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A little After October 23, 1929


Harry Buschman

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 "Annie Mae 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 or 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 his 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 rainy Sunday.

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 adventures 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 feel when we didn't show up for supper or how we could get to Whitesbog, New Jersey.

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 bench 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 boys?"

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 here?" 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 pay."

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 IRT. 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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