It is rare for a major university press to do an initial press run of five thousand copies of a revised doctoral dissertation. It is rarer still for such a large press run to sell out in two months, forcing the publisher to run a second printing as quickly as possible. It is unheard of for five production companies, including Warner Bros., to seek rights to film a doctoral dissertation. Such, however, is the history of Mitchell Duneier’s adaptation of his thesis written for the University of Chicago’s department of sociology.
Trained in the field methods of the Chicago School, Duneier stumbled on his research topic as a result of becoming a regular at Valois (pronounced “Valloys”), a cafeteria on Fifty-third Street near Chicago’s South Side that has become a gathering place for a regular clientele of black and white working-class men living in or near the area. Established in the early 1920’s by a French Canadian, William Valois, the cafeteria has flourished since then in three successive locations under three different owners. The Valois’ slogan, “See Your Food,” has also become its nickname.
Valois offers wholesome food made from natural ingredients. Its portions are large, the ambience starkly simple. The present co-owners, Gus and Spiro, are from the southern Greek village of Akladhokampos. They bought Valois in the late 1970’s. Realizing how successful the enterprise was—it has for several decades served more than twelve hundred meals a day—the new owners made no effort to change anything.
Although Valois originally did not serve African Americans, with changes in federal laws and Chicago’s neighborhoods, black working-class people began to eat there, including a nucleus of men—most unmarried, many retired or semiretired—who became regulars. White men in similar circumstances also ate at Valois every day. Over time, strong bonds formed among these men. It is these bonds that Duneier explored as a means of understanding the black-white integration and interaction that have flourished happily and productively at Valois since the 1960’s.
Duneier humanizes and personalizes his study by focusing initially on two Valois regulars, Bart and Slim. Bart’s premedical studies, begun at the University of Chicago in 1928, were cut short by the economic exigencies of the Great Depression. Driven from school by his need to earn a living, Bart, the son of a Kentucky physician, took a job as a file clerk for a Chicago law firm and kept that job until his retirement more than forty years later. He never moved from Hyde Park. Bart considered black people to be inferior to whites.
Slim, at sixty-five a decade younger than Bart, is a mechanic in a back-alley garage off of Forty-seventh Street. He, like Bart, lives alone, has no close family, and takes his evening meal at Valois. Although he and Bart do not socialize, through the years they have come to accept each other on their own terms.
Slim, who has lost his own father, casts himself in the role of Bart’s surrogate son and assumes responsibility for his welfare. He will not allow the older man to walk home from Valois at night because the streets are too dangerous. He regularly drives Bart home, but Bart is not an easy passenger. He refuses to leave Valois until he is ready to leave. If Slim cannot wait for Bart, he has someone else drive the old man home. Slim sees Bart through his final months of life, always respecting his privacy and allowing him his dignity.
Slim is what both the black and white patrons aspire to be. He is considerate, but beyond that, he is completely genuine, wholly honest. If the stories he tells about himself do not elevate his listeners’ opinions of him, the honesty and forthrightness with which he tells them do.
Duneier writes warmly and knowledgeably about other regulars at Valois: Horace, a hairdresser; Robert Jackson, a semiretired crane operator who takes pride in always paying his bills; Hughes, a white man about the age of Slim who admires Slim greatly; Drake, a retired butcher whose life follows an inalterable routine; and Willie, an old black man who always wears a pink suit. These people interact in different ways and for different reasons.
Slim and his cohorts—in vague ways reminiscent of Danny and his compadres in John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat (1935)—are fiercely individualistic, jealously protective of their privacy. They are also a cohesive and supportive group. In some ways they remind one, as do Danny and his circle, of kindred characters in the Arthurian legends.
The regulars at Valois value the personal idiosyncracies of their companions because these idiosyncracies are what make them the individuals they are. An...
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