The Second Avenue Deli School of Economics:
Lessons from the Great Depression
By Esther Rothman
On this very ordinary day in the last year of my ninth decade (as incredible as that may be), I sit down to breakfast with the significant other in my life, Charlie my cat. He's on the table in front of me, sniffing and pawing and trying to steal my extremely crusty leftover bagel schmeared (a New York euphemism for lightly coated) with cream cheese and layered with red radishes and onions
"How can you eat that?!" I can hear my sophisticated college-student grandsons ask me.
How can I eat that? Why, because my mother always told us kids that if we learned to like stale bread and onions and had some salt, we'd never starve. She didn't tell us we'd have to like it, but being the impressionable and adjustable kid I was, I did.
The Great Depression hit us when I was about 9. I remember knowing in the fourth grade that my president was President Hoover, and that he looked somewhat like an overstuffed baked potato, with dripping butter.
I remember men selling apples in the street who didn't look very stuffed.
I remember looking down from our apartment building window into our backyard, listening to a sandy-haired man singing "Marta, Rambling Rose of the Wildwood," a song made popular by Arthur Tracy, a radio singer who called himself The Street Singer. I was sure my street singer was asking for money because he didn't have a job and needed to feed his wife and children. To me, he was Father Damien curing leprosy in some godforsaken stench-filled island. Or St. Francis renouncing his wealth and feeding the poor. I reached into my mother's small brown change purse, which she usually kept in her pocket but was now on the bureau, and threw out a quarter strategically wrapped in a newspaper. I knew he'd see a mass of paper, when he might not see a coin the color of the cement.
I hope he fed his wife and children on the quarter because my mother, catching me in my act of compassion, gave me hell. What was I doing?! Was I crazy?!! That quarter was meant for a three-pound sack of potatoes that was to go with tonight's supper (we never used the word dinner) of boiled chicken feet. Or was it boiled brains?
My mother's reaction caused me to question for the first time whether socialism was a viable economic policy.
I remember going to the corner grocery run by Mr. Brezinsky and swinging a quart-sized tin can especially designed to carry milk, which Mr. Brezinsky ladled from a huge metal container, and saying very nonchalantly as my mother had instructed, "charge it." At the end of the month, my father would tally up the bill. My father paid with cash. I don't think I ever saw a check until I was about 13, when I worked in my father's factory during the summer to help out, as everyone in our family did. There I learned that checks often bounce, especially those from my father's customers.
That was my formal introduction to the evils of capitalism.
Despite my mother's influence, the idea of sharing wealth was implanted early on. My father was a confirmed supporter of the perennial socialist presidential candidate, Norman Thomas. But what did I know about Norman Thomas back then? I knew he was a good man. My father said so. He also told me I should learn about Eugene Debs—another good man. The thing was, as I understood it, those good men somehow seemed to land in jail regularly for protesting something or other. But if that was okay with my father, it was okay with me.