Depression Days

1 Nov

How we kids made a few honest bucks
in the Great Depression of the Thirties.

It was Summertime in the Year of our Lord, 1935. Frankie Burke and Timothy Mills, the biggest and heaviest kids in the eighth grade, strained at the ropes that bridled their iron wheeled wagon. Two kids in front fought to steer it down the menacing slope. Obscenities were allowed within the limits set by St. Peter whose church overlooked the drama. There were no cars coming uphill. Not ever. In winter there were bob sleds.

Two hundred pounds of assorted scrap metal, plumbing, batteries and copper and lead pipe lay in the wagon bed, ready to ride. Should the beast tear itself loose, it would hurtle down Chamber’s Street toward Katz’s sprawling junkyard — sweeping all from its path.

Unbound from gravity’s pull, the wagon, proud, home built and rebellious could have flown apart or wrecked a front porch or unseated an outhouse. Those who stood open-mouthed at curbside, prayed for the safe, weekly passing of the coach of many colors. Each creak and groan foretold the end. No one breathed and little kids were driven, wailing, into the house.

Every Saturday morning found the notorious, industrious Newkirk Avenue boys prowling railroad yards, abandoned houses and back street lots. The junk business in 1936 paid two dollars a load. Katz was an honest man. It was said that he had three eye balls and saw all things. He was tolerant.  Fifty cents for each in their pockets. Ten nickels. Five movies.


We were in our ‘teens and pre-teens’ and didn’t know we were knee-deep in the Great Depression. Nobody starved and we all looked clean, proper and respectful. As always, whole families dressed in their best and went to church and school, with hope and faith. Distant relatives talked to each other. Sometimes, they shared their homes. We made do: Reclaimed, recycled, improvised, helped our neighbors and gave what we could to the Salvation Army and St. Pete’s RC Church. Few ‘played the stock market.’ None leaped from a window when the banks crashed. Our Downtown Savings Bank prevailed though no one would dare ask for a loan. The Head Teller would never tell.

Every homeowner became a do-it-yourself handyman. Mothers became hair cutters and baby watchers. Work, handshakes and barter, not money, were our main currencies; we applied our labors as needed, if not for ourselves, then for our silent, needy neighbors. Earning, sharing, and saving were of equal weight, and if we kept count of our good deeds and quiet philanthropy we didn’t speak of it. Money management was simple; don’t buy if you don’t have to, and payor do without. Borrowing, except from family, was a weakness. Though the world shared our poverty, we didn’t know it. Our Depression was local, like pride and politics, though more acute south of the mid-town railroad tracks.

My sixth birthday came with the Crash of ’29, ten years after that most terrible war. We did not observe birthdays; we never had. When Prohibition ended in ’33 things got worse. Bootlegging had been a major employer. My father was electrician-in-charge of the underground brewery pumps. They fed booze into high speed boats which dashed South to Manhattan speakeasies.

My father’s advice was, “Find what needs to be done, that nobody else will do, and you do it.” The money and fame will follow and it did. At age 10, I picked up trash on the grounds of the hotel where my Grandmother was the chief laundress. It paid a quarter for two hours work after school. Four quarters made a dollar then. FDR demanded a minimum wage of twenty five cents an hour and was voted down. I could have tripled my income.

A third of our people were out of work, in transit to elsewhere or laboring beneath their abilities, prides and needs. All had part-time jobs and the Veterans’ network was as honest as circumstances and loyalties allowed. My father, a licensed electrical contractor painted park benches and flagpoles as a day-laborer. The Mayor made jobs for his WWI buddies. The talk of the day was  “You working? You got a job? They need somebody?” At night, over nickel beers the chatter was, “FDR will fix things; There’s talk about ….CCC, NRA, WPA. TVA”,,” Coolidge, Hoover and Roosevelt were blamed for everything. We common folk were victims of bankers’ and brokers’ greed; Veterans’ bonuses were stalled and the Great War was still hurting. Memories of the family dead lay unburied. We kids visited the Veterans’ Hospitals with our boxes of socks, soap, tooth brushes and cigarettes. We were not allowed into the consumption wards. The world-wide postwar epidemic took its toll by the hour. Influenza won all the marbles, and those who could manage, moved to Arizona or Nevada for the desert cure.

