A New Deal

During the early days of his new administration, FDR’s contagious optimism seemed to hit everybody. Even the kids. I can remember sitting on the floor in front of our Atwater Kent radio, listening along with my grandparents to his intimate fireside chats. Using the new medium of radio like a master, FDR took his ideas directly to the people. These were “radical” unheard-of new ideas—like unemployment benefits, social security pensions, federally insured bank deposits, and a federal jobs program called the Work Progress Administration (WPA).

FDR, also demanded the repeal of prohibition.


One day Emma insisted that I had to learn how to dance. I insisted that I didn’t.

“Who needs it?” I sneered. (Ballroom dancing was not a 6th grade measure of success in the rough and tumble school yard at Buckman.)

She kept after me and kept after me and finally cajoled me into trying. She cleared out some chairs in the front room. Then she put a recording of Hoagy Carmichael’s new hit song, “Stardust,” on the Victrola. The name of the band on that old recording escapes me.

She had me stand and listen to the feel of the music. She showed me how to hold the girl without crushing her. She demonstrated the basic box step. And that was the start of it. Her reluctant student was ready for his first awkward lesson.

“Okay, here we go.”

“Sometimes I wonder why I spend the lonely night… dreaming of a song…” Hey, this isn’t so bad. “The Nightingale…sings its merry tale…and I am once again with you.”

“Very good. Very good. Now let’s try it again.”

With Emma’s patience, wry humor and professional touch, it finally started coming through to me—after several’ sessions. The rhythm, the steps, the feel for leading. The basics, at least. And this was none of that Arthur Murray, Lambeth Walk kind of stuff, or The Big Apple, or the Jitterbug. This was Honest-to-God, hold ’em in your arms kind of dancing.

(I’ve always thought calling it the Fox Trot was a misnomer for anything so smooth and mellow.)

Eventually, I forgot almost everything Emma taught me. But some of it came back a few years later when I was swept up into the high school maelstrom.


At the flat on Taylor Street, Agnes and Emma put together a simple celebration dinner the night my mother came home with the news she’d landed a job as an elevator operator at Meier & Frank’s department store. She had quit her job slinging hash at the all-night diner.

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