Always it was the Depression. Always it would come up in conversation, sometimes around the dinner table, sometimes wafting in from the parlor where the adults were talking, sometimes coming over from the front seat of the car to the back where the children drowsed, sometimes just a look by a relative, a hint that things had happened that now should not be talked about - things that seemed to matter very much. It was the time when someone lost a job or when someone moved in with someone else or when something happened in the family - something bad or shameful or maybe just plain weird, like someone going out West. You heard the term time and time again, like a holiday or something: The Depression. It had come along and it had changed things and nothing was ever quite the same again. It was cataclysmic, like an earthquake or some sort of storm and although it was not a specific date you dated things from it. It changed things. It changed economics and it changed politics and it changed government but mostly it just changed people - profoundly.
Maybe it is a trite thing to take 100 years, divide it into ten decades, and then write about one of them. Life does not allow for such neatness, such precision. Wars break out in mid-decade, the First World War, for instance, and people don't look at their calendars and say, "Oh my God, it's the Roaring Twenties." But the 1930s does lend itself to that kind of parsing. Not perfectly, of course, considering that the stock market fell in 1929 and the war did not come to America until 1941. But close enough.
And so you look at those ten years and talk to the people who lived them and the one thing they talk about is the Depression. There is no getting around it - no talking about Enrico Fermi and his splitting of the Uranium atom  or the rise of Hitler found and they may have changed more lives in the long run than the Depression. But no one in my house ever dated anything from the splitting of the atom.
The Grandfather. He had come over from Poland in 1912 and by the Depression he was more or less in the plumbing business - a fine business for a man who had studied nothing but his own religion. In my imagination, I see him behind the wooden counter, bins and bins of pipes behind him, a small man with a touch of a belly, wearing a denim shirt and work pants held up by suspenders. He is selling, because selling, really, is all he can do and when the Depression comes he can't even do that. The cousin he is working for lays him off, cuts back his work week, and so the smile vanishes and the belt is taken in and my mother who is even then looking for work herself makes a daily judgment - shall she spend her nickel on carfare or on lunch? The grandfather cannot help her. He is out of nickels.
The Banker. Now he has the back desk, the one that seems to be the prestigious desk, against the wall with the autographed pictures on it. All the furniture is Colonial-style - bank furniture, reeking of brass eagles and Mount Vernon patterns. The banker himself is a success, and he is telling me now about the origins of bank, about his father. The old man made a killing in Washington real estate, something like $240,000, and he called his wife and his son who were then at the seashore for the boy's health and he told them that they were rich.Oh what word! Rich! And then the old man took the money and and he put it in the stock market and he got wiped out in 1929. Poor then rich then rich then poor once more, but then rich once more when the war came and Washington needed housing and the old man supplied it. The banker threw back his head and smiled. Some man, his old man, he said with his eyes. He spat in the eye of the Depression. Some man.
On the day in 1932 when Franklin Roosevelt won the Democratic nomination for President, The Washington Post had exactly ten classified ads in its "Help Wanted - Male" section, fewer if you happened to be black. Some of the ads specified thatthey were for whites. One of the ads was a cruel joke since it said that men were "wanted" to come to the Empire Barber Shop for a hair cut - twenty-five cents, in case you're interested. The other jobs were for barbers and that pretty much was it. That pretty much was it elsewhere in the nation, too. Fifteen to seventeen million men were unemployed. In 1932, the unemployment rate was 23.6 per cent and it had not yet peaked. One quarter of the labor force was out of work. More than 5000 banks had failed and 273,000 families had been evicted frofm their homes. In 1932, according to William Machester's The Glory and the Dream , 683,000 persons were thrown off Southern Pacific Railway trains.
The Mother. It is the Depression and she is out of school and she has come over to Manhattan from Brooklyn looking for a job. She is young and very pretty, light-skinned and freckled and so she adopts the name of patricia Tyson, passing as Irish so a Jew with a heart so black he won't hire other Jews, hires her. She works for him because she can find work with no one else and every day she brings him his bicarbonate and takes his dictation. One day she finds another job and tells him that she is leaving. He asks why and she tells him in Yiddish that he is an anti-Semitic bastard. He reaches for the bicarbonate she hasn't brought and she leaves. In the Depression, you could not pick your employer.
In the 1930s, people starved to death. People did not starve to death figuratively, but literally, and other people kept count. In the 1930s, children could not be taught in schools because they were so hungry. In New York City, the health department reported that twenty per cent of the pupils were suffering from malnutrition, but in some of the Dickensian counties of what would later be called Appalachia, the figure approached ninety per cent. Eight years later, when the nation called its young men to the draft forty per cent were found unfit.The Depression had taken its toll.
Not everyone, of course. Not everyone was out of work or on the tramp or selling apples. And the fact of the matter is that if you could keep your job you could do all right. Things were cheap and getting cheaper, so cheap, in fact, that $5000 a year was a real princely sum and $33 a week, which is what my father earned, bought him a car and bachelor apartment and, from what you could tell from the old photos, weekends in the country with horseback riding. But there was no raise during that time, either, and a constant fear that things could go bad for you, too, and maybe a memory of what it was like to see the banks - the banks with their cathedral-like lobbies and their fortress vaults - close, sometimes just plain out of money.
The Neighbor. He is 81 now and he comes out of the house with his porkpie hat to look things over -his house and his lawn and his car and the things that make him pleasantly prosperous. His name is Joseph Daly and his father was a blacksmith down on L Street, NW, and his mother came from Ireland and by 1932 he had bought the house he is now living in. He paid $13,500 for that house and he worked for the Maritime Administration and he will never forget the day he saw the Bonus Marchers - World War I vets who had come to town prematurely seeking the bonus promised them by a once-grateful nation.
"They had squeezed them out to Anacostia," he remembered. "We saw them. Their parade with pitiful. To see those men who were so poorly dressed, some of them carrying babies. They made your heart ache. They were real sincere men." His wife, Betty, steps forward a bit. "We went to see them down on the Anacostia," she said. "The merchants were real nice. They gave them food and the restaurants prepared food. Everyone was real nice." They paused, both of them, and then related the history of the event - how Douglas MacArthur and his troops and his tanks and his cavalry pushed the Bonus Marchers out of Washington and put their encampment to the torch. Betty Daly remembers something, a Memorial Day in Arlington after the Bonus Marchers had been put to flight. "MacArthur showed up," she said. "Everyone left."
We are in the living room and we are talking and I ask if they were afraid that the Depression will come back, maybe not something as grave but something like it. Impossible, they say, it could never happen. Roosevelt fixed that with his New Deal and his governmental programs. Maybe. I know that is what people believe, but still . . . Maybe. In 1929, the unemployment rate was 3.2 per cent. In 1933, the worst year, it was 24.9 per cent and in 1939, the last year of the decade, it was still 17.2 per cent. It did not slip under ten per cent until 1941 (9.9 per cent) by which time, of course, we were almost at war and few seemed to notice that we never really liked the Depression. Like Lucky Strike Green, it merely went to war.
And never came back.