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A little After October 23, 1929
Ernie and me were eleven years old when the shit hit the fan. Like the first
symptoms of a fatal disease, the Depression hid its ugly face from us until
the following spring. From then on we saw things that I hope no child will ever
have to see again. We saw poverty up close, The kind that makes your hands
sweat and your legs turn to jelly. I will never forget, and I'm sure that
wherever Ernie may be, he hasn't forgotten either.
There is a haunting look in the eyes of a photographic portrait, a
sharecropper lady from the thirties taken by Walker Evans .... it's titled
Burrows." I can see my mother's eyes in Annie's and the panic they both shared
holding their families together and living from day to day. Children should not
see such eyes. Once they've seen them, they too will fear what tomorrow may
bring to them even in the best of times.
From a family of three wage earners we were down to one, and that one, my
father, was down to half pay. That's what they called it -- "half pay." You
worked the same hours, maybe more, but you were cut down to half pay -- take it
leave it. So my mother got an Annie Mae Burrows look in her eye, a look I had
never seen before.
Ernie's family had it tougher. There were just three of them and there was no
pay at all. They got their food from St. Theresa's Roman Catholic Church on
Classon Avenue. The landlord let them stay in the tenement and his father kept
the building clean .... this way the owner could fire the janitor.
You could buy a new house for $3500, a new car for $500. It cost a nickel to
ride on the subway and a first class stamp was 2 cents .... the prices,
ridiculous as they seem today were more than any of us could afford.
The cities were the hardest hit. They were filled with immigrants who had
come to the promised land where the streets were said to be paved with gold,
where everyone could make a fortune and where the poorest among them could be
own master. Ernie and me could not make sense of it. Each day our families
grew older and sadder, many of our friends disappeared from school and with few
people working, the streets were empty, every day seemed like Sunday -- a cold
No one who has lived through that awful time can write about it
dispassionately or find humor where there wasn't any. Whatever excitements and
Ernie and I enjoyed in the past were over and done with. We were older now --
and sadder. We thought seriously about leaving home -- perhaps our folks would
be better off without us, maybe the two of us could make it on our own. We
knew we couldn't do it alone .... but maybe the two of us together ....
Ernie was twelve now, I was still eleven, but both of us were tall for our
age, and from what we read in the paper in the late summer of '30, kids were
hired to pick peaches in Whitesbog, New Jersey. With a little luck we thought we
could bring home fifty, sixty dollars maybe -- think of the smiles on their
faces when we stacked that up on the kitchen table! But the devil, as he
always, is in the details and we didn't think much about how our families might
when we didn't show up for supper or how we could get to Whitesbog, New
We did get as far as Pennsylvania Station on the IRT -- we sneaked under the
turnstiles at the Flatbush Avenue Station, nobody stopped us, many people did
it daily whether they were working or not. But there was no way to get to
Whitesbog, New Jersey without buying a ticket, so we sat on an old varnished
in the waiting room watching the people come and go. I was homesick already.
A guard came up to us from behind and asked us .... "Who you waitin' on
In a timid voice, Ernie replied, "We ain't waitin', we're leaving for New
Jersey .... we're pickin' peaches like it says here in the Daily News." It was
our undoing, he should have been more close mouthed.
Under his breath, but loud enough for us to hear, the guard said .... "For
Christ's sake! .... what's this country comin' to?" He cleared his throat, came
around to the front of the bench and sat down between us and asked Ernie,
"Where you kids from .... Brooklyn, Bronx, you got family? -- how'd you get
With his right hand he signaled to a group of policemen lounging near the
coffee counter. I went to the bathroom -- no two ways about it -- right then
and there on the varnished bench.
One of cops came over and got our names and addresses and Ernie and me
realized we weren't going anywhere, certainly not to New Jersey and we would be
lucky if they let us go home.
The guard and the policeman spoke for a moment while Ernie and me fidgeted.
"This here is Sergeant Flannerty boys, he's going to take you home. Don't gimme
no shit understand -- soon as your folks miss you there's gonna be hell to
The intimidation of his uniform was more powerful than manacles, and we
followed Sergeant Flannerty -- Ernie on his left, me on his right, back to the
The sergeant put a nickel in for each of us and back we went to Brooklyn. I
felt as though I had been away for years, we couldn't have been gone more than
a couple of hours but the place had changed. It looked smaller and more run
down than ever after having seen Pennsylvania Station.
About a hundred yards from the tenement Sergeant Flannerty stopped us and
turned to Ernie .... "Now look, you're Ernie right? You're in charge, Ernie. Now
I'm gonna give you a break, if I show up with the two of you your family's
gonna beat the hell out of you, so I'm gonna stand here and watch you go up that
stoop just like nothin' ever happened. But if I ever catch either of you in
Penn Station again Ill tan your asses -- get me?"
I don't know what Ernie had for supper that night but we had meat loaf and
boy .... it was about the best meat loaf I ever had.
©1996 Harry Buschman
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