Ron continues his narration. Denver’s sincerity and seriousness with which he treats friendship makes a deep impression on Ron. Ron agrees not to “catch and release,” and the two of them shake on it, becoming the new “odd couple.” Ron and Deborah start going to the mission several times a week, Deborah to spend time working with women and children, Ron to spend time with Denver. Whenever they go to a museum or café, Denver puts on his “preppie disguise” of nice enough clean clothes. But when they are in his own neighborhood or only going to Starbucks, Denver dresses as he prefers to, “conspicuously poor.”
Denver’s use of a “preppie disguise” and return to “conspicuously poor” clothing reveals that he is more comfortable in his own environment. The streets have become his home, feeling safer to him than whatever new place Ron may take him to.
During their coffee meetings, Ron learns about “twentieth-century slavery” and the way that Denver and people like him have been controlled through ignorance, debt bondage, and slavery by the Man, “of whom Denver’s ‘Man’ was only one among many.” After the Emancipation Proclamation was passed, legal “Black Codes” were enacted to use a number of tricks to keep people enslaved. When those were disbanded, sharecropping developed, creating new levels of poverty for both white and black families, but especially for black families.
This is a critical moment both for Ron’s development as well as the development of the Man as a symbol of oppression and modern slavery. Through Denver’s willingness to share his story, Ron begins to see a whole new side of America and recognizes that slavery did not end with the abolition. The Man does not represent solely the slave masters of old, but any person or system who oppresses people like Denver, benefiting from their exploitation and preventing them from escaping poverty and bondage.
As Ron learns, he becomes enraged about the Man and hates him, telling Denver’s story to “anyone who would listen.” However, after some weeks, Ron realizes with shame that his granddaddy Jack Brooks had not been so different from the Man. He did pay an actual wage, but he still discriminated against his black workers. Despite the oppression Denver received from the Man, he does not hate him but recognizes his right to make money from his farm, saying, “If everbody was rich, who gon’ do the work?”
Ron’s realization that his granddaddy resembled the Man suggests that all white people, even if they hate the concept of slavery, have in some way participated in or been adjacent to its continued practice.
Denver proves to be a wealth of such practical insights. Ron gives Denver his phone number and address, and they keep spending time together. Looking back, Ron realizes with shame that he viewed himself as an “indulgent benefactor” who gave Denver time he could have been using instead to make more money. Ron also worries that Denver will be saddened to see all of the luxuries that Ron has that he will never own. However, Denver is unimpressed by most of the luxuries of the wealthy and maintains that neither Ron’s nor Denver’s lifestyle is any better than the other’s, only different. When Denver sees how many keys—and thus how many possessions that must be locked away—are on Ron’s key ring, he suggests that perhaps those things own Ron, rather than the other way around.
Although Ron takes time out of his week and spends his own money on Denver, internally he still views himself as superior. Even if it is only in Ron’s head, this perceived inequality between himself and Denver reflects the inequality between people that racism and slavery were built upon. That Ron could hate an idea such as slavery, yet still unknowingly reflect it in his own psyche demonstrates just how deeply such ideas penetrate American society, which is how they manage to persist centuries after the Abolition.