Those Swarthy Fellas in the Corner Booth

If you walk into a restaurant at an off hour of the day very often you may espy a small group of men seated in a corner booth, engaged in quiet consultation. They have no drinks or food platters before them and they all look remarkably alike. This is the family. They are engaged in an informal family meeting. There are no women present. One or more of them owns and works in the very same business in which they are seated. The others quite often own businesses the same or similar to the one they are in.

In this group you may find father and son, brother and uncle, grandfather, cousin, and even the occasional brother-in-law. They are all males related by bonds of blood or marriage. They are family. In my experience, they are, more often than not, dark-haired and swarthy, closed-mouthed and unsmiling. No laughter or passion is evident. They are, after all, discussing family business.

They may be Greeks, Jews, Sicilians, Hungarians, Palestinians, Macedonians, or what ever. They all have one thing in common: They are family; discussing family business. Such families often extend back to “the old country”. If one were to ask any man who appears to be modestly successful, what the secret of his success is, if he were honest, he would reply, ‘My father, and my family.’

I’ve often marveled at the sudden success of these (fill-in-the-blank) first-generation Americans who seem to leap over the heads of those of us born here who must struggle just to get a job.

As an analogy, long ago I participated in Track & Field. When I think of competition I think of a foot race where the starting line and the finish line are equidistant for all; but real life is quite different. When the official says “Ready” you hunker down at the starting line; and when he says “Set” you place your feet in the starting blocks and look up toward the finish line; but before he even fires the starter’s pistol you see the winners across the finish line smiling and laughing, popping champagne corks and congratulating each other.

You can’t even call it competition. There are many, perhaps too many, sixteen-year-olds here in America driving around in brand new cars that were provided by their parents. They have no job but they do have an allowance. Along with social or political connections, such logistical advantages add up to a life that is practically a gift. You may as well buy your son a wife, or your daughter, a husband.

I knew a young Greek-American (his parents were immigrants) who, at the age of seventeen, dropped out of high school and went to work for his family. By the time he was twenty, he owned his own business with 150 employees. Is he some kind of genius? No. Is he a hard worker? Perhaps. What is the secret of his success? Family. His family bought a failing business, put it in his name, knocked out a wall to expand, redecorated and refurnished, and, within a matter of months, he owned a new car, bought a home, married and started his own family. This is called pooling your resources. They share not only money for capital; but practical business knowledge and wisdom for life in general as well.

If a typical seventeen-year-old high school drop-out approached a banker and asked for a business loan, what do you think the bankers’ response would be?

Get out of my office, kid. I’m a busy man. I don’t have time for this foolishness. Guard!”

The key to this young mans’ success can be found in the Bible:

Thou shalt not lend upon usury to thy brother;

usury of money, usury of victuals,

usury of any thing that is lent upon usury:

Unto a stranger thou mayest1 lend upon usury;

but unto thy brother thou shalt not lend upon usury:

that the Lord thy God may bless thee in all that thou settest thine hand to

in the land whither thou goest to possess it.”

DEUTERONOMY 23:19/20

In modern English ‘usury’ means interest. Course requirements in university compelled me to purchase a King James Version of the Bible, as I’d be needing it in Theology. Daunting in size and confusing in its’ Shakespearean Middle English, I none the less determined to read it through from cover to cover. After all, it is the Best Seller. It took about 88 hours over three weeks. When I came upon the above passage, I was curious as to the difference usury makes. I called the local bank and asked a hypothetical question: “If I borrowed $50,000 on a 30 year mortgage, what would my total cost be?” The interest rate at the time was running at about 11%. My cost: $152,000. In other words: If I could borrow $50,000 without usury, I would save $102,000.

If ten men pooled $10,000 each, they could raise $100,000. If ten men pooled $100,000 each, they could raise a MILLION. So that’s what those swarthy fellas in the corner booth are doing. Sounds fairly simple, doesn’t it? But can it work in YOUR family?

A loan is a loan and you must pay it back.

You must also be willing to lend it.

