The Big Depression in Bits and Bubbles

by Florence Rosner

It’s like the people who can never forget the day President Kennedy was shot, or the day Honolulu was bombed and we declared war on Japan, or who 50 or more years from now will still remember 9/11. That’s how I remember the day the City Bank closed in Youngstown, Ohio.

Of course, I can’t help wondering if I really remember it or if I think I do because I heard the story so many times when I was growing up. I’ve looked up the date; it was on October 15, 1931 (I was born in 1926). What I remember, or think I remember, floats in and out of my head like the soap bubbles we blew when we were kids. But these don’t burst; they just float around and I can see into them. There’s the bubble on that day when I was about five years old:

I see our dining room where people sit casually around a large black table in our house at 37 Zents Avenue, just a block up from Logan Avenue and the steel mills. It was a no-longer-white house, plain, with a living room, dining room and kitchen on the first floor. I see myself standing in the open archway between the living and dining rooms. And my mother is screaming as she drops the phone. I can hear her shrill, “No No No—what about our money!”  And then she moans, “What about our money…” She isn’t asking. As she picks up the phone, I can hear the voice of Ted Redden, “I didn’t know, I swear I didn’t know.” And that’s all I see of that day. The bubble just floats away.

One bank in Youngstown had closed and a rumor about the other two had been circulating for some time; only the day before she and I had gone into town to get our money out. I was with her, and although I wasn’t tall enough to see Ted Redden, her favorite teller at City Bank, I could hear him as he assured her with, “Oh no, Mrs. Protetch, this bank isn’t going to close. Your money is safe.” So she left the money in. Bad decision. She and my father lost the ten thousand dollars they had saved for a house. They had put a down payment on an English style red brick with four bedrooms and five beautiful elm trees. I think it may even have had two bathrooms. Too bad for us.

My mother never forgave Ted Redden. What good that did. He probably didn’t know what was going to happen. Bank accounts weren’t insured by the government in those days. My parents sold their bank book for ten cents on the dollar. My father lost the two trucks he was making payments on. So he was out of business. My uncles all lost their jobs.  Out of work. Out of luck. Almost: Our landlord, funny that I remember him, but I do.  Here comes another bubble. It’s Mr. Olson with his handsome smiling face, tall with yellow hair and blue eyes. It was good luck when he told my parents we could stay in the house without paying anything. He said it was because my mother kept the house so clean and nice. I think he probably felt it was better to have good tenants than to have the house sit empty. But no matter the reason, he was kind-hearted. My parents must have been grateful.

We were into the Depression and our life changed. My mother and I no longer went to town every week. I missed the outings. My older brother was in school and my younger brother wasn’t born yet, so it was a special time for me with my mother. We usually went to the bank first, where my mother gave Ted Redden checks and he gave her dollar bills. (Maybe I remember him because he had red hair and his name matched it. I think that intrigued me.)  After the bank my mother and I would have lunch at People’s Drug Store on West Federal Street, right in the middle of the downtown, across the street from the two big department stores she loved. After the bank closed those special days stopped. That bubble blew away and never came back.

It was strange having my father at home during the day. But he was a go-getter, my mother always said, so it wasn’t long before he found work. I think he was a hard worker and an entrepreneur of sorts. And he wasn’t proud. Many years later, I asked him how they managed during the depression and he told me. His business had been hauling fresh produce from the railroad yards in Pittsburgh (about 70 miles away) to Youngstown for a wholesale produce company. After he lost his trucks, my father couldn’t do that anymore. He told me that one day he had an idea. He couldn’t stand being at home. My mother kept finding things for him to do around the house. So he went to the local farmer’s market and bought enough eggs to fill two straw baskets. (This is a bubble I can imagine.) Carrying a basket on each arm, he got on the streetcar and rode out to the end of the line. He then went door to door, selling his eggs. When his baskets were empty, he rode back into town to the market, bought more eggs and went back out to where he had left off. Each day he took a different street car, selling in different neighborhoods. At the end of each day, back at the farmer’s market, he bargained for fresh produce that he took home for us. So we always had food to eat.

I have no idea how long that went on, but eventually, things must have gotten better: my father had trucks again and I had a two-wheeled bicycle. My younger brother was born when I was almost six and we moved to a bigger house on Crandall Avenue, rented in a neighborhood in which all the houses were bigger, with bushes and grass in their front yards. I remember being thrilled with having my own bedroom, completely mine. I had a night stand and lamp and read in bed at night. I also had a vanity that I used as a desk, writing poems that I read in school after typing them at the office my father now had. Without hearing anyone say it, I think I knew we were no longer so poor. We got a new radio, not another small table radio, but a large one that stood on the floor. Dave figured out how to get distant stations on it and we would lie on the floor at night listening to music from some ballroom in New York City, and to kids’ programs after school and on Saturday mornings. I think my mother was more content with this house even though we were renting. She no longer wanted my father to drive by “the house” (the one they lost) every time we went for a ride in the car, which we did on hot summer nights in order to cool off. Now we could go straight to the Fairmont ice cream store where I discovered banana splits. Then we would drive home and if it was still hot, we’d go to bed on the upstairs porch behind my brother’s room. We lived there for two or three years until I was ready for junior high.

Money was still tight, but we were coming up in the world. My parents finally bought a house, and although it wasn’t as grand as the one they lost, my mother seemed content with it. Now she was saving money for my older brother’s college. And we were all supposed to save. From our old house Dave and I could walk to the library, which was almost to town. Now that we lived on Elm Street on the city’s outskirts, it was too far to walk. Dave figured out a way for both of us to use the same bus pass. He would get on the bus at the stop before our house and drop the pass out the window to me right before the bus came to a stop at the corner past our house. I had to move fast but it worked. We never got caught and my mother never found out. It would have cost another ten cents each way, so we had saved 20 cents. It wasn’t a lot but it meant two ice cream cones and a comic book.

When I was ready for junior high, I wanted some new clothes. I didn’t want to go into 7th grade wearing the same clothes I had worn in grade school. But “no money” I was told. Dave was selling shoes at Baker’s shoe store downtown on Saturdays and during vacations, but I was too young to do that. So I asked if I could sell my bike and buy new clothes. Yes, I could, so I put signs up in all the neighborhood stores and sold it for $12. I went to town by myself, not to the department stores my mother shopped in, but to Lerner’s where everything cost less. For my $12 I bought two skirts and three sweaters. My mother liked what I bought and I felt pretty good about myself and life. I missed my bike but my brother let me use his fairly often. The Depression had not defeated us.  I remember clearly those days on Elm Street when we were growing up and coming out of the Depression. That bubble was real.

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About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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