Chris Arnade on His New Book, “Dignity”

Michel Martin sits down with Chris Arnade, a man who left his job on Wall Street to spend four years crossing the country, documenting the lives of those he calls “Back Row America.” They discuss his journey, as chronicled in his new book, “Dignity.”

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Now, our next guest is someone whose ambition turned him away from his top job at the center of power and money. Chris Arnade worked as a trader on Wall Street for almost 20 years. In his free time, he explored neighborhoods like the South Bronx in New York. Armed with his camera, he met the people of those streets and used his photos to tell their stories. Inspired, he left Wall Street and went on the road. He spent four years crossing the country to document what he calls back row America. His new book “Dignity” is the culmination of that incredible journey. And our Michel Martin asked Arnade about stepping out of the rat race and into the human race.


MICHEL MARTIN: Chris Arnade, thanks so much for joining us.

CHRIS ARNADE: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Why Wall Street? What drew you there?

ARNADE: There wasn’t many jobs available at the time. I had a PhD in physics. I was looking for —

MARTIN: You say that like, “Oh, yes. Like everybody is that way.” Everybody has that. But I don’t know. I would have though with a PhD in physics that you could have had a lot of options.

ARNADE: At the time, there is — it came down to two option. One of the meterology, which I did for a little bit, and the other was Wall Street. And I was drawn by the challenge of Wall Street. I knew nothing about banking.

MARTIN: What did you do on Wall Street? What did you do there?

ARNADE: I was a trader.

MARTIN: You were a trader?


MARTIN: Presumably, you made a pretty good living?

ARNADE: I did. I did make — made a very good living.

MARTIN: I mean, at some point, as you were counting the books, you started taking long walks, and what drew you to Hunts Point in the Bronx?

ARNADE: Part of it was I was told not to go.

MARTIN: Told by whom?

ARNADE: Other bankers. You know, when I heard about Hunts Point it was always in a negative light.

MARTIN: What did you think you were going to find there and what did you actually find there?

ARNADE: I don’t want to further the stigma by saying what I think I was going to find. But I will say it was drugs and prostitution. The negative, decay, violence, all those things, those ugly stigmas. What I found was, you know, a community that was, for lack of a better word, beautiful and also very welcoming.

MARTIN: And when you say beautiful, tell me, what are you saying?

ARNADE: Physically — just physically it faces south with not a lot of large buildings. So, you’ve got beautiful light. Additionally, though, what I love is I love what I call almost industrial art, how people make art out of nothing. And Hunts Point has a lot of auto body shops. Has a lot of junk yards. The way they display the junk is artistic. And then what really drew me in were the pigeons. I see flocks of birds above and I kept looking at them and they look choreographed and the way they were flying and they actually were choreographed. They were kept by people on roofs.

MARTIN: How did you start photographing people there? You know, how did that start?

ARNADE: People would want me to photograph them. You know, I stuck out often like a sore thumb. I was a White guy with a camera in a neighborhood that was almost 100 percent African-American or Hispanic. And so, people would often come to me and ask me questions. And then when I —

MARTIN: Like what? Like what? What are you doing here?

ARNADE: Yeah. Simply, “Yo, what are you doing here?” [13:25:00] You know, as blunt as that.

MARTIN: And what did you say?

ARNADE: I said, “I’m here to photograph things. I’m here to look at pigeons. I’m here just to learn.” You know, and that would begin a dialogue where they would say to me, “Hey, I want to show you something. Oh, you said pigeons, you should see — go over there on Lafayette, there’s a guy on number 90 or 95, you’ll see it, you know.” And then, so, I would follow the instructions and I walk over to where they told me. I look up. If I see pigeons, I would just yell up to the roof, “Hey.” And sometimes I would just open the door and walk up.

MARTIN: So, what was your intention? Did you really have one? I mean, it just sounds in a way like kind of you’re on some sort of a vague quest that you didn’t really know what the it was that —

ARNADE: Some of it was driven by just simply the photography. But, again, it was very much what it became was that the people became the important thing and what I was mentally going through at the time, transitioning, I can say it, you know, I can kind of look back and think about it now was, the way I had spent my entire life learning and then making judgments based on that learning was from data. But I didn’t really know the people impacted by those decisions. And so, I was going through a process of talking to people and then learning from them and just hearing, you know. It was a different way of learning.

