Many people write about the poor; fewer listen to them. Sometimes we get memoirs from those who have risen from poverty, but seldom do those with means live among the poor and tell us about unprivileged lives.
The book is subtitled “Seeking Respect in Back Row America.” Arnade, after receiving a doctorate in physics and spending 20 years as a bond trader on Wall Street, quit his job and started hanging out in a rough neighborhood of New York City, talking to people and taking photographs.
Later he traveled to other places like Bakersfield, California; Cairo, Illinois; and Selma, Alabama, all places bypassed by the national economy whose people are ignored, shunned, or mocked.
One thing he learned quickly is that back row America meets at McDonald’s. That’s where people eat, visit, kill time, stare into space, read newspapers and the Bible, and find shelter in one of the few places where they are welcome.
Like Orwell, who famously remarked that the working class had justice on its side but still smelled bad, Arnade presents people as he finds them, unsparing of their folly and vices.
His characters sometimes say stupid, befuddled and racist things. Others have attained a hard-earned wisdom.
In the back row, drugs are central to too many people’s lives. They build a sort of community of users. Some of the photographs in the book are hard to see. They show syringes and cigarettes, clutter and crack pipes, users.
We see people who prostitute themselves to get heroin, young men who carry guns because they fear they would be victimized if they didn’t, even though they have seen and participated in too much violence.
People in back row America are of all races, yet Arnade documents the particular viciousness of racism that blights and stunts human prospects.
Many of these people cannot move to better circumstances because, for better or worse, they are tied to their families. In a country where highly educated and well-paid professionals move to advance their careers, these people possess a sense of place superseding economics.
Amid the chaos and disorder and shame, some people manage to pull themselves together and lead meaningful lives. Often they have gone through their own periods of addiction and incarceration. Sometimes they stay away from drugs because they grew up seeing the devastation they wreak in their families.
A chapter titled “God Filled My Emptiness” considers the role of religion in these people’s lives. Arnade has moved from his previous atheism, through a recognition that religion has a social function, into a view (not fully explained — it’s probably still evolving) of the truths that give people dignity and integrity and hope.
The chapters are short. I suspect that the powerful photographs will linger longer than the text.
His photographic sections include “McDonald’s,” “Coping,” “Desolation,” (mostly architecture and decayed buildings), and, finally “Dignity.” These last were, to me, the most moving, illustrating grit, determination, and love.
Arnade makes no policy recommendations. He admits that his only suggestion, that we listen more to each other, is “wimpy.”
I disagree. Recognition and respect are fundamental. Wherever we go as a nation, we must listen to each other.