As the holiday season creeps closer, I fall prey to the same rush and urges that many people experience in their drive to find just the right Christmas present. It’s all-too easy. I suppose I come by it honestly. I grew up in a household with very generous parents. They weren’t just generous to me, but also to nearly everybody they knew.
One way this manifested was my parents’ efforts to take gifts to customers, vendors and people with whom they had dealings through their business. I often thought their holiday generosity tended toward excess, but nobody can say that Mike and Judy Pate aren’t nice folks.
As part of this annual ritual, my mother would often go to a local card shop. To be clear, she went to this shop several times a year. She routinely spent a lot of money in this store — her generosity isn’t seasonal. Even so, the society hens that ran the place were never especially effusive in their attendance or attentions toward my mother. If anything they were a bit indifferent — at least until the checkbook came into play.
Mother eventually recognized that this treatment wasn’t universal. Should some doyen of the local cotton patch aristocracy waddle in, the storekeepers fawned and cooed like Princess Grace had come by to pick up a birthday card.
I wasn’t very old before I picked up on the disparity. I was probably the only fourth-grader at Plainview Elementary School who knew what the words “provincialism” and “bourgeoisie” meant.
To be sure, I was occasionally afforded a little special treatment. The nice ladies at the now-defunct First Federal Bank always asked of my mother whenever I took my nickels in for deposit. I was recognized as “Mike and Judy’s boy” by a lot of folks, from whom I am certain I received some kind of preference.
I would hate to think, however, that I got unfair advantage out of it. Sadly, as I have grown older and more astute about the customs of my hometown, I’ve come to learn that the chasm between the clean, polite people who clamor to “society” events at the “club” and the mass of people — who, to borrow George Bailey’s line from It’s a Wonderful Life, “do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community” — is far greater than human dignity and fairness should permit.
I’ve also come to understand that like Bailey’s nemesis, the banker, Mr. Potter, a large portion of these society folks think they’re somehow owed the deference.
I remember the day when my father approached a prominent local banker who decided he didn’t have time for such trivialities as keeping the appointment he’d made. It didn’t matter that my father’s little business employed dozens of people with few skills and miserable work habits.
All my Pop had done was work nearly a decade without a single day off. That didn’t leave much time for elbow rubbing and golf course talk.
This too, reminds me of a passage from the movie. It’s part of Bailey’s same speech: “You’re right when you say my father was no businessman. I know that. Why he ever started this cheap, penny-ante Building and Loan, I’ll never know. But neither you nor anyone else can say anything against his character, because his whole life was… why, in the 25 years since he and his brother, Uncle Billy, started this thing, he never once thought of himself.”
To be clear, my umbrage isn’t that I’ve been excluded from the cabal. It’s that the cabal exists and excludes anyone. They console themselves with Horatio Alger mythology and prejudice against an underclass they believe to be lazy criminals, drug addicts and drains on society. That’s pretty much the antithesis of everything I know about Christian generosity, humanism and decency. To play on Groucho Marx’s famous quip: I’m increasingly glad that club won’t have me as a member; and I’m even more proud of my parents.
Matthew Pate is a former law enforcement executive who holds a doctorate in criminal justice from the University of Albany and who has advised police agencies around the country. He writes from Pine Bluff. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.