Our town was divided into rich, poor, transient and a fraction between. The old down-town, vintage 1630, and its rotting pseudo Victorian architecture was bull-dozed after WWII. Cheap looking, poverty- supporting Government paid housing replaced the venerable fire-traps. In a short while, the new boxes were replaced by high priced town-house apartments with real gas lamps at the curbs. New-comers said “what a quaint historical looking town. Maybe there was some history here.” If so, few remembered. I lived my early years in a stone house. Vintage 1770, replete with fireplaces and friendly phantoms. Washington probably stayed overnight. The English mother Kingdom burned old Kingston to the ground. We kids did not know that our Town was once the Seat of government of the colonies. All that remain are the restored cold stone houses.

It took time and determination to mobilize FDR’s Save-the-Nation programs. With all their faults and waste, they put people to work and restored self-worth. No doubt, Franklin was determined to bankrupt the nation. Socialism had many meanings. For some of us it meant a cardboard box filled with food.

Fathers and sons shoveled snow and dug ditches on opposite sides of the City trucks; everyone capable of doing anything got paid, just enough. The timekeepers on the job were brutally protective. The town was never cleaner. With Rural Electrification my father and I installed wiring and electric light fixtures in the mountain farms. There was a run on plugs, glass insulators and copper cable. We were paid in food, lodging, gas and a few WPA dollars. The

young and healthy farm girls were painfully kind and tolerant of us, the cheerless itinerants. For me, there were skills and attitudes learned, fresh-air vacations and cold, rich milk. Evenings were story telling time, we kids were accepted by the farm hands. Without the Depression, I would have missed that.

Wealth began with a dime for the Cowboy Matinee and another for ice cream or pop-com. There were no weekly allowances and back-to-school shopping meant new hand-me-downs. Few people went to the Church rummage store. It was low class to do so. Did we have no pride? We did but patches were patches. Grandmothers knitted sweaters and mufflers, wildly colorful from recycled yams. For kids, rewinding yam kept “the Devil’s hands busy.” Heaven knows what they would have done otherwise.

When someone needed help cutting bushes, whitewashing a fence, digging up a planting bed or splitting wood, the family grapevine came electric. Age and experience were no barriers. Attic and basement cleaning meant discoveries. Usually we could keep or sell the good stuff. One kid founded an antique business, built on faded and dusty gleanings. Such jobs paid a quarter plus a bowl of soup for a half day’s labor. My rich cousins did no work but would lend dimes and quarters for a percentage. At age twelve I helped my grandfather mix cement for sidewalks. In return, I could use his work shop. “Learn something,” he said. “Stop reading books.” He was an avid reader. He taught me that all things are learn-able and possible, a calculated, measured step at a time. My grandfather instilled curiosity about everything. There was no greater gift.

There were no meaningful child labor laws, payment for injuries, and no excuses for not showing up. Two guys were ready to take your job. Home remedies worked or didn’t. Hot salt in a dirty sock cured a cold. Cod liver oil raised the dead. Neighborhood prayer invoked greater powers. Religion and national origin meant nothing. My uncle worked two shifts at the lumber mill without complaint. One shift was unpaid overtime. My stepmother worked in a sewing sweatshop till nightfall and then rode the open trolley home. She saved wooden thread-bobbins which became my toy soldiers. Imagination provided all else. Kids invented and built toys and played street games in those days. Can we now imagine life without computer games and picture phones? When I joined the Army all I owned was tossed or sold, then my father’s wife left him. She tried to make it work and he didn’t. When I was overseas she sent me a rum soaked fruit cake. It was recovered from a sunken cargo ship in Doba Dura harbor, salty but good with tar-black coffee.

