As I remember it, the Great Depression came quickly.
My father suddenly stopped wearing suits and going to an office. We moved from a house to an apartment. After a while, he left the house wearing a brown uniform with a leather clip-on bowtie. He had connected with a job as a service station attendant at an Esso station. He pumped gas and wiped windshields. That didn't last very long. A few blocks away, the Socony station put up a sign saying, "Six gallons for a dollar!" The owner of my father's station countered with a sign saying, "Six gallons for 99 cents!" That worked for a few days until the Socony station posted "Six gallons for 98 cents! In less than a week, both gas stations went out of business. My father threw away the leather bowtie. We moved to a cold-water flat over a tire store where the rent was $5 a month. It was called that because there was no heat or hot water.
For kids like me, too old to be underfoot and too young to be in school, the Depression became a challenge. It was important not to be an added burden to our parents and we became self-sufficient quickly. My first order of business was to scout the empty lots that dotted the neighbourhood for discarded wooden boxes or anything that looked combustible. Cooking and heating in our flat was performed by a large, wood-burning stove in the kitchen. Buying wood was out of the question. The best source of wood was the empty crates outside the fruit and vegetable markets. That discovery also led a few of us kids to a solution to a common problem: always being hungry. We became adept at unashamedly stealing potatoes from the baskets outside a market. We'd target a different market each day, saunter past in twos or threes, and while one of us distracted the shopkeeper, the others pocketed the potatoes. We'd take them to an empty lot, build a small fire and bury the potatoes in the ashes. When we couldn't wait any longer, we'd dig them out, scrape off the black soot and eat them. More often than not, they weren't fully cooked, but it didn't matter. They were a filling alternative to the rations that faced us when we got home.
For the longest period of time, most of our meals at home revolved around Heinz ketchup. No Depression home was without it. Thinned with hot water, it served as a tasty soup. Add a kaiser roll (three for a nickel) and it was dinner. Poured straight from the bottle, it became a sauce for spaghetti. Lathered on a tough piece of cheap beef, it helped the chewing and made the meat palatable.
I never twigged to how my mother knew I was eating roasted mickeys, as we called our charred potatoes. She finally told me the tipoff was the rim of black around my lips and my teeth. She never asked how we got them.
A few odd jobs that my father found helped pay the rent and a little more. And somehow, my parents always found something to laugh about, which kept our spirits up. Then Roosevelt was elected and promised change, but it was a long time coming. I continued to scour the streets for empty pop bottles that returned a deposit of two cents each. We searched the trash bins outside bus stops and subway stations for newspapers that still had the White Castle coupons that appeared from time to time, offering six hamburgers for 25 cents.
As time went by, I got older and taller and began my schooling, I needed some new clothes and my parents took me to the Lower East Side, where pushcart vendors offered bargains in clothing. I remember that whatever we bought, it was always a size larger than it had to be, so I could grow into it. For years, I had one pair of shoes, from Thom McAn at $3.95, a major investment. As a result, they were periodically refurbished with soles and heels by the local shoemaker until I could no longer get my feet into them. Somewhere I have a fading photograph of a class picture, where all the boys were supposed to wear jackets. I didn't own one. One of the girls lent me her jacket for the picture, out of concern, and if you look closely, you can see that I'm the only boy with a jacket buttoning the wrong way.
In those years, my father's daily routine was predictable. Each evening, around 8 o'clock or so, he would give me a nickel to buy the next day's Daily News and Daily Mirror, which were two cents each. The next day, the papers, both tabloids, were just the right size to stuff inside your shirt or sweater as insulation against the cold. Pages were folded small enough to fit inside shoes and provide an added layer of protection from the rain or snow.
Each morning, my father would shave early, dress, have a cup of coffee and take 25 cents from the Maxwell House coffee tin that contained our fortune. On his way to the subway, he would stop at the newspaper kiosk on the corner and place a 10-cent bet on a horse. The kiosk operator was our local bookie, an arm of the Mafia family that controlled gambling in the neighbourhoods. Subway fare into the belly of the city, where most of the agencies with job postings were located, was five cents each way. On his way home, after the usual uneventful job search, he would stop at the local bakery and pick up three pieces of pastry for a nickel. It sometimes took the place of dinner.
We were down to a handful of quarters in the coffee can on the morning my father stopped at the kiosk to place his daily bet. A car pulled up and an expansive, well-dressed man stepped out and proceeded to collect the proceeds of the previous day's bets. He stared at my father and said, "Jay?" My father nodded and said, "Vince. How the hell are you?"
They had grown up together in Harlem, when it was predominately Jewish and Italian. They had been friends together as kids.
"How're you doin'?" Vince asked.
"Not good," my father replied.
"You went to college," Vince said. "I remember."
"Columbia," my father said.
"How're you with numbers? Still as good as ever?"
My father had been a math whiz, to the amusement of the kids on his street. "Still good," he said. Vince said, "We need someone to run a horse room in West New York, New Jersey. Handle all the bets, the odds, the payouts. You interested?"
"I'm interested," my father said.
"It's with the Family," Vince said. "You know what I mean? You got any trouble with that?"
There was no hesitation. The cold-water flat would be a thing of the past. There would be new shoes, instead of another set of soles and heels. There'd something on the table besides Heinz ketchup.
"When do I start?" my father said.
Stanley Colbert is a former literary agent and head of HarperCollins Canada.