My Dad never lost an opportunity to tell us how hard he had it during the Depression. While he never actually said, “I had to walk 20 miles to school. Barefoot. Up hill each way” – he came close. Whenever I told him how much I spent on a car, how much I was in debt on my credit cards or how much I spent renting an apartment, he would always tell me how much he had spent on his first car, that he bought a house for what I was paying per year in rent, that being in debt was stealing from yourself. Anytime I wanted to drive Dad crazy, all I had to do was say something like, “You know, for only $6, it’s not a bad cup of coffee.” “Six dollars! For a cup of coffee!” And he would tell me how his father had to work six long days on the back of a horse to make $6.
He never got used to the prices. Everyone in my family can tell you exactly what the price of a gallon of milk and the price of a dozen eggs was in 1933. We all know what his first job paid in 1937 and how much it cost for a gallon of gas.
He’d never hire anyone to do something he could do just as well. Until they became metric and computerized, he’d do all the car repairs himself. “Hire a roofer to put on a new roof? When I can do it myself.” “Hire a painter to paint the house? When I can paint it myself?” “Hire an electrician rewire the house? When I can do it myself?” If he ever spent money on a plumber or a carpenter or a mason, I never heard about it. Now we’re on the brink of Depression 2.0, I wonder how today’s children will describe the hard times to their children.
“We were so poor, we only had basic cable. And we had to watch it on a 27-inch television. No HBO, no Starz, no Showtime. We couldn’t even afford the Disney channel. You kids today don’t know what poverty is. We were on the one-film-at-a-time plan from Netflix. Mom would drive us to school in a 2-year-old car. It was so embarrassing. We made her drop us off a few blocks away so no one would see it. You can laugh all you want, young lady, but we had to walk two blocks to school every morning. You don’t know what it’s like to be poor. You don’t understand the value of money.
“Instead of microwaving frozen food, Mom would cook stuff on the stove. She would buy bags of potatoes and rice and cook them on top of stove. Some nights all we had to eat was homemade chicken pesto or stir-fried vegetables and rice. Instead of buying chicken parts, she’d buy whole chickens and cut them up herself. You can’t imagine all the work involved. She’d pretend she was doing it because it was healthier, but we knew she was just trying to save money.
“We had to buy all our clothes at the outlet mall. Sometimes she would only take us there once a week. At Christmas, we were lucky if we got an Xbox or a Wii. We’d never get both and knew better than to ask. Instead of throwing our old computers out, Dad would sell them on eBay. We never knew until years later. He must have been so ashamed. He tried to pretend that we weren’t poor. Once he took us to a local theme park instead of the one thousands of miles away and tried to pretend it was a ‘vacation.’ Like we wouldn’t notice the difference. Actually, the local place was pretty good, but is it really a vacation if it’s cheap? Of course not.”
But even though we were poor and had to do without, we were happy. Because everyone was poor, everyone had to do without. We were all in the same boat. Except for people who caused Depression 2.0. They were on yachts.
Jim Mullen is the author of “It Takes a Village Idiot: Complicating the Simple Life” and “Baby’s First Tattoo.” You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright 2008, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.