My Dad was a very successful small businessman, so successful that when he retired and sold his business, the sales agreement contained a clause saying that he could not use the name ARC Cycle in an area amounting to over 150 miles from New York City. Dad told the following story:
He was riding the city bus on his way home from his job delivering bread when he read two articles in the New York Daily News. One was about the critical shortage of bicycle tires in Europe. The other was about the overflow of bicycle tires in America, collected for the war effort and never needed. He jumped off the bus at the great Brooklyn Public Library, found a metric conversion chart and applied under his GI Bill benefits for a small business loan to purchase the warehouse full of tires. He took out ads in foreign language newspapers offering to ship tires to people in the Old Country. The rest is business history.
My Dad credited the New York Daily News, the Brooklyn Public Library, the people who translated his ads into German and Italian, and the GI Bill for his business start-up. Yes, he worked damned hard, but he acknowledged the role those four things played in the beginning.
This might also be a good time to explain that Dad invented outsourcing, not shipping jobs overseas, but contracting jobs out. He persuaded the major department stores in New York to hire him to go into homes to assemble the bicycles and other things they sold instead of maintaining personnel just to do the assemblies. Back then, bicycles were sold in pieces in big boxes. As far as he knew, the men he displaced were assigned to other jobs. Companies in the late 1940s and early 1950s were not as vicious about employees as they are today. So, Dad’s business was also successful because he built on the success of Macy’s, Gimbel’s, A&S, Strauss, and a couple others that have faded from memory and the streets of New York. And from those contacts, he built a business leasing bicycles to television shows, which is how I got backstage at the Arthur Godfry show when I was a pipsqueak. After that, he took on wheelchair repair for the city’s hospitals.
Like I said, Dad was a very successful small businessman, and while I’m on the subject, he used to ask in every home he went to for a job if they had any broken toys, and he took them back to his shop and repaired them in his downtime, and on Christmas Eve he delivered the boxes of toys, anonymously, to the backdoor of the Lighthouse for the Blind boarding school, while my Mom dealt with assembling our Christmas presents. He and his brothers had spent time in an orphange when their single mother couldn’t care for them. This was his way of giving something to institutionalized children to lighten their lives just a little, to give them a little magic. We learned about this from a friend of his at his funeral.
My Dad understood that he was part of a greater tapestry, that his success was built on the existence of other companies and public services. He understood connectedness.
For the past few days, President Obama has been criticized for saying that businesses do not build themselves, that we are part of the great American system that makes business possible. On MSNBC’s The Cycle (apt name for inclusion in this essay), conservative commentator S. E. Cupp called his comments proof that the President believes in “collectivism,” a word associated with socialism and communism. The Romney campaign has taken a single sentence from the President’s speech and is using it in an attack ad. The campaign stop pictured above was at a bus and truck repair shop in Roxbury, Massachusettes, a business that would not exist without roads to drive trucks on and cities to buy busses for public transportation and schools, as well as the private bus companies. Those mechanics would be wearing their own clothes if not for the uniform manufacturer, would have no tools without tool manufacturers. The man who owns that business didn’t build that garage. That business is connected to other businesses and public services. Big time.
I spent Saturdays at my Dad’s shop on my hands and knees with a magnet picking up fallen ball bearings from bicycle axles that had gathered in between the floor boards. I walked a street in Queens, New York, filled with small businesses where I went from shop to shop buying the ingredients for our lunches, and ten comic books for a dollar. I know how hard my father worked to build and sustain his business, six days a week, fifty weeks a year, taking off only for legal holidays, three-day holiday weekend “mini-vacations, and our two-week family vacations. I also know that he never once told the story of how that business was started and built without mentioning all the other businesses and services that made it possible.
Not only has Mitt Romney warped what the President said, but he and all those who are echoing and affirming that accusation of “not understanding business” are proving how corrupted parts of our American culture have become. It is now part of the Republican ideology that one should never be grateful for the great connectedness of our society, for the way we interweave with each other and help each other and lift each other up.
It is now wrong, in the Republican view, to be part of and celebrate a community.