The Second Avenue Deli School of Economics

The Second Avenue Deli School of Economics

Lessons from the Great Depression

By Esther Rothman

July/August 2009

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…

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