The Depression meant opportunity. Money could be had if you could pick, dig and carry whatever grew above or underground. The pay might include the produce of the day. A dozen ears of com served us for a week. Potatoes and onions were abundant and pumpkins were for making pies and soup. In apple season everyone who could get to the groves by sun-up was hired for the picking. We could barely lift the long ladders but we learned two-man teamwork. The Swedish foreman was quietly everywhere to prevent damage. The repair of a sprung ladder came out of your earnings. We picked until sundown and cleaned the trees, even during the sleet storms. At dark, we went home in a Model T truck bed, shuddering under wet canvas, cash in hand. In a good week I earned the price of a mackinaw coat.

We didn’t know what the rest of the nation was undergoing: that two and a half million people moved out of the Mid-west Dust Bowl and lost their farms. Or a hundred million acres of farmland died. Spying at the hobo-jungle camps was disheartening. We didn’t know the difference between hoboes, aimless wanderers and those struggling to start their lives over again. Whole families lived under the railroad bridges, waiting for a slow freight. They caused us no problems and were quietly protective. We worried about their kids and old people and brought them vegetables for the Mulligan stew pot.

Frankie’s father’s German bakery was the sweetest place in town. We waited on the porch hoping for free hot rolls. Mr. Rehr’s Jewish bakery sometimes hired Frankie. He delivered breakfast buns and rolls before school and smelled of something freshly baked. Adamski’s comer clothing store hired me to sort winter overshoes into pairs and sizes. At the end of the day I got high-top Arctic rubber boots with buckles and a jackknife. I was overpaid for the mix-ups I caused and he never hired me again. I was not good at sorting.

Billy Smith watched for road projects. He served lemon-ice-water from a galvanized bucket to the sweating laborers, asked no payment and happily accepted a nickel a cup. Huey worked before dawn, before school. He rode the back step of a milk truck, made up the orders and delivered them to a box on the porch. He made three dollars a week; a seven day week. Many kids had two jobs. Huey also worked filling paper coffee bags from a two hundred pound barrel: half, quarter and full pound. Precisely.

Summer brought better jobs. River Boat travelers from New York City carried tons of luggage which we moved to the trolleys and busses for a nickel a bag, no matter how big or heavy. Working in teams, we tripled our money. Big boys muscled in; some were grown men, hustling for nickels and dimes. A dime bought a beer and a hardboiled egg at Moultrie’s. Mrs. M. made outsized sandwiches and a small beer for me and her son. We did her floor cleaning and probably did not do it well.

My best friend, Sol, got a dollar a week for sweeping his father’s shoe repair shop. Sol was also my behavioral advisor and source of fantastic knowledge about girls, I had my shoes resoled for free until I grew out of them. No one bought new shoes if the old ones could be fixed. All shoes had potential. If shoes were too big, you wore extra socks. I wore my uncle’s ‘funeral shoes’ to High School graduation.

Mr. Arthur Smith, our Church caretaker let me set pins in the downstairs bowling alley. I could pick up four pins at once and have them set just before the ball smashed into the pins, and often, me. But, I made a nickel a line and the bowlers threw a quarter or more down the alley if I did a good job. I made more money in a night than my father made in a week. I never got a free dime in my years in school. Food, clothing and bed were enough. While living with religious relatives, I gave two cents a day for the Church poor-box. We dreaded the brown cloaked missionaries. I accidently gave them a dime and sulked for a week.

There was a broad scope to our labors and acquisitions. Thievery was alright if no one was harmed, embarrassed or deprived. Some was clearly illegal: salvaging plumbing from abandoned houses, taking iron scraps from the railroad yards or nails from a building site. Ten of us together moved a truck engine block. When opportunity called we shared our home-built wagons. Some had rusty iron farm wheels we’d found.

