People born after The Great Depression have little idea what it was really like. The suicides. The joblessness. The locked banks against people trying to get their money out. The stock market that wiped out millions. The fear that hovered like a poisonous fog in the air and in our hearts.
My mother, a young widow, worked for the City of Cleveland in the Engineering Department. But the city was so broke it paid its employees with “script” which was about as useless in the world as Monopoly money. So every payday she put my nine-year-old self in the car and sent me into grocery store after grocery store to ask if they took script while she waited in the car at the curb. When I finally got a “Yes” she would go in and buy the groceries.
Potatoes were a penny a pound. You could feed a family for a week on five dollars. Cars cost $500 and had a terrific “rumble” seat that opened on the top of the car. Rent for a three-room apartment cost $60 a month. Movies were a quarter; a dime for children.
Thousands of evicted and homeless families lived in the misery of tent camps called “Hoovervilles,” named after President Hoover, who, rightly or wrongly was blamed for the Depression. Hungry people waited in long lines for “Hoover Stew;” newspapers were “Hoover blankets;” broken down cars, “Hoover Wagons.” And as if even the heavens were affected, huge black clouds dumped layers of sand and dust over everything and everyone in Kansas and Oklahoma, killing cattle with famine and people with dust pneumonia. Moving East the storm dumped four million tons of prairie dirt on Chicago.
Still, in many ways it was a better America. There wasn’t today’s underlying anger and bitter political conflict or the polarization in Washington, or the abyss between the rich and poor. Everyone was in the same boat united in mutual struggles and shared experiences. And in 1933 when Franklin Roosevelt defeated Herbert Hoover and became President the country trusted in his New Deal with confidence and optimism. With his inspired leadership we were like family looking out for each other as our friends and neighbors worried about us. Even Al Capone opened a soup kitchen.
The contrast between that time and this is graphic and disturbing. The 2016 Presidential
campaign’s display of meanness and vicious division border dangerously on destroying America’s values of civility and respect. The elegant experiment of democracy that is America’s unique story and the envy of the world is being damaged by unprecedented suspicion and venality. No matter what happens on November 8, America’s future must not be the loser. Surely we do not need the disaster of economic failure like the Great Depression’s to find America’s soul.