I was talking to my son yesterday about the economy and politics in general. He’s twenty-three, self-employed, and ambitious. Even as a child he was ambitious. "Dad," he’d say, "can I borrow the lawnmower?" Then he'd come back at sundown with $150.00. He never cared for cartoons, video games, or school but his one weakness was the Three Stooges, the originals with Curly not Shemp. He was a purist and Shemp was no Curly, just as Dan Quayle was no Jack Kennedy.
But as we discussed politics I asked him, "Why do you suppose the Three Stooges were always just this side of the law? Because," I explained, "the films were made during the depression when the police weren’t so popular." The police meant trouble; my own father was taught to slam the front door at the first sight of a cop. Not that the cops weren’t honest, but my grandfather was active in the Iron Workers Union, or what would become the Iron Workers Union. The sight of police meant a possible arrest or a beating, or both.
The Stooges were always trying to help a widow woman or to help a sick child get an operation. Because, in that generation, being elderly meant being poor. The aged were poor; few had any pension or owned their own home. The Stooges would steal a watermelon which would somehow always end up broken over a policeman’s head. That was funny in the thirties. A cop hit with a pie or jumping over rolling beer barrels was hysterical because times were hard and it was the sheriff that evicted you and the cops who rousted the poor.
My mother grew up in inner-city Chicago and the kids in her neighborhood played a game called Rock. As they played other games on the sidewalk, when some kid yelled, "New car!" that meant all the kids should grab rocks and pelt the new car with them. You see, new cars only belonged to rich folks and rich folks only came into her neighborhood to cause poor folks trouble. Her brother taught her how to turn the power meter over so that it would run backwards. He even earned extra money by breaking the glass on the gas meters so that you could push a broom straw against the needle to stop it.
My mother would save her pennies to go to the movies but she hated Shirley Temple movies; they left a bitter taste in her mouth. The premise of the films was always of a poor Shirley, poor but happy, who was rescued from poverty by the benevolent rich folks and she would teach them to be happy like she was. Maybe it was seeing another little girl dressed in fine clothes while my mother was in hand-me-downs that bothered her. But all the other kids were in hand-me-downs; that was a quick way to get beat up, too, show up in all new clothes.
The immense popularity of the Shirley Temple films was due in part to the underlying rescue theme. Millions of children and adults were seeking escape and temporary rescue from the grinding poverty. Shirley would have a big breakfast of eggs and bacon and juice while Mom was having just coffee! Shirley wasn’t sure what fork to use on her salad, while my mom knew which fork to use but didn’t always have the food to use it on, until her brother got a job with the CCC. He sent home money every week but apologized when he sent less once; he had to buy a new toothbrush because his was stolen.
It is hard to fathom the poverty that would cause someone to steal a used toothbrush. Dad had told me about the cardboard blowing out of the window during the night and waking up in the morning with snow piling up on the bedroom floor. My father had a tenuous relationship with his own dad. He admired and respected the way he led the family through the depression, bringing home old leather belts from the factory to resole his children’s shoes. He brought home a barrel of waste oil from the factory once and put it in the attic and then run a line with a bleeder valve into the cast iron coal stove. Dad said it worked great except that sometimes the oil would gather on the tip of the tube and then a large drop would hit the fire. It would make a roaring sound like a baseball bat hitting the coal stove. One evening a particularly large drop collected and my grandmother thought that they were all dead and ordered it removed the next day.
When my father laid his dad to rest, he reflected on the bronze casket, courtesy of the union, and the pension that had taken care of his dad in his declining years. Along with his Social Security and medical insurance, he had died without debt. All things that he had earned and fought for and because of his fight millions more had those things too.
My dad told me about the strike that started the week before Thanksgiving and ended in January. "Guess what I got for Christmas that year!" he used to say. During the strike his father's head was split open by a policeman’s Billy club and he was arrested twice in one day. Dad always liked the Three Stooges, too, and his father’s head was sown up by the woman next store with thread because, like the kid the Stooges were trying to help get an operation, only people with cash went to the doctor.
The elderly were the poorest demographic in this country, ill-clothed and ill-fed. They died in droves every winter from pneumonia and hypothermia. In those days pneumonia was called "the old people's friend," because it would take them quickly.
My dad was born at home and my mother was born in the "Charity Hospital." My mother went to Catholic school, gratis, and had to stay after and help the nuns when asked. They taught her to sew and to make dress patterns, and soon she was making her own clothes and clothes for her sisters. Years later she took a job teaching advanced dressmaking and on the application where it said Experience she put, Yes.
When we buried my mother, my father could easily afford her funeral; he had served four years flying the Atlantic scouting for Nazi U-boats. He used the GI Bill to become the first in his family to go to college. John McCain thinks you should serve seven years to get a college education, but how did John McCain pay for his college education? My mother’s idols were Will Rogers, Woody Guthrie and Franklin Roosevelt. She would be outraged by the idea of the elderly voting Republican, especially in Florida. "They’d let you starve and freeze." She would say speaking from experience.
I guess I’m speaking from that experience, too. I’ve watched all my life as Republicans rolled back the safety net so that those with much could have much more. I’ve watched this week as Wall Street cried out for help and the government came running. The wealthy are withdrawing their money from the bank so we must increase FDIC insurance limits to $250,000. Yet for the struggling middle class, the poor, the elderly, bupkis! Nada! Zip! So it is now that the past is the future. As I drove past Home Depot the other day, an elderly man who looked to be in his seventies stood on the side of the road with a handmade sign that said: Carpenter, Need Work!
The sign of times to come, we’ve had a rash of bank robberies, one in the mall! The sign of times to come. The Stock Market will meander into a small, quiet pool, car lots will continue to close, fast food places will cut prices to try and stay alive. Chain stores will close less profitable outlets and the poor will begin to get hungry and the elderly to get cold. My son told me that a lot of his friends are voting for John McCain and that he just couldn’t understand them. "McCain’s offering them nothing! They’re not rich and they want to go to college, yet they support the guy who helps only the rich and makes it harder to go to college." I tried to make him understand that after a deep, philosophical soul searching, and a few days with nothing to eat, they will see this world in a whole new light.
Suddenly a cop getting hit with a watermelon will become funny. Groucho Marx lambasting the rich and powerful will become hysterical. They will listen to "Hobo’s Lullaby" with a smile and "This Land is Your Land" with a tear. And "The Big Rock Candy Mountain" with a whole new understanding.