Job-tipsters were everywhere, especially relatives with city connections. By mid-thirties there was a booming market for newspapers, rags, lead, copper and brass. What looked abandoned was ours to sell. The junkyard operators weren’t picky unless a dumb-head tried to sell back what he’d swiped the week before. We looted an abandoned warehouse at night and buried our Treasures in St. Mary’s Cemetery. The former internees were long gone. A rival gang dug up our night’s work but the police caught them in the act. Crooks.

Grocery delivery was clean, honest business. The grocers had the orders filled and ready with the charge written on the bag. Nobody cheated and delivery boys owned their territories. Payment to us for deliveries was not guaranteed. It might be negotiable. When I bought my first bike, I found a basket which I fastened to the handlebars. It held four grocery bags, was top heavy, almost uncontrollable and a hazard in traffic. My needy customers often chose to pay me later, though a few forgot. I was not so obsessed with money as I was for independence. Mr. M. paid me in stolen candy bars which I sold at two for a nickel. It was alright since he was a wounded and gassed veteran of WWI. His son did no regular chores or odd jobs yet always had money.

We dragged our wagons to City Hall for the weekly handout, some for our own use and some for neighbors who had the proper tickets but couldn’t get to the City Hall Garage. We trekked the back streets and tried to be invisible. Uptown kids didn’t do that. Handouts and kindness were humiliating and kids were supposed to be immune from that; grownups tried to avoid each other, but setting pride aside, you could make a dollar on each trip. The clerk might toss in an extra grapefruit if you looked remorseful enough. The clerk, usually related to a city official, was a power to be feared. Sometimes we were robbed by bigger kids on our way home. It was a kind of sport for them to beat up little kids and smash their wagons.

What we did was mostly honest, sometimes venial, and not a sin to be told at weekly Confession. I believe the retailers and shops invented work for needy kids to keep us guiltless. Deliver this and that. Sweep up. Paint a wall. Stack firewood. Do what needs doing. Roy opened crates and boxes, and filled the shelves of a grocery store. That paid his way through high school. Bob had a newspaper kiosk at age eight. The pharmacist hired him when he went to high school. He worked four to ten, then mopped floors, all for three dollars a week and ice-cream sodas. My friend David sold a quasi religious opinion paper on busy street comers. He sinned by association and was disgraced. At other times, he shined shoes in Boston’s business district. In my town we shined shoes for Christmas and Easter.

Our labors gave us unforgettable lessons: people could be generous, gullible, clever, devious and cruel- and we learned about pride, patience, persistence, the limits of trust, and money management. Franklin said a penny saved is a penny earned and something about early birds and worms. We made a dime scream for mercy and we kept coins in jelly jars for household purposes or emergencies, like the overdue electric bill. We paid our bills, not always on time, and the bankers were tolerant. Mr. Costello sold haircuts, burial insurance and a number bet all for fifty cents, and he cut hair right in your own kitchen.

The secret of survival (one of many) was to avoid payment for anything you could get for free like the weekly boxing matches, carnivals, or by gathering dropped fruit in the orchards. Farmers and cops were forbearing. You developed a nose for opportunity. Sneaking in was an art. When the carnivals and traveling tent shows left our town, kids scoured the ground at sunrise for anything of value. Fistfights were common. Discoveries were few.

Most of us had regular duties that paid our rent. We didn’t take cash for doing family chores. I lugged kerosene bottles up three flights of stairs, two or three times a week. For that I got warmth. One friend, Jerry, a farm boy tended the family’s roadside grocery after school until dinner at nightfall. His mother took every penny and gave him enough back for ‘pocket money.’ When he started high school, she gave him a bank book with all the money she’d saved. Jerry and I carried the flags in the Armistice Day Parade.

