Saturday, April 1, 2017

Why I Love Working Class Folks

By Jon Dunnemann

My grandparents William (Kayo) and Elisabeth Greene were working class folks. While a young man, my grandfather became a licensed barber and my grandmother attended finishing school. In the early years of their marriage they decided to leave South Hill, Virginia and come north to Montclair, New Jersey. In time, my grandfather would open Kayo’s Barber Shop located on Bloomfield Avenue in lower Montclair, New Jersey. Grandpa successfully ran his business in that section of town for a good number of years until later moving to the current location at 224 Bloomfield Ave where both he and my Uncle Junie continued to be considered two of the best barbers in town.

Nana and Grandpa would eventually save enough money to purchase a ranch style home on a small parcel of land located at 28 Melrose Place in West Caldwell, New Jersey right down the street from the West Essex First Aid Squad. To furnish their home and provide all the other amenities that come with private home ownership my grandmother became a housekeeper to a very wealthy white family in upper Montclair. My grandfather also made house calls on Sunday afternoons to the homes of older well-to-do gentlemen to cut their hair. 

West Caldwell is a township located in the West Essex area in northwestern Essex County, New Jersey. It is located approximately 16 miles west of Manhattan and 6 miles northwest of Newark. As of the 2010 United States Census, the township's population was reflecting a decline of 474 (-4.2%) from the 11,233 counted in the 2000 Census, which had in turn increased by 811 (+7.8%) from the 10,422 counted in the 1990 Census. (Source: Wikipedia)

In our early youth, my siblings, cousins and I spent many weekends, holidays and summers at my grandparents home where we were always welcome, well-fed, and safe. It is there that I gained my first and most significant 'sense of community'. Melrose Place has always been a dead-end street.That made it even safer for the children that lived on it. The half dozen or so other families on this street were mostly black with a few white families already living there as well. The average household income was low but everyone who was old enough to do so was expected to work and contribute to the unmet needs of one another. At different times over the course of many years a number of the grandchildren lived with our grandparents either to lessen the existing economic burden on our parents or to be afforded an opportunity to have access to a much better school system than the one where we currently lived whether in Newark or elsewhere. 

There were only two maybe four streets where Blacks either privately owned homes or rented in the entire town in the early to late 1960's. Even as kids though we knew that we were not welcomed everywhere. For example, there was a famous ice cream parlor in town called Grunnings Ice Cream Parlor on Bloomfield Avenue that I once went into alone as a kid and where I was told that I didn't belong inside and was asked to leave despite having the money to purchase ice cream. On another occasion, I was sternly scolded by a older man for picking up pears that had fallen to the ground on his unfenced property and unabashedly shown his KKK (Klu Klux Klan) membership card and thereby cautioned to beware should I ever attempt to steal a pear from off of his property. 

Despite these infrequent slights, more commonly doled out by adults than between kids, I gained a fondness for all of the kids in my neighborhood because although unstated it was transparently understood that it is, must, and always will be first and foremost, the safety of all of us against the rest of the world. A big part of growing up was being 'interpersonally vulnerable' and getting emotionally closer to each other. This banner of loyalty that emerged amongst Black, Catholic, Christian, Danish, Female, German, Greek, Irish, Italian, Jewish, Male, Muslim, and Puerto Rican represented something special that can only be hard won on the playing field of accidents, birthdays, breakups, classrooms, disagreements, field trips, fights, forgiveness, hikes through the woods that were directly across the street, loss of loved ones, school yards, sleepovers, and the interdependence and respect that develops through competition in school sports, at local festivals and through other extra-curriculum activities.

In conclusion, my being reared by working class grandparents in a diverse immigrant community taught me not to be cruel, indecent, judgmental, overindulgent, prejudice, selfish or unforgiving. I would certainly not trade the invaluable lessons learned or the positive benefits like the sense of belonging and identification that I gained from ultimately being unconditionally accepted as a full and equal member of the community for anything else in the world. For in the increasingly comfortable space of my local community I had the good fortune of learning what it means and what it takes to be rigorously made into a grateful American.

Kayo's Barber Shop

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