It was around 1930-'31. The big old brick factories lining the city's river bank stood like skeletons against a sky that always seemed to be gray. Their windows were broken or boarded up. Windblown trash rustled around rotting loading docks. Rusted railroad yards were overgrown with weeds.
Men passed by hunched over, bulky with sweaters and jackets under worn overcoats, stopping to talk, sometimes staring up at soot-covered walls as if hoping by some magic that their willingness to work would bring the sounds of industry back to life.
These were the scenes of our early days to and from school and during play. This was before an outside world came to our factory neighborhood in the form of New Deal programs, somehow turning the sky brighter, making us feel that someone cared.
A name we were to hear many times over until we were old enough to vote was Franklin D. Roosevelt, and we learned to understand the words spoken at his inauguration in 1932, "You have nothing to fear but fear itself."
But politics to a young boy living in a narrow corner of a crowded city came in the shape of some ruddy-faced, overweight, rumpled alderman promising new playgrounds, or city jobs for our fathers. You knew early in life from aware adults that the playground was a perennial promise and if there were any kind of job around the alderman would grab it himself or give it to a relative.
We lived in a big drafty wooden house and it always seemed like winter, even in spring.
There seems to be a giant invisible boot that comes down and grinds its heel into the back of the necks of people struggling to survive; there are few good mornings for those in poverty.
A 6-year-old brother named Billy was rushed to the hospital with a burst appendix, but with no money up front, the hospital was indifferent. Peritonitis was the statement on his death certificate.
A year later a 19-year-old sister was sent home from the same hospital with a raging strep throat, and we were sent to her bedroom one at a time by a mother out of control with grief, telling us to "say goodbye to your sister, she's dying."
I remembered kneeling beside her bed, reaching out to touch her blond hair and telling her I loved her and always wondering if she heard me.
My next mission on this snowy day was to run and get the priest to perform the last rites.
The parish house was two miles away and the priest said he couldn't come because we lived in another parish -- although my sister had attended his school.
I ran to a nearby French church and returned home with a priest, who was loudly barred at the door by an older brother who had taken a stand against all society that might have caused us to have to live this way.
Brother was forced aside by a silent father, who led the priest upstairs, grabbing for any miracle there might be.
There was no money for a grave; the ground was too cold for digging anyway. My sister spent the winter in an above-ground tomb where I knelt with my father on Sundays, feeling that invisible heel grinding away.
It was during a conversation between my parents that I first overheard the words "foreclosure and mortgage." An older sister explained we had lost our home through a combination of both.
At the time, there were between 13 million and 15 million unemployed, 1 million to 2 million literally wandering the country looking for jobs, hundreds of thousands sheltered only in tents or ramshackle dwellings.
Kids just expect the house to be there when they return from school or play, they expect food on the table even though it might be sparse, they expect a place to sleep when night falls.
But activities inside and outside our house signaled a chance. Men wearing suits and soft hats came and walked around, writing things down on pads.
Then one day came the painters, but they were three happy-go-lucky young Italian painters. They had come to redo the inside of the house.
Their happiness was contagious; they laughed a lot and talked about making the job last forever so no one would come to buy the house.
They sang while they worked and my sisters joined in until the din filled the hallways. Finally, my father would shout for a halt as if they were working for him and not the bank, but they obeyed.
They brought their lunches and sat with us at the kitchen table and clowned all the time, keeping us laughing.
Even the bill collectors who came to collect a quarter a week for something purchased against time did not seem to care when they were told to come back the next week.
A friend had a father who was a part-time waiter and had stolen a big container of caviar. I was invited to his house one day and he made a sandwich of the black gooey stuff and it was the worst thing I ever tasted in my life. Yet who could be choosy?
Once in awhile, unable to sleep, I would sit at the top of the stairs late at night and listen to my father and friends talk about a past president named Hoover and the new one named Roosevelt who promised hope.
But then the house was sold and we all pitched in one day to move, each carefully putting his belongings on the back of a truck while my older sisters and brothers clowned and sang, "Happy Days Are Here Again."
The house we were moving to was in another city and was owned by a man who had not been told about the many children in the family. There were 12 in all, though four died young. Whatever the precise number when the move was made, it was too many for the owner of the house, who stood firm in the doorway, arms folded, refusing to let my father move in the third and final truckload. So my father rented a nearby garage to store the last load.
Then something was settled between my father and the landlord and we were allowed to move in, even though there would be no heat or electricity for the weekend. Later I found out my father could not come up with the second month's rent for the garage so the garage owner took everything that was stored. We remained there a year before moving two more times in the next two years.
I remember that after Roosevelt became president a lot of initials became popular: NRA, CCC, WPA. And it was under the WPA that my father went to work digging ditches.
Each morning at dawn he would walk downtown, board a beat-up old bus and ride about 40 miles to an Army camp, work all day and return in the evening, tired and grimy.
On summer nights when it remained lighter longer I was allowed to go along with several friends to meet the bus, and the men would have apples or peaches picked from an orchard during their lunch hour, and we were as happy to see them as if they had just returned from the best job in the world.
Our table at home, though never one of plenty, became a bit fuller because of my father's paycheck and the "city hall handouts" of milk, dried fruits and flour. Some days there was a bonus of a few warm sweaters or material from which my mother could make garments.
I remember my mother on the mornings we took off to stand in line with the big white shopping bags with red letters on the side, "Not to be resold," and her words, "Take everything they give you." There were 20 million on public relief.
But although there was little work around for strong and willing but uneducated and non-skilled immigrants with large families to raise, spirits somehow stayed strong.
Families gathered around the radio to hear fireside chats. Eleanor's name and voice began to be heard, making people feel that they had not been abandoned.
Eddy Cantor was singing, "With a carpet on the floor made of buttercups and clover, all our troubles will be over, we can build a little home."
Entertainment came to the city: traveling opera companies performing on the high school football field, vaudeville troupes, theater groups, books and art exhibits, all sponsored by the WPA, making us aware of a world beyond our streets.
I grew up with Roosevelt and was able to make $6 a month, my own money, while going to high school and working on a project called National Youth Activities.
For years I was to hear how my father fought to keep his independence, a very strong man willing to work at his shoe trade, confused and angry at the conditions that forced him against an invisible wall of helplessness.
All of which made him a rare individual on the WPA: He voted for Alf Landon and became a lifelong Republican.
I was old enough to be part of an overflowing crowd on a blustery day when Roosevelt stood on a platform, and I heard him speak the words that would later come back to haunt him: "Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars."
But war came. During my early Navy days, I was chosen to be one of the honor guards at a birthday ball to honor Roosevelt. I remained at attention alongside Kate Smith who sang "God Bless America," and the second time she sang it, thousands joined her.
Roosevelt died in 1945 while I was serving aboard a submarine in the Pacific.
The murmur of activity became silence when the news of his death was read over the loudspeaker. In the eerie stillness, as each sailor stood quiet with his thoughts, I tasted the saltiness of a fallen tear.