MARTIN: Tell me about maybe one or two of the people you met at Hunts Point.

ARNADE: You know, there’s two people I think about. One of them is, her name is Milly (ph). She has passed away. And so, eventually, my project in Hunts Point became spending time with the homeless and addicted. And Milly was a — she was a sex worker and she was a lifetime heroin addict. And I must have met her 12:30 at night. She was working the streets. And then I asked her her story and she told me her story. It was a pretty rough story. Heroin — introduced to drugs early 13, 14 after abuse. In and out of jail. In and out of rehab. Living on the streets for most of her 30 years. And then she told me about how she just been — she had just relapsed again. She had been clean for a year and a half. She had been clean for a year and a half because she had gotten pregnant and wanted — you know, wanted for her child to stay clean. She relapsed. Did a speed ball, a combination of heroin and crack. The baby was born early. The baby was taken away from her. And here she was back on the streets. Milly ended up — whenever I saw her, she had a bandanna that was all wrapped around her arm. And the reason she had a bandanna wrapped around her arm because she had an abscess that had taken over the length of her forearm where she would shoot heroin into and it had started — and it went septic eventually. And she ended up in the hospital and died from — The rumor on the street when she disappeared was that she had been killed. I actually put the leg work in and I actually went through all the hospitals and I found her, that she had died, unclaimed body. And if you die in New York City unclaimed you go to Hearts Island. I don’t know if people know.

MARTIN: It’s where people go when they have no one to bury them.

ARNADE: And you’re buried in a large trench. And I located her body there. And I went through the process of getting it exhumed so she could have a proper burial. But during that process of actually finding out, I found her relatives, I found a lot of her story. Everything she told me that initial night, a complete stranger at 12:30 in the morning was true. And it always struck to me as just one of those things where, you know, beyond being an awful tragic tale it’s also this person had no reason to tell me the truth, but did.

MARTIN: Eventually, this — I don’t know what you would call it, this hobby of yours, this passion of yours, really changed your life. I mean, you quit your job and you, what, set out across the country, right, not just focusing on Hunts Point but kind of going across the country.

ARNADE: Right.


ARNADE: First of all, there was a selfish part, which was I personally enjoyed this job more than I did banking. I was sick of banking. I didn’t like that way of thinking. Again, it was a very limited way of thinking, it’s very quantitative, it’s very cold, very solace. And this was a way of thinking and a way of learning that wasn’t. It also became something of a political process by which I wanted other people in some senses to see what I was seeing or to know what I was knowing because I thought that the way they were — the way our politics was aligned was not helpful. First of all, it was creating these problems. And second of all, it was ignoring them, and it was ignoring the depths of the problems. And when they came up with solutions, I felt the solutions were wrong. So it became, in some senses, a political process. You know, I did have an axe to grind in that sense.

MARTIN: So where’re some of the other places you went and how did you pick them?

ARNADE: I generally picked them by looking statistically at what was the worst place, the places that needed to be fixed.

MARTIN: By what standard? Like, homicides, poverty?

ARNADE: Poverty rates, homicide rates, overdoses, economic decline. You know, here was maybe four or five maps I used.

MARTIN: So you went to places like Milwaukee.

ARNADE: Milwaukee.


ARNADE: And when I went to Milwaukee, I went into the African-American neighborhood. I went to Selma, Alabama. I went to El Paso, the first ward, Lewiston, Maine.

MARTIN: Lewiston, Maine. So really all different — lots of different — like predominantly white, predominantly black, predominantly Latino in some cases.

ARNADE: I tried to find towns that were uniquely diverse, partially to see how – what I was seeing played out differently amongst different racial groups. So when I went to Lumberton – it didn’t make it in the book. It’s one of my favorite towns. I say, it’s (ph) Lumberton, North Carolina, which is one-third African-American, one-third Native-American and one-third white, and you know, it’s also in the poorest county in North Carolina, Robeson County. But you know – and I went there for a while.

