By the mid-thirties, I’d walk our neighborhood and count the boarded windows on the two-story houses that lined the streets. Over half the homes sat empty. Families had either been evicted or abandoned what little they had to head west in search of jobs, to head anywhere in search of hope. It was a tough time for humanity, a hard time to exist. Still strength ran deep among the immigrant population, men and women who’d given up everything just to get to this country. In my own family, we may have been cold, and we may have been hungry, but we were never poor of spirit or lacking in will. We had love. We had faith. We had each other.
Life was elemental and real.
As poor as we were, everyone still wanted to come to our home where the rooms were full of talk and laughter. We had such a ferocity of love. Our family played jokes. We found joy and life and in the middle of disparity. But there was no denying that times were desperate. Sacrifice had become commonplace.
One Wednesday evening in 1935, I stopped short coming in from the hall to the kitchen, frozen by the strain in Papa’s voice. “Can we feed the children ‘til payday?” he asked. I took a deep breath and stood hiding behind the doorway.
“We’ll make it,” Mama said, and then ticked off the cupboard’s contents. “Two pounds of flour, eight potatoes, a couple cans of beans.”
I did a little math myself. My daddy got paid on Saturdays. That small amount of food had to last our large family two and half days. It hit me like never before what a burden I must have been to my parents. At ten years old, I became determined to find some way to help.
Motorcars had combustion engines that started with a crank back then. I’d approach grown men in town and offer to give them a start for a penny. It took some elbow grease—and a bit of caution. The crank could whip around and break my arm if I didn’t hold tight, but the money meant more than the risk. Sometimes I got lucky and came across a man with a flat. I’d gladly shimmy underneath his automobile, set the jack, and pump up the wood and steel chassis for the chance to hear the clink of loose coins in my pocket.
No matter how hard times got, my daddy wouldn’t take a helping hand. “We’re givers, not takers,” he commanded even as the Depression continued to take its toll.
When times got really tight, my family survived on stale bread. My brothers and I pulled our old wagon on a rope down to the bakery and bought boxes of the rock-hard bread with moldy edges that the baker sold to farmers to feed their hogs. Sometimes, as a kindness, the baker would throw in a few old cakes or pies. We all wanted to live up to our father’s mandates, but we were still kids, and we devoured the treats on the way home, careful to conceal the forbidden charity from our father.
“Just because you’re poor, just because you’re hungry,” he would say, “don’t ever give up your integrity or the person that you are.” In all the years of struggle, I never saw him go back on his word.
Our family finally got some relief when President Roosevelt started the Works Progress Administration. Part of the National Recovery Act and his bold New Deal, the WPA put people back to work building bridges, waterworks, and infrastructure that the country desperately needed. The program, along with the Public Works Administration and the CCC camps, gave us all some much-needed hope. My daddy got a job early on as a labor foreman on jobs established to run water and sewer lines all over our area.
I continued to try my hand at making money as well. It could be found if you knew where to look. Enough money for a kid anyway, enough to buy some pieces of penny candy and a picture show on the weekend if you saved your earnings all week and were good enough to win shooting marbles, dinks as we called them, in the street. Among the young boys in our neighborhood, dinks were an industry all their own.
One particular Saturday morning, all the neighborhood kids had come out to play. We drew a circle in the dirt on the corner of 13th Street and Llewellyn, and each boy had to place a hundred dinks in the center. My brother Manny, fourteen months my senior, came along late and wanted to join in. We told him he couldn’t, that the game was full, but the truth was I didn’t want him in the game. My brother and I had a history with dinks. Manny was industrious, excelled at most anything that involved his hands, but he was miserable with marbles. Still he was stubborn and always convinced he could win. Many a time, I’d knuckle down on the ring line and shoot a steelie or a large, white moonie toward the center. Then Manny would shoot and lose, and take all the dinks anyway, flexing his big brother muscle. But little brothers can only be held down so long, and this time, I was determined not to let him into the game.
Furious at being excluded, Manny jumped into the middle of the ring and kicked the dinks far and wide. All the kids turned their eyes toward me. I didn’t say a thing, but I felt everyone watching, waiting to see what I would do next. Manny was older and definitely bigger, still I had little choice. I lunged at my brother, swinging my fists as I rose from the ring line.
We wrestled and fought all the way down Llewellyn. Cars screeched to a halt as we careened down the street. A few men tried, and failed, to pull us apart. Mostly, the adults didn’t step in. A good fight was free entertainment after all. We traded punches the whole way home, arriving exhausted and battered on our front porch—eyes black, lips swollen. The fight continued into the house and up to our attic bedroom, where I had a brief moment of panic when, with a loud crack, I thought I may have broken Manny’s back against the bannister of the bed. The fear turned out to be unjustified, but it snapped the tension between us.
I’d had a lot of fights in my life, but never one like that. It must have lasted an hour and a half. We were both bloody and battered, but it was worth it. Manny treated me differently after that. Earning respect was part of life in the streets. We took our knocks and kept going. We fought and got over it and moved on. If we took time to dwell on the hardships, life would bowl us over, so we all kept living and loving and taking life one shot at a time.