February 1, 2004
Remembering Arthur G. Gaston: A Titan’s First Step
her freelance catering days behind her in Birmingham, she still made it her job to send Art off to work with a full lunch box every day. Baked sweet potatoes and large flaky biscuits were sent along to supplement a healthy serving of Rosie’s fried chicken. Art’s co-workers never failed to inspect his lunch box once the noon whistle rang. Many of the men had no families, according to Gaston, and the care that had been taken to provide Art with a meal impressed them almost as much as the food itself. Art felt no hesitation in sharing what he had, in part because he realized he was sharing his mother’s love in sharing her food. These men deserved that.
One particular day, Arthur found himself feeling especially lost. The morning had been spent painting railcars [that transported the iron out of the mines], and the fumes from the paint had nauseated him. When the noon whistle sounded, he sat with his co-workers but didn’t touch his food. It didn’t take long for someone to notice. A fellow named Junior who had stood not far down the line from him all day glanced in Art’s direction and asked after his lunch. Raising his head to answer the question, Arthur caught sight of a dark stripe of paint running from Junior’s cheek to his neck. The image chilled him. The paint, it seemed to Arthur, was a symbol, “the mark of a laborer who would always be a laborer.” For well over a year, Arthur had been plagued with doubt and confusion. He had, he wrote, vacillated between renewing my pledge to become somebody and thinking I should forget it.” What he realized, looking at Junior, was that nothing would change unless he took the initiative to change it. You didn’t get successful by thinking about whether you were going to be successful or not; you got successful by doing something to make yourself successful. What Arthur saw reflected in the other man’s face was the mark of his own future if he didn’t take action.
Arthur held his lunch box out before him and Junior reached for it, happily. He watched as the man tucked into the meal, sighing with satisfaction at the taste of Rosie’s food. He looked at Art and smiled. Art smiled right back, realizing he had found his business. Men would pay for these meals, he thought. He was right. Before long, Arthur and his mother—who was excited by the prospect of getting back to doing what she loved, cooking—had “drummed up a nice business.” Their boxed lunches brought in enough money that Arthur could begin saving again in earnest.
The success of that business venture gave Arthur a taste for industry, and before long he was once again the boy who had taken so many jobs he could barely keep up with demand. He began selling peanuts and popcorn “on the side,” sometimes making as much as $20 on a given payday, when the men felt better