MARTIN: So you’ve got a chapter – it’s actually chapter one -if you want to understand the country, visit McDonald’s.

ARNADE: Right.

MARTIN: Why do you say that?

ARNADE: I think a lot of – there’s this real misconception about McDonald’s amongst my class, of just being this place that pays its employees awfully and has unhealthy food, but it’s the lived reality for a lot of people. McDonald’s is often the only option people have. And for the people who have the – the most marginal people, people who most marginalized, people who living on the streets or addicts, McDonald’s is extraordinarily welcoming. It becomes a community center in many ways. It’s a place they can come in, sit for three or four hours, and get away – get out of the heat or the cold, recharge their phone, clean up in the bathroom, maybe even shoot up in the bathroom and also socialize, and rejoin society in a way that they’re just not stared at. I always say that, you know, if these people were to go on to a college campus, the police would be called, but McDonald’s welcomes them. And it’s more than just that. In some towns, like in Gary, Indiana, which I talk about in my book, it’s effectively the community center. It’s the one place where people come in and play checkers. They play dominos. They play chess. They, you know, just hang out, read books.

MARTIN: Yes, you can have a dollar, you could have a meal, one of the throughlines for a lot of people that you photographed and spent time with. Is it – there was a lot of addiction. What was the chicken and what was the egg in your view?

ARNADE: I firmly believe addiction is about – is about – not about supply. It’s not about what drugs are available. It’s about demand, and it’s about demand for – to ease a deep pain in people. And that pain generally comes from stigmatized or rejected, and there are very classic forms of rejection that lead to addiction. One of them is racism. I think you can go into any traditional African-American community that’s been like I went to, in Selma and North – and in Milwaukee, or Buffalo, where people have been confined to secondary everything by the color of their skin, and that’s a wholesale of rejection by society that, I think, is very painful, very humiliating and often leads to drugs. I think one of the forms of rejection that you find now in white communities, also, is education. To be uneducated these days is a stigma. We value education so much that I – actually, one of the things that I heard so many times, when I was in crack houses or when I was in drug dens, as people said, you know, I’d say, like you know, “Where – where’d you go to college?” And I knew the answer was I didn’t go to college, but I would ask out of politeness and respect, because I would ask everybody that question. And they would say, “Oh, well, I dropped out after 9th grade.” And I’m like, “Why?” He goes, “Oh, people call me dumb,” you know? And I could tell that that hurt, you know, and I can tell you that a lot of people who told me that weren’t dumb. You know, there was this one gentleman – he’s in the book – who got addicted to heroin, and a manual laborer, a white guy, in West Virginia. I think he said, “I don’t know my ABCs.” And he didn’t want to talk to me initially, because he was worried that he didn’t know how to speak well. He actually was one of the most eloquent people I’ve heard. He has – he has a real way with language, and I kept telling him that, and he didn’t believe it, because he’d, all his life, been told he was dumb, been told, you know, you can’t read and write. And I think more and more nowadays, because we sort by education, because we reward education so much, economically, I think that when who don’t necessarily do well in college, it’s just not who they are.

MARTIN: And school. Or just school, period. Formalized education, right?

ARNADE: Right. They’re not – that’s just not their personality. That’s not their skill set. That’s not the way their mind is wired. They don’t – or they don’t have the family support to be that person, because they have – you know, to be an educated elite, you have to have a supported family, often. You have to be willing to leave that family to move, and some people just don’t want to do that.

MARTIN: I don’t want to gloss past something that you talk about in the book, which is that after a certain point – at a certain point, you developed an addiction yourself.

ARNADE: I ended up quitting during the process.

MARTIN: Yes, and I wanted to ask you about that. What do you think that was all about? I mean do you think –

ARNADE: Selfishness. I – you know, I can try to – I can try to dress it up in all sorts of ways, and say I was seeing pain, but I like to drink. And I was around a lot of drugs, and I started drinking heavily, partially to – partially to deal, in some levels, with the chaos I was seeing, partially to fit in, to be honest. And I had to stop, and so, I stopped.

