how a caring community can proceed from the most ordinary transactions, all the while smashing media-induced stereotypes of the races and race relations."—Citation for Chicago Sun Times Chicago Book of the Year Award
"An instant classic of ethnography that will provoke debate and provide insight for years to come."—Michael Eric Dyson, Chicago Tribune
"Mr. Duneier sees the subjects of his study as people and he sees the scale of their lives as fully human, rather than as diminished versions of grander lives lived elsewhere by people of another color. . . . A welcome antidote to trends in both journalism and sociology."—Roger Wilkins, New York Times Book Review
|Publisher:||University of Chicago Press|
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Race, Respectability, and Masculinity
By Mitchell Duneier
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 1992 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
Slim and Bart
They both came of age at the height of segregation. Sixty-five, a lifelong Chicagoan, Slim is a black mechanic in a back-alley garage in the ghetto. Bart, white, and ten years older, is a retired file clerk who grew up in the rural South. Both are regular patrons of the Valois "See Your Food" cafeteria.
I first met Bart during my early days as a university student, long before I ever set foot inside Valois. Like many older residents of the Hyde Park neighborhood, he ate regularly in the cafeteria of International House, or I-House, as it was called, a dormitory for graduate students close to the University of Chicago campus.
Tall and skeletal in his mid-seventies, Bart dressed in fine suits and sported a Dobbs hat. Sometimes when he'd be sitting alone at one of the cafeteria's long wooden tables, I'd join him and ask about his past. He did not have any strong family ties. His only brother lived in Colorado, and he hadn't seen him in about five years. They spoke on the telephone no more than once a year. He had retired from a long career as a clerk at Swift's, one of the major meat-packing companies, during the era when Chicago was still "hog butcher for the world." Then he took a job as a file clerk at one of Chicago's largest law firms.
Bart moved to Hyde Park in 1928 to attend the University of Chicago as a premedical student and supported himself for a time by working at the Streets of Paris section of the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition. He had little to say about that experience. He had been a ticket collector at the entrance to the shows but had never gone inside to look.
Bart was a very incurious person, one of many odd human beings who become attached to a university community as students and continue the association for decades. His explanation for not marrying was that "some people just never find a person to jive with." His biggest dream had been to become a physician like his father, but the hardships of the Depression made it impossible for him to continue his studies.
He wasn't bitter about his life. The only resentment he ever displayed was toward blacks in the local community. With the southern drawl of the Kentucky town in which he had been raised, he often complained that Hyde Park had long ago turned into a "high-class slum."
Because I thought about Bart only when I saw him sitting in "his" chair after dinner at I-House, many weeks may have gone by before I realized that the old man had been absent for some time. I wondered if he had taken ill. Months passed with no sign of him. I asked the front desk clerk and other residents if they had seen Bart. No one had, and I finally decided that he might have died.
Two years later, when I entered Valois Cafeteria for the first time, I was startled to see Bart sitting by himself eating a bowl of radishes, amidst black men sipping coffee at the surrounding tables. On a chair next to him was the same Dobbs hat I had seen him wearing before he abandoned I-House. He asked me how I had been and inquired about some of the people he remembered from the dormitory cafeteria. He told me that although he had liked being around the students, prices there were high and the quality of food very poor. He had been eating at Valois for a year. I asked what he could tell me about the restaurant, which is known locally by its motto "See Your Food."
"I don't know anything about the place."
"But you eat here every day?"
"Yes, but I don't pay any attention to the place. I just eat my meal and go home."
As our conversation came to a close, he informed me that I might direct my questions about Valois to the owner.
Over the weeks and months that followed, I would see Bart constantly. Despite his claims, he seemed to be well aware of the other habitual patrons of the restaurant, including the group of black regulars that congregated at Slim's table.
I came to learn that Slim's table has, for over a decade, been the meeting place of a group of black men who regularly patronize this cafeteria on the margin of the ghetto. Slim, who comes to the restaurant every day is usually joined by Harold, a self-employed exterminator; Cornelius, a retired meter inspector; Ted, a film developer for Playboy Magazine who received an honorable discharge from the army after twenty years of service; and Earl, an administrator at the Chicago Board of Education. These and others constitute a core group that frequents the restaurant daily. Besides them, hundreds of other black men frequent Valois less often, some only on weekends. Ties binding members of the larger collectivity have developed over decades, and it is not uncommon for someone entering the restaurant to be playfully scolded by Slim or his buddies: "Now, don't you go hiding from us again" or "Come by and see us more often," if he has been absent for any significant amount of time.
The spectrum of social classes among the black men is very broad. At one end of the spectrum are a few men like Earl from the Board of Education, middle class and college educated. In the middle, most of the men are solidly working class. At the other end of the spectrum are a significant number who have been downwardly mobile in their later years and have incomes which would place them among the working poor. These are individuals whose wages would place them at or below the poverty line. But even this description is tidier than the reality because most of the men have social characteristics which would place them in various classes at the same time. Most of the men live in small apartments in Hyde Park or local ghettos, but some like Slim own small homes. By the standards of mainstream American society, none of these men are members of the "underclass" or "undeserving poor," though they are sometimes treated as such by whites from the nearby university.
