On a hot sticky day in 1971, I parked my car across from the County Building and reported for an interview with the director of the Bureau of Drug Abuse, a brute of a man who was a former police officer with the crew-cut blond hair to prove he had been a cop. I really hoped that I would get the job despite the fact that I knew absolutely nothing about drug abuse or program administration, which would be the focus of the position. What I did know was that I was desperate for work: I was two months behind in my rent, and rice and beans were all I could afford for every meal of the day. I asked my parents for help, but Dad had been off work and without a paycheck for over a week. With several remaining children in the home, I knew he really could not help me. I could not think of anyone else to ask for help. When I parked my car I had less than two dollars in my purse, enough money to pay for the expected hour-long interview.
The director immediately offered me the job and asked if I could stay for the rest of the day on payroll. I gulped,” Yes, I can stay.” I was afraid that if I hesitated, someone else might get the job instead of me. The closer I got to the end of that first day on the job, the more I pressed my feet to the ground—trying to stop time—to put off the inevitable moment when I would have to face the insurmountable problem of how to get my car out of the parking lot with the little money in my purse, when I knew that the cost for the entire day’s parking was $5.00, more than twice what I had with me.
Promptly at 4:30 p.m., the offices around me began to empty out of the confident and fashionable occupants. Their glossy shoes seemed to improbably glide across the drab office floor. Those shoes matched the other workers’ business clothes but did not resemble my now-sweaty and bedraggled ones. At the end of this day, everyone else seemed to be crisp and confident. Yet I stood stock still pushing my feet into the vinyl tile of my eleventh-floor cubby hole of an office and hoped for a miracle as I gazed down at the lot across the street where I knew my car was parked. I shared the office with an older Black man named “David Poe.” David cleared his throat and said gently in his resonant bass voice, “Honey, do you need any money for parking?” I turned and looked upon his thin honey-colored face where I saw kindness in pale green eyes. I accepted David’s loan of five dollars. I accepted a free lunch every Friday, and I accepted the $500 that he and another male colleague, “Stephen Jones,” offered to me when it took three successive payroll periods before I received my first check.
Sitting with my new colleagues at a very exclusive restaurant in the Ponchatrain Hotel—a setting populated by music and sports celebrities, union officials, politicians, and high-ranking civil servants—I found out the reason for my new colleagues’ extraordinary kindness and generosity. David explained as Stephen, a short chocolate-colored Black man in his fifties, nodded repeatedly in agreement, “Betty, we have both worked for the City of Detroit for over thirty-five years. Our children have finished college. We are quite comfortable financially. You are just starting out, and you aren’t being paid on time; this is not right. But it happens; it is not your fault. Our money will probably mean a lot to you in setting up your new apartment, but if you never pay us back we will be all right. All you have to do is enjoy this lunch. Order anything that you want; I am having sirloin steak. When we leave here, the three of us will go to the bank, and you will tell us how much money you need. We can probably cover any amount between us so don’t hesitate. We don’t want to even discuss repayment right now. It is a pleasure to help you get your life started.”
Almost in tears, I stared first at the crisply starched white table cloth, then looked down at the gleaming china plate that now held an expensive sirloin steak which my two benefactors had urged me to order. I was very humbled, and very grateful. I gulped down some water, and considered my desperate financial situation. My friends had already helped me out as much as they could. I reasoned that I had to accept the kindness of strangers to pay all my overdue bills; to cover moving costs from Ann Arbor to Detroit; and to guarantee that I could get to work in the coming weeks until a paycheck finally arrived. I did not see any other way. These two men kept their word; they never asked for repayment and continued to support me at work as I learned to administer and evaluate drug abuse clinics, a job that my concentration in group and individual social work had not really prepared me to do. I did pay them back monetarily. I also paid them every time I helped one of my friends or family members who found themselves in similar situations. This experience reinforced the generosity of spirit that my parents had so often emphasized during my childhood, and it made me even more dedicated both professionally and personally to alleviate poverty. At the time I felt that I had traveled a very long distance from a working-class existence in rural South Haven, Michigan, to the fancy Ponchatrain Hotel restaurant.
This is an excerpt from the recently released book, Open Secrets: A Poor Person’s Life in Higher Education. Dr. Brown-Chappell, formerly president of NASW-MI, and Mr. Fred Watson, Assistant Director of Student Activities at Michigan State, discussed portions of this book at the 2014 Annual Conference: A Meeting of the Profession during the session, “A Life Course Dialogue” on Thursday afternoon.