Hard Times

“Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”

Lyrics by Yip Harburg, 1932

At the time of the crash, my grandparents were living on the second floor of an aging two-story wooden tenement on Portland’s lower east side. It was located down around the docks, near the old Hawthorne Bridge.

My grandfather hadn’t held a steady, full-time job in almost, a year. Their tight-fisted savings were dwindling. Nevertheless, after my mother’s breakup with Neff, they took us in without question.

It was a small, low-rent apartment. My mother slept on a pullout couch, or daybed, in the front room. I slept on a folding cot they put up in my grandparents’ bedroom. It was close quarters—but we had no choice. We all shared the one small bathroom.


My mother immediately started job hunting. Day after day and week after week, she followed every lead, every rumor, every idea—to a dead end. I think she did work one three-or-four-day stretch as a part-time waitress in a Southeast 12th street coffee shop. Then nothing. No job. Nothing. It was an agonizing time for her. I felt it. And I remember how I wished that I could do something to help. I was in my third school at the time—finishing up third grade.

Then the irrepressible Agnes Peterson stepped in. She helped my mother to get a job in Battuzi’s speakeasy as a hat check girl. It paid nothing. But Battuzi let the girls keep their tips. Agnes also invited my mother to come share her west side apartment. And my mother gratefully accepted the offer. However, with Agnes and my mother both working late into the night, I remained with my grandparents.

That was the start of a new way of life for me, It went on for several years. Sometimes I lived with my grandparents. Sometimes I lived with my mother. Sometimes I lived with my mother and friends.


In 1930, my grandfather, Jim Dewey, was approaching sixty. He was tough, stocky, hard-muscled, with a full head of shaggy white hair and bristling black eyebrows. His hands were rough and calloused. These were the hands of a laboring man.

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