These black men were very much aware of Bart. Sometimes they would refer to him as "the gentleman" because he wore a Dobbs hat and a suit and tie. And then, after another year had passed and they had come to regard his eccentricities with affection, as Bartie. Although Bart seemed to want to remain detached from the blacks around him, he had a neighborly, jocular relationship with them. He found himself inextricably drawn into the social life at Valois as the men began to greet him cordially:
"How you feeling today, Bartie?" Harold once asked him.
"I feel with my hands," was his response.
He continued to sit alone, and the black men came to know him only gradually. Through comments back and forth, from their table to his, they developed a sense for the kind of man he was:
"I bet you got the cleanest kitchen in that building you live in."
"You're right. I don't put nothing on that stove. Not even boiling water."
Interaction between blacks and whites is common on the outskirts of American ghettos. Many American universities are in or close to black neighborhoods, and the territorial margins of these locales are typified by interaction between middle-class whites like Bart and blacks like the regulars at Valois who come from nearby neighborhoods. Whites in such areas often see clusters of single black men routinely passing time together in public places like barbershops, street corners, bars, and restaurants, and blacks who live in these districts have a category in their minds for the "university types" and other gentrifying forces who settle on the margins of their neighborhoods.
Bart was an object of curiosity to many of the men. When he was out of earshot, they would often try to size him up. "Bart's unusual," Leroy, an electrician, once said. "He is antisocial. He don't care about nobody. He comes in. He eats. Sometimes he just sits there and don't say nothin'."
Slim balanced his chin on his thumb and forefinger, trying not to look in the direction of the old man. "He don't bother nobody."
After a brief silence Harold glanced at Bart and ended the sober appraisal. "You ever notice sometimes he fidgets around when he's eating? He be looking to see if anything is on his tie."
The group of men broke out laughing. "You notice that too?" Leroy chortled hysterically. "Then he'll take his coat and look it over to make sure there's nothin' on it." Bart's little quirks were amusing to the men, but they were also endearing. Later that night, when he started looking at his coat, the men joked with him about his ways:
"Bartie, what are you looking for on your coat?"
"Oh, just looking to see if it's okay."
"Bart, you can stop looking at your tie now."
"Oh, I can?"
"Yes, you can."
"Thank you, Harold."
Through such conversations, the men learned very little about Bart's beliefs and values, but they began to comprehend something about his temperament. As far as they were concerned, these certain habits and idiosyncracies of Bart's disclosed much they needed to know about the old man who sat near them every day.
Bart had once let it be known that during the fifty years of his working life he had never been late or missed a day of work. The only technical exception was on account of a famous crash of the Illinois Central Railroad. Having been aboard the train on his way to the office, he once described the devastation for the men — seats flew out of the train, people were hanging out of windows, others were lying in the aisles screaming. Bart somehow remained unscathed. Stepping over bodies, he picked his way out of the car and got to work a few minutes late. He seemed proud to let the men know that under the circumstances, and given his prior work record, the supervisor decided to mark him on time.
"Did you help anybody?" Harold asked.
"No. 'Cause I figured there was nothing I could do, and anyway I didn't want to be late for work."
"Didn't it bother you to just leave like that?"
"Why should it bother me? Wasn't a damn thing I could do. I was on my way to work."
The old man's machinelike routines and indifference became lore among the regulars.
In part, Bart developed a connection to the men through Hughes, a white contractor originally from North Carolina who had a close rapport with several of the black regulars. Like a handful of other white patrons — like the meat-packer Werner Mandlebaum, the landlord Morton Fruchman, and the longtime Hyde Parker Lou Ann Davis — Hughes commanded a great deal of respect. Both blacks and whites in the restaurant thought of him as the finest of men, one who took a deep and abiding interest in others. Like Bart, Hughes was raised in the South, but unlike the older man he was an outgoing, easy-mannered person.
During Bart's first few weeks at Valois, a year before, Hughes had become apprehensive when he saw that the old man walked home alone. He told Bart that anytime he wanted a ride, there was "no problem." For over a year, the regulars at Valois knew that Bart was Hughes's passenger.
At times, Hughes found the old man's inflexible ways to be burdensome and aggravating. Sometimes he would be ready long before Bart, but he would patiently wait for the old man to finish his dinner. Often he would be relieved as Bart took his last bite and seemed to be moving toward the coat rack, only to be disheartened when he realized Bart was actually edging toward the front counter to pick up another bowl of radishes or a dish of vanilla ice cream.
One evening Hughes was expecting an important phone call at his home at exactly 9:00 P.M. He told the old man, who had long since finished eating, that he had to go. But in a characteristically rigid manner, Bart said that he wouldn't be ready till 9:30. Hughes had no choice but to leave. The regulars at Valois feared more for the old man than he feared for himself.
