At the Chicago Cultural Center I went looking for a man I had been tipped off about by local expert Bryce Dwyer. Bryce had recounted eating lunch next to a vocally conservative man who keeps regular office hours in the central reading room of this interesting community center. I found said man sitting at a table covered in papers, most of them written out in his own longhand cursive. On the table there was also a bible and bags with various newspapers that he lends out to other people as a resource. He welcomed me to sit down and said he was working on writing up proposals to start a number of entrepreneurial ventures – for himself and to help other people. While I was at his table a middle age black man came by, greeted him warmly, and they chatted briefly about a proposal they had worked on together at an earlier time. He talked to me for a while about his idea to collect solar energy on satellites in the atmosphere, but I was not sure whether this idea was one of his ventures, or a general example of new energy possibilities with both economic and environmentally positive outcomes.
He considers the Cultural Center to be the biblical “market place,” a public gathering space where people share presence and ideas instead of isolating themselves within their own personal spheres as we so often do in our homes. He seemed to consider his mission in life to be a denomination-less christian minister of frugality and free-enterprise. He lived in a men’s shelter and explained to me where he went to get the most coffee for the least amount of money.
He was born in Australia, but retains just a gentle accent. He has lived in the US for decades now and previously had lived and worked in other countries on several continents. He said that throughout his life god had shown him that what he was brought up with was normal. Normal to him means having a married mother and father, a good work ethic, being christian and abstaining from carousing and drugs. He considers that to the extent that contemporary liberal society involves living in ways that deviate from his version of normal it is against god.
He talked a lot about how everybody can do something useful of their lives, and told stories about blind and crippled people working to help support themselves and their families. The core to all of his stories and values was the quality of personal initiative. His own counter example to that quality was the high crime and poverty in US black communities, and he stressed to me that people have a choice to behave badly or to make something of themselves. He was dismayed with people who claim that problems within black communities are the residual effects of slavery. He said, “There were twice as many African slaves brought to Brazil than to the US, why don’t they have worse race issues than us?” In looking into his statistics I came across this partial answer written in 1922. At one point he said Obama wasn’t really an American because Hawaii isn’t really the United States. When I protested flabbergastedly he explained that while it is legally a state, Hawaii is culturally different because it is tropical, so people there don’t have a good mid-western work ethic. This was another example of how when something was outside of his idea of normal it basically didn’t count to him. But he himself didn’t seem to totally fit his vision of normal: he is foreign-born, unmarried, relies to some extent on social assistance and is admirably committed to public common-space, even if for him the Cultural Center was a place to pursue his own private enterprise.