MARTIN: What made you stop?

ARNADE: A recognition that I was – it just was entirely selfish and I was harming people around me.

MARTIN: Do any of your family members say, “Chris, you know what?”

ARNADE: Yes, yes. And part of the reason I don’t write about it in the book, my actual – first of all, I don’t really want to make the book about me. I think it should be about the people I met. And so, I try to put them first. But second of all, my story’s been told many, many times by people. A wealthy person finds a drug addiction and gets clean.

MARTIN: He just stopped. That’s interesting.

ARNADE: So I don’t like to say I was an addiction because I was able to stop that way, you know? I mean I was sober, completely sober, for three years. I have (inaudible) because I can go back to doing that in my mind.

MARTIN: But I guess, is one reason you don’t want to talk about that is it – because it plays into a narrative you don’t like, which is that people could fix their stuff if they wanted to. Is that part of it?

ARNADE: Wealthy people can. I mean I didn’t want to go down that lane because I can – I can give you a 30-minute spiel of why I think, yes, wealthy people can fix them, but they have a massive support network. So I had a supportive family; I had money; I had stability. Often, when you’re an addict and you’re leaving on the street – when I first got to Hunts Point, I remembered I was naive enough, when someone said that’s my sister, I’m like, “Oh, what a coincidence. Your sister’s here.” It’s not their – it’s their street sister – they’ve been ejected by family, often because of awful abuse. They ran away early, and they built a street family, and the street family’s actually as important as a biological family. It replaces a biological family. That’s great. It’s this wonderful system. It’s actually a legal system. Like if someone – when Millie (ph), her sister got her possessions, what possessions she had. The negative of that is when you go to rehab – when I go to rehab, I can go, but I – had I gone (ph) – or a wealthy person goes to rehab, they come back to their family. If you’re living on the streets and you come back to your family, all your family’s addicts.

MARTIN: Tell us about another person you met, somebody who really stuck with you.

ARNADE: A young woman, probably 19 or 20, who was in a McDonald’s in East L.A. And when I would go to a town, I would spend every night in the same McDonald’s, writing my notes. And so, this younger woman was there every night with her computer, doing her homework, and her Game Boy and her phone, all three of them changed. And eventually she asked some questions about me, because she saw me there typing. And I said, “I’m from New York City.” And she was like, “Oh, I would love to go to New York City.” And I said, “Well, you know, you can. There’s a lot of great schools there.” And she says, “Well, I can’t,” you know, “I’m going to go to the local East L.A. community college,” I think it was. And she says, “Because I’m my mother’s translator.” You know, a Mexican-American; her mother, like most first-generation, didn’t speak English, and so, she, as the oldest daughter, was tasked with being the translator. And I think, you know, that’s an example of a case where I think we undervalue that decision. I personally think that she made the right decision. She should stay in East L.A., you know. And — and — and go to a local community college because she’s — because she needs her mother. Her mother needs her. I’ve met people who had the opposite who they needed their parents. And you know I think we — again, that — that pathway to success we — we still highly tell (ph) often requires people — you know it limits who can do it and requires people to leave their family.

MARTIN: Give me your final thought. I mean where do you want to leave us.

ARNADE: End of the day the — I think it’s the old narrative, before you judge somebody walk a mile in their shoes. You know if you someone who’s homeless or you see someone who’s addicted or you see somebody who votes the way you don’t vote; before simply saying what a jerk or what a lazy person or you know or they must have mental problems, spend 15 minutes talking to them. And you’ll probably find out there’s a lot more context to their story than you realized and the decision might be a little bit less crazy than you realized.

MARTIN: Chris Arnade, thank you so much for talking with us.

ARNADE: Thank you for having me.


About This Episode EXPAND

In an exclusive interview, Christiane Amanpour speaks to former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, as Britain readies itself for a new Prime Minister and what that could mean for Brexit and unity within the nation. Chris Arnade joins Michel Martin to discuss his new book, “Dignity.” Tim Samuels argues for a new way of dealing with a society plagued by toxic masculinity.