Reliving the nightmare of the Depression

I lay in bed half asleep the other night visualizing a kid of about 10 hurrying home through the lingering twilight of an Oakland evening wondering if there would be anything to eat in the house.

There had been two days of no measurable amount of food in the rented duplex on 94th Avenue, and the kid had to depend on his own wits to get something to sustain him. Neighbors knew how poor his family was and fed him when they could, but that wasn’t very often.

So he copped food from Fred’s grocery store at the corner, sold stuff he’d stolen from Birdie’s Five and Dime and rummaged through garbage cans behind Hagstrom’s Market for produce they threw away. The kid got by.

I’m talking about me, of course. I was born in the heart of the Great Depression and have been thinking about it a lot as America slides downhill into economic darkness.


Fear of a new depression, or recession as we’re euphemistically calling it, was especially on my mind after watching President Bush on TV, pasty-faced and uncertain, telling us there was danger ahead. Greed had finally caught up with free enterprise, swallowed it whole and left the rest of us terrified.

It’s all anyone talks about now. Not the trillion-dollar war, not gasoline prices, not who won the Emmys or how the Dodgers are doing, but how long it’s going to be before the bread lines form and the soup kitchens open.

I didn’t sleep all that well when I was a kid either, lying awake listening to my mother crying and my stepfather full of rage because hard times had sucked the pride out of him. He couldn’t find work and he needed a drink.

All the signs are there for another depression. Look around: rising unemployment, collapsing businesses, sky-rocketing prices, a roller coaster Wall Street, edgy banks, a troubled housing market, fear gnawing at our souls, and the pasty-faced little man warning that if we didn’t do it his way we’d end up in hell. Whatever became of nothing to fear but fear itself?


I’m taking a hard look ahead in a very dark period, because we’re all at risk in these days of newspapering’s diminishing fortunes. It’s like a dream I often have that I’m driving through the night without headlights, unable to see where I’m going but unwilling to stop, taking a chance that I’ll reach my destination before there’s a terminal collision. The dream has become a reality.

In the 1930s, every time word spread through the neighborhood that jobs were open at a construction site or a cannery, my stepfather, Harry, would put on clean clothes and his snap brim hat and go down to stand in line somewhere for hours, only to be told that the job had been filled.

He took me with him once to show, I think, why he couldn’t get money to buy food or pay the bills; why our gas and electricity were turned off most of the time and why we had to move so often.

It was only after the Works Progress Administration and various other national relief programs came along that good times seemed to be on the way. We’d head to a school auditorium every week or so to pick up food and clothing. It’s where I finally got a pair of shoes to replace those so worn that the soles flapped when I walked. My mother kept putting new pieces of cardboard in them so, she explained, I wouldn’t get cut if I stepped on a broken beer bottle.

When Harry got his first job in years, it was WPA work in nearby mountains, where certain types of wildlife abounded. He came home that first day stinking up the house because a skunk had sprayed him. We laughed while my mother dumped his clothes in a tub of vinegar to get the smell out, but it wasn’t a funny family scene, really. It was symbolism: the noxious odor of an entire era.

Oddly, it was World War II that got the economy going again, when the shipyards opened and everyone had a well-paying job. Both Harry and my mother went to work in the yards and spent a lot of their wages on booze, troubled souls wounded by the time in America that wounded us all.

So I lay there in the night after Bush gave his vapid little warning, looking like he was about to cry, as much worried about his legacy as we are about just surviving. I kept seeing the kid who was me running through the darkness hoping there’d be dinner waiting. In a way, I guess I still am.