The old man wasn't much on theory, but he understood value received, good will, repeat business, and, above all, the importance of trust between people -- customer and merchant, worker and boss, lender and borrower. To him, commerce was friendship.
All the talk he heard about labor and capital, first from agitators in the old country, and then as the standard fare of politics in this one, seemed textbookish to him -- not really useful like a good, solid pair of shoes.
He had a more personal concept of how economics worked. He thought of the economy as a web of personal relationships: with his customers; with the workers he hired and trained and sometimes had to let go; with the banker he depended on to get him started in his various new ventures, some of which went well and some of which didn't; with the landlord who collected the rent from him, and with his own tenants after he began buying a piece of property here and there, and building some rent houses. He liked his houses kept up, the lawns mowed, so they would "look like something," as he used to say. Like a good pair of shoes.
Much like most Americans, the old man was too deeply involved with labor and capital to think in those terms. Instead he thought in terms of people and whether their work -- and their word -- was good.
When he died, people the family couldn't remember, maybe had never even seen before, showed up at the house to pay their respects. They'd all tell pretty much the same story -- how he'd given them credit when they needed it, or a little help when they were trying to get started.
He liked giving people a start. There was Henry Johnson, for instance, whom he'd hired as a boy -- and taught how to fix shoes. And who would lose his legs soon after he started work. (A railroad accident. He'd been in a hurry one day and decided to hop between the cars of a long freight rather than wait till it passed. Bad idea.) The old man had stuck with him, and Henry in turn would stick with him. For the next 50 years, mastering one new skill after another.
His apprentice would grow old with his boss, teach him as much he'd learned, and die two weeks before the old man himself. The family smiled knowingly when they heard Henry was dead. They knew he'd just gone ahead, as usual, to scout out the territory.
On this Labor Day, a great deal will be said in the usual press releases, but none of it will be more eloquent than work done well. To me, two new soles on a pair of well-shined shoes still say more than all the Labor Day speeches ever written. And business still isn't just business -- as in "Business is business!" -- but friendship.
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