A few school mates milked cows before boarding the school bus. The barn-odor stuck to them. Farm families sold what they could and they ate well. Gilbert was paid five cents for each chicken he slaughtered. Annie got two cents for each egg she found. I got ten cents for each scuttle of coal I picked from the railroad tracks. The railroad firemen would toss us a few shovelfuls. Six cents was the standard price for splitting cast off wood into a neat bundle of kindling for the kitchen coal stove.

Mel caddied at a private golf course where Jewish golfers were generous tippers. He also sold lost golf balls. Though the Depression didn’t discriminate the resorts did. Chris became a bottle collecting tycoon. Bottlers paid two cents for a returned bottle. He paid one cent per bottle to all the kids he could recruit, and got a penny net for each one, sometimes a dollar a day. It was hard work and his collectors were seldom honest.

In the evenings, we gathered at the homes of our aunts to do brainless work like counting hairpins, buttons or safety pins and fastening them to printed cards. There was a new kind of ‘carding’ every week. We made flowers from tissue paper and planter pots from tin cans. We made necklaces and bracelets to sell at church affairs. We played cards, dominoes and checkers and told stories. Most important were the family problem solving, homework helping, job-talk and spiritual advice gently given. We felt safe. We listened to the Lone Ranger, the Shadow and the Green Hornet. We listened to FDR speaking from his fireside. No charge. No phones. No TV. They were good times.

With age, we got smarter and stronger. We could smell the cheaters. We learned both sides of trust. In winter we shoveled snow from the sidewalks and porches of older people. Many had no money beyond their ‘relief’ check, always late, lost in the mail, but they paid us with hot apple pie, home-made bread or a jar of jelly. Good enough. The nuns where I did yard work left cookies or a sandwich and a few pennies on the porch even though they were sworn to poverty. Their devotion was priceless.

School lunches were an expense we could live without. Bag lunches lacked creativity (peanut butter and grape jelly from the commissary) but allowed us to share, compare and socialize. Mrs. Frisbee’s five-cent apple pies were a treat, also the beginning of the Frisbee tossing craze. We envied those classy uptown people who went to Ambrose’s diner with real money and the fanciest girls. It was the place to be. We’d watch through the windows and act like starving comedians. Our uptown has now moved downtown, to town houses along the riverside (once the railroad make-up yards) where they now park their motor yachts. We used to shoot river rats that infested the sunken hulks.

Mrs. Kohler owned a news and coffee shop next to St. Peter’s school. She was my blind friend Tony’s mother. Each day we poorer kids were publicly paraded to Mrs. Kohler’s for a free breakfast: fried egg, a buttered roll with onions and a carton of milk. It was humiliating; nobody talked. Mrs. Kohler gave me unsold magazines for my nighttime reading. Her other son, Joe, made a few dollars as an amateur boxer. He never won a bout but looked great. He was also the bouncer at the Orpheum Theater when we needed taming. Joe went into the CCCs, and later became an Army officer.

On winters’ nights, my father and I knitted fishing nets. It was tedious and had to be perfect. We got ten to fifteen dollars for a week’s work, a month’s rent. After a heavy rain, we’d collect ‘night crawler’ worms and sell then for two cents each, a dozen in a nice paper cup. No one had a paper route. Downtown was hardest hit by unemployment, so we got our news by radio, rumor or the newspaper at Moultrie’s Saloon. There were no ‘help wanted’ ads. A hint of hiring at the boatyards, the stone quarry or the brick works would draw a crowd for sweat labor. You had to pick up and load six hot bricks at a time, right out of the oven. I lasted one morning.

The cigarette market was small scale but profitable. We’d buy twenty for a quarter or so and sell them for two or three cents each. Some neighbors tried to cut into our business by rolling cheaper cigarettes in tin machines. They contained floor sweepings from the tobacco barns, or so we hinted. Ours were real filter free Camels which in later years would tear out your lungs. Hey, business is business. We sometimes mixed Bugler pipe tobacco into our cheaper products. Powerful stuff. We never heard of drugs, the cigarettes were bad enough. My cousin Jack gave our neighbor kids smoking lessons.

