Occupation – Freedom and Capitalism

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself sitting at the corner of Freedom Street and Capitalism Boulevard, right in the middle of what seemed to be the Occupy Commerce movement. During the roughly 10 minutes of my sit-in, though, it was apparent that this movement was more than simply some people occupying a place, it was a way of life that involved the true spectrum of occupation as only occurs regularly in America.

Indeed, the setting was quintessentially Americana in the modern era – a large, new, sleek, upscale hotel and conference center, squarely at the hub of a city that has been reinvented in recent decades – Indianapolis. The scene was bustling with people of all colors and ethnicities. There were the young, the old, and the middle-aged, like me. Business people in big boy and big girl clothes heading to an annual awards dinner shared the grand hallways with couples vacationing, enjoying the fruits of their labor, and with high school students visiting the Midwestern metropolis for a religious-oriented convention.

Some of the participants in this movement moved quickly by our small (two-person) temporary sit-in. A few, however, slowed down to converse with my newly found friend, Jerry, and me. We spoke of the weather, the evening ahead, our families and, of course, business.

A handful of the passers-by, some Catholic student conventioneers, actually took photos of my new friend, our host Vivian, and me. The kids were full of energy, taking in their surroundings, awkwardly moving through the setting of adults on their own journey to adulthood. What the students were capturing in their own photography was not celebrity or even one of the numerous and beautiful sites of downtown Indy. What the students were capturing with the latest of the digital medium, their cell phones/cameras/internet devices, was something as simple as two men, one woman and two chairs.

At first I found this youthful paparazzi to be odd, then humorous and then hopeful. Whether these polite young adults intended to eventually use the photos to mark and remember their days in the city or simply post their visual art and add funny, snarky comments to share with their friends, this movement caught their attention. Perhaps in a really small, but significant way, these youngsters were digitizing for posterity an element of their own aspirations that captured their attention.

Let me explain: What caught the attention of the teens was something pretty simple – a small business, its proprietor and two guys in suits, enjoying a brief respite and the luxury of a shoeshine. Watching these kids who were capturing and even participating in this scene was inspiring as I thought of the background stories around me.

As we sat comfortably at the shoeshine stand, Jerry, a well-known and well-respected leader of business and philanthropy engaged our fellow capitalist, Vivian, with conversation. While polite and friendly, Jerry’s assiduous enquiry was deeper than the usually forgettable small talk. He asked Vivian, or “V” as she prefers, about her business. How did she get started? How long had she been in business? At what times of day or week was business best? Did she have plans for expansion?

Listening to the banter of these two business people, the sole-proprietor entrepreneur and the CEO whose business claims the name of a skyscraper, was inspirational — he with gracious, yet penetrating business questions, she with fast, detailed, proud answers. His questions and exchanges reflected the respect he inspires in those who know him well and those who know only of him. Her answers were inspirational because they reflected countless stories that have preceded hers – stories founded on the principles of hard work, risk taking, and the desire to improve one’s own lot in life.

As Jerry and “V” talked (I joined from time to time, but mostly served as a mental note taker), she shared a story not uncommon to many who have struggled at times – loss of a job, children to feed, the need to earn a living. Her story, though, took a few twists that aren’t often reported on evening news programs at 6:33 p.m. over the span of 42 seconds or so. In spite of her circumstances, her story doesn’t neatly fit the usual narrative. It does, however, fit like a glove around the invisible hand of freedom and capitalism, and around a story uniquely American.

Over the span of less than a dozen minutes, Jerry and I learned that instead of relying on others to chart her course, “V” chose to enroll in a vocational schooling program after losing her job a few years ago. Through this chapter alone, her story was already serving as a lesson for young and old alike – when the old skills aren’t sufficient anymore, build on them or build new ones. This seemingly quaint story was not so simple, though, and did not end with a retraining effort.

After finishing her training, “V” found that the profession she had chosen had been hit hard by the recession and that few good jobs were available. As she said, her disposition became irritated (ok, perhaps her word was a bit more colorful), but she knew self-pity was not an option. Self-pity did not provide a paycheck. It did not pay the bills. It did not feed the kids. And it was not self-pity that provided the source of inspiration that “V” next shared with Jerry and me.

Knowing she needed to earn money and sensing she wanted to work for herself, “V” risked her own capital, $280 (no small sum while unemployed), to purchase the basics for starting a shoeshine business. Once the starter kit arrived, “V” began to perfect her craft. She determined the best locations for her business and began to pursue them. She assessed her competitors. She began tracking the flow of conventions and meetings to better predict her cash flow. She even invented new elements for the business of shining shoes in order to differentiate her service and to aid employees who might eventually work for her.

Today, her business plan calls for expansion, locally and in other metro areas. Moreover, as she explained to Jerry and me, businesswoman “V” has a plan to franchise her concept someday. Having impressed me as someone unwilling to look in the rearview mirror, unwilling to rely on others, unwilling to blame others, and only willing to count on her own hard work and determination, I have no doubt she will move forward with her vision, strategy and plans.

As the conversation between Jerry and “V” unfolded toward its conclusion, the high school kids continued to flow by the shoeshine stand, some snapping photos and pushing them into the electronic world as they hustled by. In some of the kids I sensed a bit of aspiration understood and a bit of aspiration not yet fully comprehended. Sure, some aspired to be dressed in a suit someday, sitting comfortably in the midst of a luxury hotel, enjoying the simple excess of a shine. But some aspired to exercise their independence, make their own way in life, perhaps own their own business. "Perhaps like ‘V,’" I thought. From her story, they could learn.

Regardless of the immediate aspirations of the kids passing the shoeshine stand, or of the awards that would be handed out to the business people that evening in the hotel, or of the careers Vivian, Jerry and I had sought and crafted, freedom was the street we had traveled to this destination.

Some, like the kids, were freely and openly expressing religious preference. Some, like many attending the business awards program, were climbing the corporate ladder. Some had chosen to risk their time and treasure to start businesses, often resulting in the employment of others, too. Clearly, though, each one of us was enjoying the rewards and responsibilities that come with the journey on Freedom Street.

What added vibrancy to our journey was all around us and rooted at the intersection with capitalism. The great hotel was the physical manifestation of capitalism. It was a place to exchange in commerce and to luxuriate in elegant surroundings, indulge in fine foods, and even partake of such simple pleasures as a shoeshine. The people abounding the scene were living their lives not by the graces of government, but with the knowledge that the transactions they chose to make would result in disparate achievements guaranteed by no one.

And so it was that people of various current and future occupations arrived one evening in Indianapolis at the corners of Freedom and Capitalism. As it has been for a couple of centuries, this wasn’t a movement of such, but more so a moving way of life. No grand authority or loud voice had joined us all together to make our collective point by occupying, sitting, yelling, holding placards or stretching the limits of civility. Quite the contrary – we had joined together as individuals in pursuit of our own levels of occupation. 

Thanks to the precepts and principles of freedom and capitalism, we each came with our own set of values, our own faith, our own level of educational attainment, our own commitment to hard work, our own tolerance of risk – and our own story to define success and satisfaction.


Chris R. Lowery is director of public policy & engagement for Hillenbrand, Inc. in Batesville.