The Flip Side Of ‘Free’ Is ‘Broke’

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Last week I talked about the way we jumped at a chance to get anything free during the Depression. The reason was simple; most of the time it was the only price we could afford. Everything is so different today. Today, the usual question is, “Hm-m-m. Do we want that?” But back then the question was not whether you wanted something; it was whether you needed it. And a better question was whether you had a buck to buy it.

Most of the time the answer was no.

One thing I remember as clear as day is looking down Brook Street on any day and seeing a long row of empty front stoops, broken every now then by one with three or four men talking about where they might go to make an honest dollar, and grumbling because the answer was “nowhere.” 

But those were the adults. The Depression hurt them because they could remember better days. We kids had never seen better days, so we didn’t know we were suffering. To us, not having money was our way of life. Anyway, we might not have had much, including fancy food, and sometimes we might not have much food, but so what? Maybe it was good for us. For one thing, there wasn’t a fat kid in our whole school.

The desire to make a buck, though, was as strong in us as it was in the adults. Just as it is today, the world back then was filled with wonderful things; and just as it is today they cost money. A nickel might get you five 50-cap rolls of caps for a cap gun if you had one, but a nickel was a nickel. It would buy enough store cheese to make macaroni and cheese for a family.

The big question? Where to get that nickel?

Mow a lawn? Who had a lawn?

Wax cars? Who owned a car?

Deliver papers? Adults did it.

Bag boys? No such thing.

Theater ushers. A thing of the past — and future.

Sweep Lombardi’s grocery store? What? And waste all that sawdust?

There were a couple of things though ...

If two or three kids could get a couple of lemons, a little sugar, some water, a 2-cent half-block of ice, an empty orange crate, and a couple of Mom’s precious glasses, you could sell lemonade for 2 cents a glass. You might even earn a dime that way, but only if you kept at it all day, and only if the adults walking by thought the three of you looked cute, and only once or twice a year because adults might love cute kids, but not every day.

And it was a three-way split, minus the cost of the ice and lemons.

There was one thing that always worked. It didn’t return a profit in a rush, but it was absolutely guaranteed. That was walking the curb in search of empty cigarette packs. In those days the inner wrapper of cigarette packs was real tinfoil, and city curbs were well supplied with empty packs. Two kids could start out in the morning, walk five or six miles of curbs together, and each come home with a ball of tinfoil half the size of a tennis ball. Go another day. Add another layer. Keep it up, going whenever you could, and eventually you could sell the ball for ...

I don’t have the slightest idea. I never knew anyone who got one big enough to sell. But theoretically we were “making money.”

And one time I found three dollar bills lying in a curb!

Then there was fishing grates. Know what I mean? The steel grates in sidewalks where there are cellar windows? Dom DeSarro and I got a long stick and some chewing gum and hauled up goodies from a lot of grates. We made 8 cents — a nickel and three pennies. Plus two marbles. We’d have been rich if broken bottles were worth anything.

Were we unhappy back then because we had to wear hand-me-downs, never had any money, and couldn’t find a way to make any? 

Not a chance, Johnny!

We were rich! We were rich in loving parents who always had time for us, in friends who had an endless amount of time to play games, in schools that taught us what a wonderful country this is, and in confidence that no matter what the future might bring we would face it as a united people.

Who could ask for anything more?

Truth is, I’d buy into that today, wouldn’t you?


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