A couple of weeks ago I mentioned how well Italian immigrants in New York City integrated themselves into the American society in the first half of the 20th century. While I was writing it, I thought of something else I need to tell you about. Here it is.
The Depression was a tragedy, a disaster of the first water. It hurt a lot of blameless people. The worst part was that so many people found themselves out of work even though they were ready, willing, and able to do any job which would put a roof over their heads and food on the table. That was scary. Very scary!
But it was different for those of us who were kids. Sure, we “suffered” I guess, but we didn’t know it. We’d never seen good times, so we had nothing to compare the bad times with. To us being poor was normal. We had nothing, but we’d never had anything, so we didn’t feel what we could see in the faces of the adults.
The sense of loss in those faces, and the fear that came with it, fear that the world would never climb out of the pit into which Wall Street had dumped it, was the saddest part of the Depression. As kids, we saw men huddled on the front steps of the houses on our block, talking in hopeless tones about the present — and worse, about the future. Poor guys, after four or five years out of work they could see nothing ahead but more of the same.
But us ... ?
Shoot! Kids are kids. They run around. They play. They laugh. They tease each other. They do what kids do.
It would have been different if we had been born in a poor nation, one where the Depression brought the kind of hideous suffering we escaped here in the United States. To the poor nations, the Great Depression brought hunger, disease, and a level of poverty almost impossible to grasp. People actually starved. Many died because they had nothing to eat. Kids in those places worked from dawn to dusk desperately trying to scratch up a meal.
But to American kids it was no big deal. Sure, we didn’t have much, but kids don’t need much except food and clothes. And being kids, if we wanted something else we figured out a way to get it.
Let me tell you something, if a gaggle of enterprising young American kids set their sights on something they really want, my advice to you is to get out of the way. If you don’t, bubba, you just may get run over during the stampede.
For example, at the beginning of the war the price of scrap metal, particularly brass, took a giant leap at the same time the government was telling us to turn in any scrap metal we could find to the local junkyard — and get paid for it! They said it was our patriotic duty to go earn money. Talk about a free-for-all!
Every vacant lot, every condemned structure, every abandoned car sitting on flat dry-rotted tires became a potential treasure trove. They had always been there, of course, but there had always been a feeling among the neighborhood kids that though they were vacant or abandoned, they had to belong to SOMEBODY, so we left them alone, thinking that rooting around in them for something to sell was tantamount to stealing. Which it probably was.
But then President Roosevelt said, “Go kids! Go!”
Hey! Who were we to argue with FDR?
Truth is, the country really needed that scrap metal. It was a time when the future of democracy hung in the balance far more than most people realize.
So the delicate question of who owned all that abandoned stuff was quietly set aside for the duration as long as there was no wholesale tearing down of the city.
I remember the scrap brass bonanza of all times. I would guess that the total weight of the stuff I’m talking about ran to at least 300 or 400 pounds — collected all in one fell swoop. I wasn’t party to the windfall, but I did watch it happen.
My brother Frankie, along with Petey Disarro from next door and five or six other neighborhood kids in their mid-teens, went off on a foray after scrap metal one morning, dragging along a homemade wagon put together from two-by-fours, a wooden crate, and a set of baby carriage wheels. Dom Disarro and I, each of us about 8 years old and having nothing better to do, strolled along.
By late afternoon, the total loot on the wagon consisted of a pitiful pile of maybe-brass-and-maybe-not hinges found on a grassy slope early that morning. Being downright forlorn, a group of disappointed looking teens was trudging home. We were on Victory Boulevard, passing the same slope where the hinges had been found earlier in the day. It had a set of ancient, cracked, never used concrete steps leading up to a ritzy neighborhood atop Ward’s Hill.
We stopped and sat down on the steps to rest a while, some of us leaning against the verticals of a fat, round, metal railing that ran up the hill beside the steps.
One of the older kids — I think it was Roy Osterberg — looked up idly at the railing and said, “I wonder what this’s made of?”
Nobody stirred, so he got out his pocket knife and began scraping away at the chalky green crust on the old railing. A minute later he gave out a whoop. “Brass! Hey guys! It’s brass!”
And so it was. The entire railing, running all the way up the hill, including the verticals, was solid brass! You should have seen what happened next.
You have no idea what seven or eight determined teenagers can do in a few seconds. They grabbed that railing, shook it, put their weight and the weight of the entire railing on the verticals, and hauled with all their might. In 10 seconds flat down it came! Creak! Creak! Creak! Whammo!
But poor Petey Disarro, being the heaviest and most muscular kid in the neighborhood had won the anchor position — hauling away at the three-inch-round brass ball at the bottom of the railing. Now, that railing was no lightweight to begin with, and when the weight of all those teenagers was added to it the total came to a respectable number. The railing creaked, and groaned, and creaked, and suddenly let loose, aimed straight at poor Petey. Down it came, all in one piece and moving fast. And it hit Petey ...
Oh shoot! Running out of space again. Have to tell you about it next week.