Hard Times

Thousands of homeless families lived in Hooverville “shanty towns”—vast clusters of wooden crates, tar paper, tin and cardboard, jammed under bridges, in dry creek beds, culverts or wherever they could huddle. Longlines of men, numbering in the hundreds, could be seen constantly crowding employment offices and factory gates or applying for relief, or lined up at the soup kitchens or in the bread lines—long double lines that went all the way around the block. Bands of hungry teens roamed the country like scavengers, begging or stealing food. Crowds of men and women rode the freights and rails, searching for jobs, food, or any small semblance of a settled life. There were hunger riots in several cities. A growing class struggle. Widespread disillusionment. Unrest. Even talk of revolution.

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I knew it was hard times for us, too. But as a kid, I didn’t question it. In no way did I consider us poor. In fact, if anyone had told me we were poor, I would have been astounded. There were so many desperate people much worse off than we were. Besides, everybody around us seemed to be in the same boat.

We got along.

My grandmother made every scrap of food go a long way. We seldom had leftovers. Although I do think she sometimes made a little extra just to pass along to an elderly Jewish couple who lived next door.
They were having an awfully hard time making it.

No complaining was called for, however, in our family. During those troubled times, there always seemed to be a bowl of oatmeal or cereal on the table for breakfast. For supper, I remember that we ate a lot of macaroni and cheese, biscuits and gravy, and such things as soups and thinned out stews, fish on Friday, all kinds of vegetables, baked potatoes—lots of baked potatoes—beans and rice. For a special Sunday dinner once in awhile, we’d even have fried chicken, or a pot roast, and one of my grandmother’s fresh-baked apple pies.

Our local grocers, a pair of Armenian brothers, helped out their regular customers in the neighborhood. They’d let us have overripe bananas, and other fruit, too, just before it turned rotten. That’s the moment when the flavor is intense and at its best, anyway. In that same vein, I would often get to bring home wilted, unsold vegetables to go in my grandmother’s pot of “Mulligan Stew,” simmering away on the wood-burning stove. We had no gas or electricity for cooking.

We got along.

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