The Great Depression and my Mike

Kathleen Ochshorn’s husband, Mike, poses in front of an apartment they rented in Dubrovnik a couple of years ago.

Courtesy of Kathleen Ochshorn

Kathleen Ochshorn’s husband, Mike, poses in front of an apartment they rented in Dubrovnik a couple of years ago.

My husband Mike was born in 1920 and recalls the Great Depression vividly.

Although I wasn't born until 1950, his experiences affect how both of us navigate life and decide what matters.

Mike grew up in what was then the lower-middle class neighborhood of Brooklyn called East New York, in a brownstone his family owned. His father managed the United Repairing and Renovating Co. in Manhattan and kept his job throughout the period. So Mike's family had food to eat, clothes to wear. His mother was careful not to waste a thing, though; and his grandfather, then in his 90s, started a vegetable garden in their backyard.

But Mike saw much privation all around him. He claims that when marshals evicted people from their homes, the neighbors broke off the locks and moved the families and their belongings right back in. As a boy, he remembers several suicides on the block — for the insurance money.

His first job taught him how hard people were having to work for next to nothing. It was 1938 and unemployment had once again spiked to 19 percent. He was hired to drag racks of clothing around on Eighth Avenue in Manhattan, 10 hours a day, six days a week, for a dollar a day. But by the time he paid his subway fare from Brooklyn and had a modest lunch in the Automat, that dollar was gone. He realized grown men with families would have gladly taken even that job.

As a child of the Depression, he's still a collector of anything potentially useful — every penny and even the occasional sturdy rubber band he finds in the road. All the plastic containers we bring home with restaurant leftovers are washed and stacked neatly on the screened-in back porch. He assures me they sell two for five dollars in the supermarket.

He's a great cook and introduced me, the Anglo-Irish one, to many Jewish specialties like matzo ball soup. He makes his out of the wings of cut-up chicken he saves in the freezer. His soup has light, puffy balls, seasoned with rendered chicken fat he simmers in onions.

Even though we live in Florida, he still has his World War II, Army-issue woolen long underwear. So if it is the next ice age and not a global meltdown that's on the way, he's prepared. All manner of screws and bolts are sorted into old condiment jars on the back porch. I recently discovered he keeps old three-way Mogul bulbs for the antique torchiere lamps if they're not burned out at all three settings.

His grocery shopping is a model of frugality and organization, with all the coupons he has clipped, sorted, and the weekly specials highlighted on the grocery store inserts. The checkout women compliment him on his typical savings of $40 to $50 when he does a big shopping. For smaller shoppings, he walks to the grocery store, which helps account for his lean physique, and also saves on gas.

Now after 32 years with Mike, I come to the current recession fully prepared, or at least knowing he's prepared for the worst. Thanks to him we've avoided debt. He hates to pay interest on anything. Unlike many folks my age, he also has a healthy mistrust of the so-called financial services sector and never assumed the good times would roll forever. He talked me out of getting a financial adviser a couple of years ago and I find we've fared better than my friends with them and saved the fees. That's partly because, though I make most of the investment decisions, his skepticism has been contagious.

Mike was my English professor in graduate school and we ended up dating several years later. I hadn't expected we'd marry because of the age difference, but I was drawn into his world. He's a Romantic with a capital "R" period — like Wordsworth and D.H. Lawrence, he shuns the techno-modern world and celebrates nature and the natural. His happiness does not rest on owning things. He's most at home in the backyard with the citrus trees, the cardinals and the Turk's cap bushes.

His authority rests on years of storing up information, thinking about big ideas. And his vast collection of books reflects both his broad education and his Depression-era habit of squirreling away anything we might use again someday. Being surrounded by this library is like being wrapped in a warm cloak of art and knowledge in this era of truthiness and sound bite.

Mike's pack-rat mentality extends to saving articles he considers useful and stashing them in related books. I recently got around to reading Jonathan Lethem's the Fortress of Solitude, a book I'd purchased a couple of years ago, and found four articles by and about Lethem neatly folded in the text, even though Mike hadn't read the book.

Sometimes I do get frustrated with his frugality, like right now when he's hoping our noisy kitchen faucet will cure itself and we'll save on the plumber's fees, especially after unclogging a drain recently cost us $300. My mother likens the sound the faucet makes to a foghorn in New York Harbor. Mike claims it makes no noise if you turn it on gently, just so.

But he loves to spend money on things that really matter, like good food or travel. He considers the investment in something like first-rate smoked salmon very reasonable.

Partly because of his frugality, we've been able to take wonderful vacations, in the early days even a two-month Eurail Pass tour of Europe. When we hopped from place to place, we'd go to the tourist bureau when we arrived in a town, ask for the cheapest clean place to stay, preferably in the historic center of town, near the major cathedral.

In San Sebastian during the Feria — when the bulls chase crowds through the streets — we rented a spare room in a family's apartment. In Granada, our room was up three steep flights of stairs with a view of the Alhambra. The well-worn mattress dipped in the center like a hammock. In Lagos, in the Algarve region of southern Portugal, we also rented a room in an apartment. Our elderly hostess served us an aperitif and insisted that she crochet me a brown shawl that buttons at the waist, a style then very popular with Portuguese women. I paid for the yarn and my shawl arrived several weeks later, neatly packaged in brown paper. I wouldn't trade these memories for stays in four-star hotels.

I've been thinking of Mike daily as this Great Recession grabs the world by the throat. For years he's said that at least the '30s taught people the human values of helping one another and accepting responsibility for the greater good. And while many people my age seem to expect a quick fix to our mounting crises, he anticipates that things will get much harder first.

He does not live in the world of instant messages and tracking the Dow moment-by-moment on a hand-held device or a computer screen. He takes the longer view. And to him, this country has been living in an age besotted by materialism, where everything and everyone has a price tag. He's been saying that really tough times might jar us in some good ways. Let's hope he's right.

Kathleen Ochshorn is a freelance journalist and professor of English and writing at the University of Tampa.

The Great Depression and my Mike 05/09/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 9, 2009 4:30am]

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