A Tale of Two Americas

Lately, I have been watching hours of scratchy black-and-white film about my childhood years, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and seeing through very old eyes a different America, peopled in turmoil by those who don’t resemble their descendants today.

Instead of fighting for bargains on Black Friday, they stand patiently in breadlines with gaunt faces and hopeless eyes, waiting for food. Instead of blaming government for their poverty, with 25 percent unemployment, they look hopefully to it for salvation.

In FDR’s First Hundred Days, politicians work day and night, shuffling papers at warp speed to pass legislation in a frenzy to get the economy moving. Some of what they do will work, some will fail, some will be called unconstitutional, but there is little legislative in-fighting by politicians blaming one another.

Without 24/7 media chatter, there are parades supporting the National Recovery Act (NRA) but, behind the newsreel scenes, farm families are driven off their land by the Dust Bowl and city dwellers are sleeping in the streets.

In those days, my father worked in a Harlem pawn shop 60 hours a week for $16, a dark place where people sold their soles, trading dress shoes and suits or furs and jewels for cash.

When I was old enough, I would sometimes go with him on a Saturday for the fourteen hours he spent there. Tan-coated men behind cages squinted through jeweler’s loops and raised their heads to shake them side to side at hopeful smiles and hopeless eyes across the counter. The patrons came parading through, most of them well-dressed, almost all black, carrying clothes, jewelry, musical instruments, cameras, binoculars, as hostage for the few dollars they had to have for a few days or weeks.

Some seemed down and defeated, but many were jaunty, with the aliveness of people dancing on the edge. Seeing me, they flashed white smiles from their dark faces, surprised and amused to find a kid among the forbidding figures guarding the pawnbroker’s cash box. I always smiled back, trying to drink in some of their joy in that place of a sad business profiting from human misery that was almost universal.

In that different America, politics was more an expression of hope than a set of beliefs. Although my father worshipped FDR, his voting reflected a longing for something more.

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Author: ROBERT STEIN