You must be willing to give, and more importantly take, avuncular advice.

You must possess filial piety.

While we may talk about how, as Americans, we are a competitive lot, the very same people I went to school with had any number of distinct advantages that I did not. Getting good grades in school or working hard at your job alone too often amounts to nothing. Family makes a world of difference but I do not come from such a family.

I never met my grandparents. They all died before I was born. They were immigrants who spoke no English. I can only generalize about them as being typical of European immigrants propelled by poverty and the chaos of war and drawn to these shores by a rumor of freedom, a promise of prosperity, and hope for a better life. What knowledge and skills they passed down to their children seem to be far more appropriate to subsistence agriculture than to modern urban life. They were both victims and beneficiaries of the Industrial Revolution. They were pious Catholics, hard-working and honest; and they wanted their children to be the same. A more intimate account of their lives and travails is lost to history – and it is a loss I feel deeply. Whether by accident or design, all family, linguistic, and cultural ties to the old country were broken. We’re Americans now.

My mother was bilingual: English/Polish; my father spoke English, Polish, Low German, High German and a smattering of Russian he picked up on the streets. As a third generation American I think, speak, and write only in English as my upbringing was delegated; and by delegated I mean that for literacy I was sent to Public Schools, for morals I was sent to Church, and I learned my sense of patriotism from the Boy Scouts. With the introduction of television (coupled with the fact that my father worked the second shift and I could go for several months at a time without so much as laying eyes on him) I learned practically nothing from my parents. It is a terribly sad truth that our generation chronologically – hour by hour, minute for minute – spent more time with The Three Stooges then with our own parents.

The 1990 Barry Levinson movie “Avalon”, while not directly confronting the topic, contains some scenes that clearly depict the isolation of children of one generation from that of their elders and the corruption of culture wrought by the media, especially television.

Sadly, so very sadly, our extended family spends all of their free time with modern technology (the media) and no longer with each other. However reluctant I am to use the term, is it not ironic that the mass media are all about communication – but it utterly destroys the one in order to proliferate the other?

All links to the old country are broken. The immigrants, all dead. Their children in turn, isolated from their own by the media. Family? “The Family Hour”? Dear God! What a horrible joke!

Your television family only teaches you how to spend your money, not how to earn it, unlike those swarthy fellas in the corner booth.

Like Will Rogers, “All I know is [just] what I read in the papers….” Our family never talked about religion, politics, sex, economics, business, or anything even vaguely resembling an adult conversation. Ultimately, every man is a Business Man, even when answering the door to a salesman’s call. My father once told me I was wasting my time going to high school but he never said why. In one sense he was right, as the Plumbers Union gangsters sabotaged my education, and monopolized the trade for themselves. My father never showed any interest in my education. He was in fact opposed to it. Perhaps it was envy, as he hated white-collar types, and all those who didn’t have to sweat for a living. My mother signed all my Report Cards.

Society in general, and especially the Government, was also adamantly opposed to my education and economic advancement. Succinctly, to the greater society I am viewed and treated as three things: Cannon Fodder in war; cheap, unskilled Labor at home; and a general Pain-in-the-ass.

I am really quite sympathetic to my family, especially the young men, for it is they who must always carry the greater burden. And if it were possible, I would at very least share what I’ve learned on the Road of Life and in the School of Hard Knocks with them.

I am the youngest sibling in a family of nine. I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge my two eldest brothers. They were reared in the pre-television era and treated me, truly, as a brother. As for the rest of my relatives, they were useless, if not downright detrimental.

I cannot imagine a situation where my immediate or even extended family would sit down and seriously discuss family business, much less start one. We are divided and isolated and thus exposed to the worst of capitalist predation.

Lending a hand, loans without usury; sound, honest advice; we’re “a day late and a dollar short” on all that, and that’s why those swarthy fellas in the corner booth are so far ahead of us.

1 May – not must.

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About The Twentieth Man

Age 67
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One Response to Those Swarthy Fellas in the Corner Booth

  1. Pingback: The Family Business | twentiethman

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