The Good Society Episode 1: Mrs. Schneider


I grew up in one of the most
enchanted places on earth: Brooklyn, New York of the 1950s I lived in an apartment above a
toy store on Coney Island Avenue in
Brooklyn. And if you went down the little staircase onto Coney
Island Avenue, you would encounter people
from—literally—from all over
the world. I remember my father would
sit down at the table and give us the account of who
moved into the neighborhood. We have some Polish people who
moved into the neighborhood. Some French people moved into
the neighborhood. Some refugees moved into the
neighborhood. I thought refugees were from
the country of refuge. We were all crammed into this
little apartment. We didn’t know we were poor. We just, we just knew we had to
hustle. And my parents did. They were hard workers. My mom had two part time jobs at any given time, but she was
always home to make dinner for us. And we had a little bitty kitchen, and what was interesting is that right across from our window lived
Mr. and Mrs. Schneider. And I recall, on a spring day— it was a beautiful bright spring day I was standing at the
windowsill in my kitchen looking in to Mrs. Schneider’s Kitchen And Mrs. Schneider was
making something. And she had a kind of very
1950s colored dress on with short
sleeves, and she had an apron on, and she
was stirring and she was adding things to it. Turned out she was making what
are called rugala. I can best describe them as a
kind of Eastern European pastry; very flaky and
delectable. And it’s made, the ingredients are, oh, walnuts, and raisins, and cinnamon, and sugar, and
a little bit of flour. And she’d be mixing this in this
bowl with some butter. And then she was rolling out some
dough. And then she would cut the
dough into triangles. Then she’d begin dropping some of the ingredients and
rolling them into crescents
, effectively, and placing them on a cookie
sheet, which she then slid into her Wedgwood
oven. And pretty soon the fragrance was wafting from her window into my window, and I was
frankly mesmerized by the undulating motions of back and forth, inside the oven and outside. And during this whole period of
time Mrs Schneider didn’t look at
me once. She was busy about making the rugala, until the end. And that’s when she pulled out this tray of rugala, and then
she looked directly at me and she said, “You’ll come; I’ll give you to eat.” And so I scampered up over my
windowsill, and walked the two or three
steps to her windowsill, and held out my
greedy little hands. And she placed the napkin on my
hands, and she proceeded to place these warm luscious rugala into the napkin. And I could smell them, and
feel the warmth of them. And as Mrs. Schneider did this,
I noticed on her bare arm
there were a series of blue tattooed numbers that were on her forearm. And I didn’t know what that meant. I’m kind of confused and to be
honest with you I was really concentrating on the rugala. I thanked her and went back
into my kitchen and immediately wrapped them up
nicely, and moved the bread box just a little bit so I
could slide them in the back of the bread box,
and kind of put the bread box back
into position so that my siblings wouldn’t
know that they were there. You know, the Sirico’s raised
no dumb children. And I remember my mother was
working around the house that day, and she was half paying attention
to me in the kitchen. And I told her that Mrs. Schneider had given me these
goodies. And I said “but mom, why does
Mrs. Schneider have blue numbers on
her arm?” Mrs. Schneider gave me some rugala! Oh, okay good. Can I ask you something? Sure, what’s that? Why does she have these
numbers on her arm? Well, let’s talk. And she sat me down at our
kitchen table and she said, you know when you watch the Western movies
on television on Saturday morning? And I said, Yeah. And she said you know how the
Cowboys will catch a calf? I said Yeah. They lasso them, and they
turn them upside down. She said then what do they do?
I said, well then they brand them. And she said, why do they brand
them? And I said well, so that all
the other cowboys will know who owns this calf. And she said, that’s what some
people did to Mr. and Mrs. Schneider. They thought they owned them and they could do that to them. That’s what those numbers are. They’re branded And I was horrified. I don’t remember if my mother
elaborated on that, but I do remember my initial, visceral, instinctual repulsion that anyone would treat another human
being like an animal. You know that conversation I
had with my mother that day formed the way I viewed everything else that
unfolded. It caused me to see the civil
rights movement in a whole new way, when I saw kids being beaten up, or had dogs sicked on them, or hosed down with fire hoses because they wanted to eat at
a Woolworth’s; when I saw the unfolding of
what happened in Cuba, or in the Vietnam War, or in China. As I began to observe the world
around me, I observed all of it from the lens of who human beings are and their dignity, their
inherent dignity. Now for a number of those
years, especially for me in the 70s, I was very much about activism, and defending
human rights, and defending the justice of people. I can’t say from my perspective
now that I understood it all as well as I
understood it now. But the primary motivator
of all of that was this anthropological vision, that unless we understand who human beings are unless we get the anthropology right no matter what political or
economic systems we put in place—
unless we get that right we don’t get anything else right. Right in that whole experience
and what I learned became the seed of
what I would later found in the Acton Institute. But really, it became the
grounding of my whole understanding of
human relationships. Namely that human beings have a
dignity beyond their utility; that human beings have an inherent dignity that’s part and parcel of who they are, because they are. And what this lesson in
anthropology taught me about economics is that to have any kind of
economic system that could be called just, could be worthy of the human person, it has to have the human being
at the center. So that human beings are not
instrumental for someone else, and for their use and
their utility. But economics is the action
that human beings take on behalf ofthemselves,
and upon behalf of their families for human betterment, for
human flourishing. So really this whole
encounter that I have the whole memory
contained the seeds of what I understand to
be an authentic understanding
of economics as well. You know my mother didn’t have
an eighth grade education, but in that moment she
communicated to me the most profound
lesson in moral theology and moral philosophy
that I have ever had from that day to this day. And it really all goes back
that dish of rugala that Mrs. Schneider gave me
that spring day.

5 thoughts on “The Good Society Episode 1: Mrs. Schneider

  1. Imago Dei is a profound concept and truth giving rise to the dignity of all mankind. Thank you for sharing your story and linking it to how we must strive for an economic model that does not use people as a resource to be extracted for others' gain, rather to tend the gardens of His creation.

  2. Thank you for your story. A lovely example of how one seemingly insignificant interaction can lead to profound decisions/activities/beliefs on one’s life.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *