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A Day In The Great Depression

By: Bob Stubenrauch

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It was an early winter day in 1934, in the middle of the great depression, when I was just ten. Our nation, represented by every family on our block, struggled to cope with the problems of food, heat, and shelter. How we envied those few with jobs; the mailman, the policeman, the garbage collector, and the teacher.

My father had been taken on as a timekeeper for a nearby Works Project Administration construction job. One of the benefits of being on the WPA was receiving coupons exchangeable at your grocers for surplus food, neat white bags of such commodities as split peas, rice, lentils and beans. Each worker was given a list of participating stores in his area.

The day my father brought home the list he sat down at the dining room table with my mother and they pored over the addresses. My Dad was indignant, none of our local grocers, the Bohacks or the A&P, were on the list. It seems that, not having a car, this was a program we wouldn't be able to take advantage of. While my parents went into the kitchen to prepare dinner, I studied the list they had left on the table. Here was one they had overlooked! It was on Horace Harding Boulevard. We lived in the Flushing Hillcrest area of Queens County on Long Island. I mentally retraced a bike ride I had recently taken from our frame house on 77th Avenue and 164th Street up to Horace Harding. It was about twelve or fourteen blocks. From the store's address I estimated it was another eight blocks east on the boulevard. I excitedly explained my plan to my parents, down to the final detail of taking an old tablecloth to cover the bags I'd haul in my coaster wagon.

They were dubious. It was at least 20 blocks, half of it uphill, winter had just begun, and I was not yet eleven.

This occurred on a Thursday night, and I finally got permission to go on next Saturday morning, after assuring my Mother that I would turn back if I got very tired, or a blizzard struck.

When Saturday morning arrived my Mother pressed a dime into my hand and told me to buy a loaf of Bond bread (then 7 cents). My Mom found it very difficult to accept anything she considered charity. I put the coin and the coupons carefully into my Mackinaw pocket, checked that my jackknife was in its sheath on the side of my right boot, put on my leather flying helmet, pulled down the ear flaps, tugged on my worn gloves, and set out. My wagon was old, but a Radio Flyer lasts forever, and I had generously lubricated the wheels with "3-In-One" oil the night before.

After five or six blocks the upward grade began I was grateful that on the loaded return leg I would be descending it. On my right were endless blocks of grass neatly divided by oil and gravel roads and cement sidewalks, a planned subdivision of new homes stopped in its tracks by the great stock market crash of '29. On my left, behind a tall chain link fence, were the vast grounds of Paumanok Country Club and Golf Course, On a warm summer day I would sometimes ride to the guarded and gated entrance just to watch the Packards, Pierce Arrows and Cadillacs enter, and marvel that for some, there was no depression. I finally arrived at the crest of 164th Street and the busy intersection where Horace Harding Boulevard crossed it. There was little traffic this Saturday morning, however, and remembering my Mother's admonition to look both ways carefully for the trolley car that ran to Flushing on the central roadbed, I was soon trudging along the boulevard. Just when I thought how well my trip was going, it began to snow.

It was ten more long blocks to my destination, but I finally spotted the address across the boulevard, and crossed at the intersection. My face was now chilled by the blowing snow as I stopped before the grocery store. I left my wagon next to the door, pausing a moment before entering to watch a gleaming new blue Packard Super Eight sedan glide up to the curb. Then I was in a small, but well-stocked grocers. I approached the marble counter where a frowning, middle-aged man in a crisp white apron awaited me.

"Yes, sonny?" he said.

"Sir, I would like a loaf of Bond bread. The one pound size, and (removing the coupons from my coat pocket after pulling off my wet gloves) could I please have these peas and things?" As I laid the dime and rumpled coupons before him I suddenly knew how Oliver Twist had felt when he asked the beadle for more porridge.

He separated the coupons with one hand, lining them up in a neat row.

"You're not a customer of mine are you?" he said.

"No, sir, I'm not. We're not, my family that is," I stammered, my heart sinking.

"Doesn't matter, Mr. Torgenson. Those surplus commodity coupons are good everywhere," a new voice said cheerily. The driver of the Packard had entered right behind me and I hadn't heard him.

"Mr. Johnson! Well, yes, I suppose they are. Now what can I get you?" The grocer's face now wore a cheerful smile, so abrupt and artificial I wondered if Mr. Johnson actually believed it.

"No, no, go right ahead. Finish taking care of the young man, he was here first," the Packard owner replied.

"Mr. Johnson, I believe in first-class service for my first-class customers, besides, he's not buying anything, just those things Roosevelt loves to give away. The boy can wait, can't you, sonny?" the grocer dared me, and positions being what they were, I weakly replied, "Yes, sire."

