posted by Jay Livingston
As ceremonies go, it’s not a big deal. Every year, some of our best students choose to join Alpha Kappa Delta, the sociology honor society, and we have an official induction. We announce the student’s name, and he or she comes up and receives a rolled-up sheet of paper tied with a red ribbon (the real certificate comes in the mail). This year, twenty students elected to join, the most we’ve ever had at Montclair.
Unfortunately, our photographer was not very skillful, nor did he “work the room” properly and get photos of all the students. (He claims that he was busy reading names, handing out pseudo-certificates, and being chair of the department, but that’s a pretty lame excuse.)
The speaker for the evening was Bill DeFazio of St. John’s University. Bill’s an ethnographer. Ethnographers do what the research methods textbooks call participant observation. That means they hang around. Bill has hung around with longshoremen, with juvenile delinquents in Brooklyn (white, criminal, violent), and with theoretical biologists. They biologist project was the hardest, he says, much harder than hanging around with the delinquents.
Most recently, he spent years at the St. John's Bread and Life soup kitchen in Bed-Stuy, and the result is his latest book Ordinary Poverty: A Little Food and Cold Storage. That subtitle— those are the words of a young homeless man describing the life he now lives.
I wish I could convey the sense of compassion and commitment of hope and despair that Bill conveys when he talks about the poor people in all their variety who came to the soup kitchen and about Sister Bernadette, who ran it. There’s nothing romantic about poverty, theirs or anybody else’s.
Forty-year-old male of the middle class, with twenty years of experience as a warehouse manager, hasn't worked in a year. “You should see the people that I have to compete with. I'm waiting for a job interview in a moving company. A beautiful operation. They liked me but they said they didn't want to train me. It's not because I'm obese, at least not this time. It’s a computerized operation, and I would have to be trained on the computer. But, I’m sitting waiting for the interview. The other guy waiting to be interviewed is an MBA, also my age, knows how to use the computer but was laid off from Wall Street and a $80,000 a year job. He's competing with me. I told him I just applied for a warehouse job at Bush Terminal. He asks me for the information and if I mind that he’ll apply for the job, too. I have all on-the-job experience but only a two-year college degree. How can I compete for warehouse jobs with MBAs?”
Poverty, Bill kept reminding us, is ordinary. In the United States of America, the richest country in the world (as Bill also kept reminding us), there are at least 37.5 million people living in poverty. That’s the official count, the real number is much higher. What is so surprising and disappointing is how badly our government and society treat them.