Nineteen thirty seven was my first year in high school, and my first notice of girls who were not cousins or players on the park’s softball team. Girls were a money problem. If we met at the Campus ice-cream shop or Jason’s hamburger heaven, we painfully picked up the tab. We were not big tippers. The juke box was free and played without stopping. The ice rink, roller skating palace, a hot chocolate and a stopover cost a dollar for two. These weren’t exactly dates; they were a cautious exploration of exotic territories. Uptown girls didn’t go there. In the winter, squeezing into a steamy booth with the giggling queen of the day was worth any price. If we’d had computers, picture phones or television, we’d have missed those covert adventures.

Like many small towns, ours had lots of places where you could have a good time without money. My uncle Joe, a Fire Captain, rebuilt an aging fire house, just for teenagers. It was the place to be. We had fourteen beautiful parks and the Directors, Ruth and Ben, demanded self-reliance, courtesy, volunteer work and sharing. When they needed labor for some good cause, they got more than enough. We were a good gang. Work, play, family, Church and school were our daily check-points. The Depression may have been the best of times.

For part of two summers I worked at West Point Military Academy as a dining room attendant. We wore tuxedos. The pay was eighteen dollars a month, sixty hours a week. We ate like the Cadets, something we could never imagine. The experience is still sharp. I loved the Army and my Cadets would soon be the Nation’s leaders in WWII. In my senior year, New York State gave me a real after-school job at the City Library for eighteen dollars a month. I would have paid for the privilege. Adding to that elevated state, my father loaned me his car with which I ferried young ladies to their social affairs. That business taught me much about ladies. They weren’t ladies. However, they filled the tank. Everyone benefitted and the car smelled nice.

There were other jobs, like stock handling at the W T Grant store during the holidays and assembling bikes and wagons. The customers were generous with tips and I delivered quality. Working in the Department stores taught me much about building counter displays and merchandise layouts. I spent one vacation month at a knitting mill, hauling four hundred pound crates of yam, stacking them in high racks and almost getting killed when they toppled. My friend Dan and I worked embossing machines in a paper mill on Saturdays. It was tough labor for two dollars a day. I made more than that labeling jars of olives, pickles and cherries. The fumes from the big cherry vats were intoxicating and I’d stagger home, comfortably drunk.

By 1938, things were looking up for the USA and looking downward as Europe was pummeled by German Panzers and Stukas. We collected bundles for Britain at the weekly dances. After graduation in 1941 I worked in a furniture mill. It’s what I wanted to do forever. Everyone was working, the fog at Moultrie’s Bar lifted. We had money. We were graduates, wearing loud sport coats, no longer in the junk and delivery business and adult jobs were begging. Wives and mothers filled the worker ranks.

A few school mates joined the services because no serious employer would have us. “I’d hire you; you look like a nice kid, but you are draft bait.” In November, I decorated store windows for the Holidays. On December seventh, as I worked on a Christmas window display in the soda shop, the radio announced, in a quavering voice, that the Japanese fleet had struck Pearl Harbor without warning. Thousands were dead. We were at war again. The Depression ended, money cascaded and our world went up in flames. Franklin D. Roosevelt said we had nothing to fear but fear itself and Winston Churchill danced in London’s streets.

One of our guys was always scrounging cans and packages of food that had been thrown away. He collected anything: crackers, cigarettes, powdered coffee, lemonade. Name it. He was a walking grocery store in his backpack. If you experienced the American made, Japanese anti-aircraft guns at Ft. McKinley, you know how they raked over everything. They even exploded on the high grass; well we were running for the next cover, a shallow ditch. I saw this guy go down, hit in the back, destroyed. His pack had exploded, rubbish and all and it flew in all directions. He screamed. Next thing, he was up and going forward again with his shattered pack flapping against his ass., but it was minus all that other stuff. Stuff that saved his life.


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