Saturday, October 25, 2008

You Can't Make This Shit Up!

Depression? Don't tell me, I was there!

By Bill Wundram

With the ups and downs of the stock market and bailouts, there are rumblings of another depression.  It gives me the shakes (And poor man's gout...dropsy...the vapors...dum dum fever...the staggers...). What I’m telling you, boys and girls, is that the Great Depression of the 1930s was awful. The pits (Thanks, Opie.).

Grownups today worry about credit card debt while sipping $4 lattes. But they still buy lattes.  Every other kid in high school has a cell phone.

During the Great Depression, you scraped to buy MJB Coffee for 39 cents a pound (And we never used a cup. We had to drink it out of a rolled-up newspaper...or suck on a damp piece of cloth.), and plenty of Tri-City (before we became the Quads) homes did without their telephones because they couldn’t afford them.

I remember.  I was just a little kid, and grew up to a punk during the Great Depression. I would wake up to the hoot of the whistle atop Davenport Locomotive Works, where no one had a job because the place closed.  But the whistle blew daily at 6 a.m.  It was supposed to be a lame reassurance to its west-end workers that some day, they would again have jobs.

I would peek out the pantry window and see our next-door neighbor, Frank Bauer, sitting on the back steps looking at his shoe strings.  He used to work at the Locomotive Works but now had nothing to do (So he looked at his shoe strings? That's the best he could come up with?  What about a quick game of stickball?  Or kick the Irish?).

I remember how my Dad was such a soft touch for hungry hobos.  There was supposed to be some secret mark on the sidewalk, or a check on the side of a house where the dog was friendly, or occupants were good for a handout.  If the transient, no matter how shabby, wore a necktie, my Dad invited him to sit at our kitchen table for hot java and a sandwich.  He believed the necktie was a sign of an ex-businessman whose life had gone sour.  Hobos without neckties would still be fed, but they had to sit on the porch to eat (Translation:  The necktie-less (or not) black guys sat on the porch.).

Just about everyone was on a downer.  One out of every three Tri-City residents was out of a job.  There were no such things as unemployment checks or Social Security (Aaahh, the good old days...).  If you lost your job, you were out of luck. My Dad had lost his job.  How he scraped up enough money to open a corner grocery store, I’ll never know.  He kept a bone box under the butcher block.  Raw bones were tossed there, to give away to destitute families for stewing (Take that ham hock with some carrots and onions and you got a stew goin'.).

Grapefruit was cheap.  I remember one father saying, “If the kids want grapefruit, they’ll have to put on salt.  I can’t afford sugar.” (THAT'S why my mom dumps a shitload of salt on her cantaloupe!)

The Great Depression left me with stinging memories of thrift.  I had only two outfits to wear to school — a green sweater and a maroon sweater — for a whole school year. (I never pictured a smelly Bill Wundrum.  Now I have.  Thanks.)

There was no money for entertainment.   Once, we took the nickel trolley downtown to watch an artist sculpt statues out of sand beneath the Government Bridge (Yes, yes, yes. It was a nickel.  And people made $3000 a year then.  They average $45,000 a year today and a bus trip is probably $.75 now in the former Tri-Cities (glurp).  Same rate of inflation, you dope.).  He worked for whatever coins sympathetic people dropped into a tin can. I remember his creased, sad face.

The Tri-Cities was like Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath,” because people traveled in beat-up contraptions called cars (That's why they're similar?).  One bearded geezer camped with his cart of goats in Blessing’s Gardens, selling postcards for two cents.  He gave me one because I fetched his goats some water (One trick is to tell them stories that don't go anywhere.  Like the time I took the fairy to Shelbyville.  I needed a new heel for my shoe so I decided to go to Morganville, which is what they called Shelbyville in those days...goats?).

The only good thing I remember is my Dad following the advice of his hero, Franklin Roosevelt, who said during one of his fireside chats, “Cheer up. Go to the movies and see Shirley Temple.”  We all piled into the old Essex and saw the dimpled darling sing, “On the good ship Lollypop ...” (Thank you for allowing me to write this.  It is a tribute to this great country that a man who once took a shot at Teddy Roosevelt could ramble on in a newspaper like the incoherent, crusty old man I am.)

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