"I have a list here my wife gave me," placing a piece of note paper on the marble counter, "but really, Mr. Torgenson, I prefer to take my turn, I insist." Some of the outside chill was in Mr. Johnson's voice and the message was clear. The grocer didn't hesitate a moment: "Then that's just what we'll do!" So saying, he swept up the coupons, walked around the counter and disappeared into the storeroom, retuning almost immediately with four of the white bags stacked against his chest. He placed them on the customer's side of the counter, and a second trip brought four more to complete the selection.

"Well, sonny, you happy, all that food for just some coupons?" He was angry at me for some reason and even angrier that he couldn't express himself fully in the presence of Mr. Johnson, a clearly valued customer.

"Sir, just that I need the bread, the Bond bread." I had to say it, my dime was still on the counter and he had clearly forgotten about it.

"Imagine that, Mr. Johnson, I almost forgot the main reason this young fellow came in to shope!" He reached over to a rack behind him and placed the loaf of bread before me.

"Now, let's see, you have all this food, and I have your dime." He gave the crank of the National Cash Register a savage turn, dropped the dime in the drawer, scooped out some pennies and put three of them on the counter. "Three cents change to the customer," (You could almost see the "quotes" on customer) "seven cents to me, of which five cents goes to the Bond Bakers, leaving me the generous sum of two cents for this transaction!" At this point the grocer seized Mr. Johnson's list and sped off to find the items on it.

At the end of this tirade, Mr. Johnson smiled at me, handed me the three cents change on the counter, and headed for the door. He returned almost immediately, pulling my wagon behind him.

"I see you brought something to cover your packets, good idea, let's see how we can load it." He placed my tablecloth half in and half out of the wagon, then placed four bags in a row along one side, and a second row of four on the other side. I was waiting to bring the cloth over the load when he held up his hand.

"Mr. Torgenson, you still have those canned hams, do you not?" the Packard's owner asked.

"One pound, three pound or five pound, all Hormel," the grocer replied, putting down a half dozen items he had collected from the list.

"Add a five pound one to the list, please, and one of these…" Mr. Johnson reached to a display of gold foil wrapped cartons of cookies, each tied with a gold tasseled cord, and placed one on the counter.

The grocer was now smiling, as Mr. Johnson's purchases mounted before him. "Just a few more, Mr. Johnson, and I'll be ready to load it all in your trunk," he said, beaming, profit turning the smile into something more genuine.

"You have these on my bill?" Picking up the ham and golden box of cookies, Mr. Johnson dropped to one knee and wedged the canned ham and the tasseled box between the twin rows of surplus food bags.

"Sir, I can't pay for those!" I blurted out.

"Son, they're paid for already, just a little surprise for your family. Call it an early Christmas card." Mr. Johnson said, then he tucked the tablecloth (which fortunately was made of waterproof oilcloth) over and under the contents, so the weight of the bags would hold it down tight. He then rose and took out a gold pen and his checkbook and turned to the grocer who spoke: "End of the month is fine, Mr. Johnson, I'll just load these bags in your---."

Mr. Johnson cut in: "I'd like you to ring up everything I bought today and add my balance. I'll be settling our account now, Mr. Torgenson."

The grocer stared open mouthed: "What-what, was something not satisfactory, sir?"

Mr. Johnson ignored him and turned to me: "How far do you live from here, son? I take it this was the closest store to you that carries the surplus commodities."

"It's twenty-two blocks to home I counted them," I replied. "No one in our neighborhood has the white bags for coupons, sir, so I had to come here."

Mr. Johnson turned to the grocer, now scowling, who had scribbled some figures on a pad. Writing the check as he spoke in a measured voice: "No one asked for this depression, Mr. Torgenson, some of us are hurting very badly and some of us are fortunate enough to be hurting much less. I just don't choose to bring my business to a man who would humiliate and frighten a child who is trying to do his best for his parents. In fact, Mr. Torgenson, after listening to you and to this very young person, I'm quire sure who is the child and who is the man. Good day."

At that, the Packard owner motioned to me, and carrying his bags of groceries, we both marched out. The grocer settled for slamming the door after us. Mr. Johnson wished me and my family the best of luck, offering to drive me home, which offer I declined with thanks. He shook my hand as one adult to another and as the Packard smoothly pulled away, I turned into the growing snow fall, and headed home.

Forty-five minutes later I was home, very cold, very tired, and strangely happy. I emptied the Radio Flyer at the back door. When my Mother saw me put down the big canned ham and the golden tasseled box on the kitchen table, I told her what had happened. She cried, but then told me that I should immediately forget Mr. Torgenson, and never, ever, forget Mr. Johnson. That was fifty-eight years ago, and I have followed her advice to this day.

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