Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? Fourth in a series
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 23, 1999;
Page C1 It's not like you go out on your porch and see the Depression standing there like King Kong.
Most neighborhoods, things look pretty normal, not that different from before the Crash. Paint peels on houses. Cars get old, break down. Nothing you'd notice right away. Kids play with their Buck Rogers ray guns. You go to the movies on Dish Night you like the Fiesta Ware, very modernistic, red and blue.
Definitely, you read in the papers how in Chicago unemployment hit 50 percent, and men were fighting over a barrel of garbage; or in the Dust Bowl, farmers saying they'll lynch judges who foreclose on their property. That kind of thing. It's terrible.
But most places you don't see it. Roosevelt can say: "I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished." That leaves two-thirds where you don't see the hobo jungles, people lined up for government cheese.
You feel what isn't there: It's like on Sunday afternoon, the quiet. You don't hear carpenters driving nails, you don't hear rivet hammers going in the city. Fewer cars in town, just the stoplights rocking in the wind. You don't hear as many whistles: factory, railroad. You don't hear as many babies crying. People are afraid to have them.
Down the block there's a man you don't see outside his house on workdays. He doesn't want the neighbors to know he's out of work again. Smoking cigarettes, looking out the window, waiting for "Amos 'n' Andy" to come on the radio.
He was a sales manager for a train wheel company, back when the railroads were buying 1,300 locomotives a year. In 1932, they don't buy any. The company lets him go.
He takes a job selling insurance. Insurance companies know you can sell policies to your family, your friends. When you can't sell any more, they let you go.
He sells vacuums, then encyclopedias, door to door. He ends up spending all day at the movies. He won't let his wife apply for relief. He's too proud. His son quits high school he's out West building a national park for the Civilian Conservation Corps, $30 a month. He sends most of it home so his mother can get her teeth fixed. And put dimes in the chain letters she mails out.
People write songs about tramps "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" but you don't see them unless they come to your back door; people say they make a chalk mark on your fence if you're good for a handout. You've never found the mark but they keep coming. You wonder how they survive.
One guy's feet are coming out of his shoes but he's got a new tweed overcoat.
You say: "Glad to see you got a warm coat."
He says: "I got it raking leaves for an undertaker. They're good for clothes."
You see the Depression in the papers, the magazines and newsreels: heads getting busted during strikes, dust storms burying cows, Reds parading through Wall Street with their fists in the air, shouting "bread, bread," or Huey Long, the Louisiana Kingfish himself, flapping his arms and shouting about "every man a king," Roosevelt looking over plans for electric power dams in the Tennessee Valley, his cigarette holder pointing up the columnists say "at a jaunty angle." And the lines: in front of soup kitchens, relief offices, banks that are failing. And cute stuff: Kids hang a sign that says "Depression" on a snowman and throw snowballs at it.
The Yankees win the pennant. Jesse Owens makes the Olympic team. Soldiers goose-step in front of Hitler or Mussolini or Stalin. Hemingway in the Spanish Civil War, glamorous in that manly way that took over from everybody wanting to look like boys in the 1920s, including the women.
In the new styles, women have waists and busts again. They aren't supposed to look bored anymore, either. You don't get a job, relief, whatever, looking bored. Hemlines go back down. People say hemlines go up and down with the stock market, but that's hooey. The idea is to look more mature. Women's hats, though feathers, veils, flowers. You read how a woman in a New York tearoom put a bread basket on her head and nobody knew the difference.
From the Crash until Roosevelt took office in 1933, everybody tried to keep living the way they had been living. It didn't work. Things had to change. Now Fortune magazine says the Flaming Youth of the 1920s are gone and we've got "a generation that will not stick its neck out. It keeps its shirt on, its pants buttoned, its chin up, and its mouth shut."
If you're older, during those good years you felt like a self-made man, so now when you're cleaning out your desk, boarding up your store, you feel like a self-ruined man.
The preachers and businessmen all have something to blame: moral breakdown, a natural cycle, the Wall Street short-sellers, the installment plan, high tariffs, low tariffs, the British, the Russians. That didn't use to be the American way, to blame anybody but yourself. Lot of things have changed.
Your father's job was to build towns, raise wheat. Your job is to buy things. A poster shows a guy with a lunch bucket and a paycheck, his wife smiling at him. The words say: "When You BUY an AUTOMOBILE You GIVE 3 MONTHS WORK to Someone Which Allows Him to BUY OTHER PRODUCTS."
If you ain't got the mazuma to spend, you don't count.
You hear a husband and wife arguing.
"Why don't you fix cars?" the wife asks. "Every time I go downtown I see a new garage, everybody's car is breaking down."
"I'm not a car mechanic. I'm a machinist," the husband says.
"It's money," she says.
"That's the sad part," he says. "Back when we got married, I had a trade. I'm a machinist. Then they bring in the efficiency experts with their clipboards, timing every move I make. They turn me from a machinist into a machine. I say, what the hell, it's still good money. Then they take away the money. What a mug I was to think we were on Easy Street. What have I got left?"
"You've got a wife and kids wearing cardboard in the bottoms of their shoes," she says.
"Take in a show," he says.
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