A lesson from the Great Depression: Don't complain, make do

I'm old enough to have lived through two Depressions, one as a young boy and the current one as an octogenarian. Defining a depression depends on comparing the one we're facing now with the earlier one. They bear little resemblance.

Life was slower and less complicated during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Money was in very short supply, and what little we had was spent only for absolute essentials. The young, myself included, were too innocent and ignorant about the prevailing conditions to care. The word survival was an adult problem. Nevertheless, we, a family with seven siblings, were fortunate enough to have a radio, which drew us into a fantasy world by listening to The Shadow and The Witch's Tale with her entrance via a squeaky door. At times these radio shows were frightening but an anticipated diversion. We had nothing resembling the technical devices in use today nor the problems they sometimes create. Even telephones were for the "haves," and party lines were shared by several subscribers, if you could even afford one. Our family had neither a phone nor a car but we did not feel deprived.

I remember when, on rare occasions, a clerk from the grocery store halfway down the block would rush to our apartment to tell us that there was a call for us on their phone. A family member would respond quickly, hoping the caller was still on the line. At that same store my favorite chore was buying milk scooped out of a large metal dairy container and poured into my lidless pail. I tested not only the law of physics but left the neighborhood kids gasping in awe when I swung the pail in a complete circle without spilling a drop. Also, during the 1920s and '30s, dried food, displayed in large, open bins, would be deemed unsanitary by present standards; perhaps we became immune to unknown bacteria, as we were seldom ill.

The friendly mom-and-pop stores provided credit for indigent people. It was an honor system whereby the shopkeeper wrote into his ledger the customer's name and amount due. In today's world that system would solicit disbelief and laughter. And speaking of merchants, I remember the itinerant merchants with their horse-drawn wagons and the rhythmic sound of horse shoes against cobblestone streets. I can still envision women dressed mostly in black, symbolic of perpetual mourning, exit from dark tenement hallways like a flock of eager bats leaving their caves and responding to merchants hawking their wares.

I remember how streetwise kids found diversion in invented games still played today like stickball, kick the can, ringolevio, one ol' cat, boxball, Johnny on a pony and others. The Catholic Youth Organization, located on my street, provided indoor activity during summer heat and winter cold but most of all, we kids were privileged to see Yankees games a stone's throw away from where we lived for 10 cents. Those were the days of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Bill Dickey, Phil Rizzuto, Frank Crosetti and many others. The memories still linger.

I remember when cars had hand chokes, hand cranks, the irresistible rumble seat for two at the rear end of the car and running boards to hop on for a short joy ride. Although unsophisticated, those cars were still a luxury. Traffic jams were a rarity thanks to effective trolleys, buses and a citywide subway system. Of course, busing kids to school was unheard of. We walked unaccompanied without fear. One problem was the winter cold that penetrated meager layers of clothing, which prompted one of my teachers to buy me a warm jacket. Holes in the soles of shoes were insulated with form-fitted cardboard cutouts.

A policeman was a respected neighborhood watchman and protector as he leisurely patrolled the streets, twirling his nightstick. He gently patted small kids on the head and smiled at mothers sitting on tenement stoops, breast-feeding their infants. The local policeman was looked up to as the ultimate legal authority. During the hot and humid summer days, the older kids opened the fire hydrant and pressed a flat wooden board against the opening to send a broad shower to the other side of the street. Kids, relieved from the heat and screaming with delight, alerted our neighborhood cop, who patrolled somewhere in the vicinity. We sheepishly grinned at his gentle scolding. When he was out of sight the hydrant was turned on again.

I remember that food and some necessities were in short supply but I never felt denied even though I sometimes went to bed hungry. Stale bread, soaked in water, doused with olive oil and vinegar and spiced with salt and ground black pepper, was a real treat. I did not know until my adult years that the stale bread was the family's inability to provide a normal meal at times.

During holiday seasons local charitable organizations provided bags of nourishing food and a large turkey per family. The long waiting line was flanked by large drums with fires that sent waves of warmth to grateful people. Most memorable were the volunteers melodically repeating "Merry Christmas, merry Christmas."

It was a time of awakening, a time of renewed vision, a time of families facing the unexpected and troubling conditions, learning to hope, pray and cope with patience. Our strength was tested as a society and we prevailed.

At the ripe old age of 88 can the past be ignored and forgotten? Hardly. Were they the good old days? Maybe.

John M. Angelini is a painter and writer living in Hudson.

A lesson from the Great Depression: Don't complain, make do 07/28/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 28, 2010 12:36am]

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