Great Depression also tough on youth
Editor’s note: This is the first of two parts.
It was a sweltering August day, and a stricken horse lay prostrate on its side in the street. When I say horses in the streets were an everyday sight in my childhood, the average millennial might assume I was born in the last decade of the 19th century or at least in the first decade of the 20th century in some small town located on the prairie. The Wild West would come to mind. However, I’m referring to the streets of New York City in the third decade of the 20th century.
The horse in question was still attached to the vegetable vendor’s cart. It was 1938 and I was five years old during the height of the Great Depression, living in the Bronx. I don’t know if the horse had died or simplyfainted with heat exhaustion. The peddler was slapping the horse in the face, yelling and cursing at the stricken animal in a futile attempt to force it to stand up. My mother explained to me that horses employed by fruit and vegetable vendors didn’t belong to the men who used them; the peddlers rented them for the day. She told me the man probably hadn’t fed the animal (it cost money and loss of time) or watered it because he wanted to cover as much ground as possible and sell all his produce as quickly as possible. The rented horse and wagon and his investment in the vegetables themselves represented a great financial risk. He could either make some profit at the end of the day, or lose money. Money, of course, represented food, shelter and clothing for the middle-aged vegetable man and his family.
But my mother was just as dismayed and angry as I that the vendor could treat a dumb animal with such cruelty.
Ironically, she thought the man should be horse whipped.
Of course, at the time I had no idea how dire the economic conditions were. Looking back, I realize we were luckier than many others in that era. My father was employed at Lazar’s, a large dry goods store located in Harlem at 125th Street and Lenox Avenue.
Being employed, I now understand, was not something to be taken for granted during the Depression. Much later I learned that before my father had met my mother, he had been unemployed for a period of time. That was a phase of his life when he had to decide whether to spend a nickel for the subway to take him downtown to look for work, or to walk several miles to save the five cents in order to be able to buy something to eat at lunch time.
We lived in a three-room apartment: one bedroom, living room and kitchen. I slept on an army cot behind an upholstered chair in the living room. It didn’t seem odd to me that strangers came to our door on the second story to beg for food.
My mother always gave them something. I detected a look of sadness come over her when she dealt with beggars. Also a look of fear. She kept the chain on the door fastened and passed the food to them through the small space between the door edge and the doorpost.
We had moved to the Bronx from Jersey City when I was 3 years old, and my mother always felt that the my birthplace (and hers) in New Jersey was inhabited by people who were completely trustworthy, whereas any part of New York City was questionable.
You couldn’t tell whom you could trust or who might wish to harm you. It was a strange prejudice when you think that Jersey City is just across the Hudson River from lower Manhattan. Once, when riding a train of the Hudson Tubes under the river from Jersey City to New York, a man stood to give my mother a seat. She whispered to me, “He must be from our side of the river. A New York man wouldn’t be such a gentleman.”
In those days, many people on both sides of the Hudson shared mutual prejudices. My father’s eight sisters and brothers lived in the big City, where he too lived until he married. There was a definite feeling of superiority the New Yorkers had with regard to New Jersey people. Some of my father’s siblings remarked that my Mom was an unsophisticated “country girl.” This attitude betrays a certain provincialism, a definite lack of sophistication, on their part. The irony of the situation is heavy.
In those days it seemed perfectly normal to me that several times a week a man in the street would yell at the top of his lungs, so his voice would reach everyone in the six-story apartment building, “I cash clothes!”
This meant that he would pay for used clothing, which he would later sell for a slight profit. Occasionally a man called the organ grinder would stand below the window and play a tune. People would wrap a coin in paper, to stop the coin from rolling away when it hit the sidewalk, and throw it down to the music maker who, after the tune was completed would bend down and pick up all the paper-covered coins and move on to the next building. At other times, someone on the sidewalk would play some tunes on an accordion, or a harmonica, or the ocarina, a small wind instrument popularly called the sweet potato, because of its brown color and shape. At times a man would sing well-known songs through a megaphone. The usual rain of paper-wrapped coins would ensue.
Next week: Part two.
Clark Zlotchew is anuthor of fiction and non-fiction and a Distinguished Teaching Professor of Spanish at the State University of New York at Fredonia.