On other occasions Bart would be ready a few minutes before Hughes. His way of hinting that he was ready to leave was a source of both amusement and annoyance to the regulars. First he would pick up his hat and coat, bringing them over to Hughes's table. There he would stand, slowly putting on the coat, one sleeve at a time, and then the hat. The entire ritual would last several minutes. Hughes might still be in the middle of a meal. Although he was tolerant of Bart's ways, he found the old man's attempts to hurry him annoying.
During one two-week period in the middle of August, Hughes had to work late. When Slim saw Bart walking home alone, he was horrified: he knew that the streets around Valois were dangerous for an old man at night. Bart accepted Slim's offer of a ride. Slim told Bart that he should never walk home again, that he would be glad to take him from then on, and Bart accepted the offer.
Slim is a reserved black man, who has lived near the Hyde Park neighborhood for most of his life. Slim has an unimposing but self-assured and dignified presence. He wears the navy blue uniform of a car mechanic with a zipper jacket that says his name; a wool cap in winter or a black and white Chevy "Heartbeat of America" cap in warm weather; and on Sunday, like many of his contemporaries, Florsheim or Stacy Adams dress shoes. The Stacy Adams lace up shoes popular among this generation of men come in two styles, ankle high or low cut. For the black men, Stacy Adams shoes are to respectability what a Dobbs hat is for an older white man like Bart.
In his pockets, Slim keeps a chain with many keys (a symbol of responsibility in the ghetto), and a plastic wallet compliments of the Internal Auto Parts Co. Inside are family pictures, an Aamco bond card, a driver's license, and an automobile I.D. He also carries a pack of Camel cigarettes, business cards from some of the firms he relies on as a mechanic, and loose papers with information related to the various jobs he is engaged in down at the garage.
Slim usually comes to the cafeteria for breakfast and for after-dinner coffee. His back-alley garage off Forty-seventh Street, a ghetto thoroughfare, rented as part of a larger parking establishment, is not visible to pedestrians. But Slim is one of the most respected mechanics on the South Side, and local folks have no trouble finding him. Most of his days, including many weekends, are spent there in the heart of the ghetto. At Valois, Slim is a central figure among the black male patrons, although he is hardly outgoing and rarely demonstrative. To most people who don't know him, he seems aloof and proud. Some people think it is hard to get a fix on him.
The relationship between Slim and Bart intrigued me. Slim seemed to harbor little resentment about injustices of the past, though it was evident from occasional remarks that he had unpleasant dealings with whites once in a while. At the same time, he was a human being with strong moral sensibilities. He viewed himself as a member of a social world characterized by general standards that applied equally to people of all colors.
In the black belt, where traditional family forms are more disorganized than in mainstream society, people often develop substitute kinship ties, in which many of the functions served by families are taken up by other caring individuals. Thus a man such as Slim might take a liking to a senior citizen and do the kinds of things for him that in white society would more normally be done by the man's son, if at all. At Valois, the black counter ladies sometimes even referred to Bart as Slim's "pappy" ("Where's your Pappy tonight?") indicating that in their minds Slim had developed a substitute kinship tie with Bart.
By contrast to Slim's universal morality, Bart was a reserved Southerner who believed that white people were naturally superior to black people. He had not been pleased by the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The fact that he took his meals in the same restaurants as black folks was to him a natural consequence of living in the integrated Hyde Park-Kenwood district.
The two men seldom sat with one another, but at closing time Bart would usually move to a table near Slim's and wait for him to finish his conversation. Bart didn't dare take the firm and resolute Slim for granted as he did Hughes, a fellow white Southerner. He rarely stood up and hinted to the black man that he wanted to leave. He never resisted when Slim told him that it was "time." Usually he would stay by himself until around 9:45, sometimes nodding or even falling asleep at his table. Slim would tap Bart affectionately on the knee to wake him up. The regulars knew that when Slim gave Bart "the tap," the two men would soon be walking out together. Once in a while, Bart would first go to the adjacent liquor store to get himself a pack of Chuckles candy and, on rare occasions, a pack of Camels for Slim.
One November night, some friends and I took Bart with us to dinner at an old German restaurant, the Golden Ox. Werner Mandlebaum, a regular white patron of Valois, had recommended the restaurant to us. As the owner of Chicago's last slaughterhouse, Werner supplied meat to the Golden Ox (as he did to Valois) and vouched for the quality of the steaks. On our way back to Hyde Park from the Golden Ox, Bart asked us to stop by the cafeteria. He explained that he needed to talk to someone for a minute. "My man is still in there, and he'll be wondering where I am." In Bart's vocabulary, there was perhaps no better way to describe the chauffeur that Slim was to him, a man with whom he could occasionally exchange cigarettes for rides.
Excerpted from Slim's Table by Mitchell Duneier. Copyright © 1992 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Pt. One: The Caring Community
1. Slim and Bart
2. Black Men: Transcending Roles and Images
Pt. Two: The Moral Community
3. Valois as a "Black Metropolis"
4. The Standard of Respectability
Pt. Three: Membership in Society
6. The Need for Contact with Society
7. A Higher Self
Pt. Four: You're White, He's Black, I'm a Sociologist: Who's Innocent?
8. The Underclass and the Middle Class
9. The Stereotype of Blacks in Sociology and Journalism