When I was about 10 years old, a well-dressed white lady walked into my dad’s corpse-scented taxidermy shop reverently holding the body of a hummingbird that had smashed itself into her picture window.
“How much will it cost me to have it preserved? Poor little beautiful creature!” she said.
“Hmm….” said my father, looking at her sympathetically. “I’m not sure about the materials… what do you think you would be able to afford?”
“Well, no more than three hundred.” said the woman thoughtfully.
My father reached for the tiny bird and gazed at it carefully. “I think I should be able to keep it under $300. Come pick it up in two weeks.”
The woman left the shop happy.
It took my father a few hours and $10 worth of materials to taxiderm the beautiful little bird exactly as she wanted it.
When she came to pick it up, she was overjoyed with its beauty and his talent, and happily paid $299. He had worked hard to keep it under $300. Me and my brothers laughed about this for years.
Now you might be thinking my father was a scam artist. Well, I guess he kind of was, but he was still an artist. It was because he understood the way people work. He knew how easily the rules changed. He knew that the correct price=what the person is willing to pay. Different social groups have VERY different ideas about what is valuable and what is not, and there is no fixed, inherent worth in any purchasable object. Value, whether emotional or monetary, or both tangled together, is all extremely subjective. I learned this very young.
The shop had 3 rooms; the taxidermy shop, the bait shop, and the gas station. My job was to run the register for the gas station. I sold lots of beer, soda, candy, chips, and cigarettes. Many folks could only afford a few dollars worth of gas at a time because they had to budget for cigarettes too. People often scrounged up coins from under their car seats. So many folks living paycheck to paycheck, living on cigarettes. Regardless of how they got there, this was their undisputable reality.
One day a desperate-looking white man came in to the bait shop with a gun to sell. He had an unexpected bill to pay. My dad bought the gun. It wasn’t like he needed another gun; there were already dozens, and he only needed one or two to hunt with. This happened over and over, with many different desperate men, and the guns piled up. Each time, the desperate man was able to pay that bill and didn’t have to tell his wife they were overdrawn. Daddy bought him a month’s worth of dignity. Sometimes, months or years later, someone would come in wanting to buy that type of gun, willing to pay a pretty penny, and my dad happened to have that exact weapon on hand. Selling at a fair price. The price being whatever the buyer was willing and able to pay.
One day an old black man came in from cotton mill, his white fuzzy hair resembling the cotton fuzz covering his uniform. He came to buy worms so he could go fishing. But when it came time to get out his wallet, he realized it was empty; he didn’t have any money because it was the end of the month, could he have credit? My father gave him the worms, and had the man sign as he carefully recorded his debt on a yellowing receipt book. Daddy did this over and over. People working shit jobs that didn’t cover the bills, folks out of work, alcoholics who already spent their check, folks whose disability check didn’t quite last til the end of the month, people who heard that The Picnic Basket gave credit so they came to exploit it, people who wanted to take their mama fishing for mother’s day but they were waiting on their paycheck.
Some people paid their debts faithfully. Some forgot. Some died without paying. Some never intended on paying. Daddy knew that’s how would go down. He never said this, but I think he didn’t really care about the couple bucks, and he went through the rigamarole of the “official records” for their benefit more than his. He knew they had their worms and their dignity and their chance to do the one thing that relaxed them from their shitty jobs. To do something they loved with their tiny scraps of free time. Fishing was practical enough to not feel prohibitively frivolous, yet it could be done out of sheer love.
I learned early that if two people have always been in different socioeconomic classes, they do not understand how things are valued differently in other classes. The man covered with fuzz from cotton mill would find the $299 hummingbird utterly ridiculous. The hummingbird woman, as charming and sensitive and animal-loving as she could afford to be, would likely find the cotton-mill man’s inability to manage his finances enough to pay for worms disgusting and pathetic, and would likely go on a tirade about how my dad shouldn’t give charity because people need to learn to work for what they got. Even though this man likely worked way harder than she ever had and had expenses she could not imagine.
My dad knew about not having money. When he was 10 or so, his parents were able to to move from the grinding poverty of sharecropping to working the night shift at the cotton mill. They were then able to afford cigarettes, so they took up smoking like most other mill workers did, to get through the shifts. He noted how expensive these were, and calculated much he could save if he didn’t buy them , and vowed to never smoke.
He started work at Kroger when he was 14 years old, and worked his way up to manager. He worked there for 25 years and saved enough money to buy the store when I was 9. (my mom was really good at being frugal too), giving my two brothers jobs that could support their families. My father was an actual example of the fabled Bootstrap Man. He made something out of whatever he had. He seemed extraverted, a great businessman, but what he really loved was to be quiet in the woods or on the lake. In his early 50s he and my brothers had saved enough money from the store to buy a nice chunk of land, with a lake, and houses for all three households.
He died less than two years later, y’all.
Daddy taught me about value. Value is incredibly variable. If something is scarce, it becomes more valued. Once people have something, they tend value it less. This made sense, back when we were in the wild, foraging for things delicious and useful. But with the advent of money, delicious and useful are only two of the factors; then came in paying for status symbols, paying to flee punishment, paying for beauty, paying to attract love or attention, paying for excitement, and, in my dad’s case, paying for peace and escape. Value is in the eye of the valuer. Gratitude for what one already has may be the most elusive valuable thing of all.
My father knew all about money and value, but he was not a material-loving guy. My dad didn’t seem to want anything, except to take care of his family, and to get out in nature sometimes. When my father died, he left hardly any personal belongings beyond a few clothes, a few guns, and his truck, which smelled like tobacco spit and dried-up worms. And a purple fluorite tetrahedron and a buckeye he carried in his pocket, along with his daily black-labeled chapstick and Afrin nose spray. I took the buckeye and the fluorite and I treasure them. Where did these items come from? Why did he value them so? I will never know. My father was not a talker, least of all about emotions. All I can do is value these objects because he did, and remember the wordless things he taught me.