Thursday, October 2, 2008

Contemplating the Great Depression

When I would visit my grandmother’s apartment, I was always puzzled that she had a closet packed with canned goods, when she didn’t have the space or need to hoard food. When I was old enough, I had a conversation with my mother, who explained that Mimi had been through The Great Depression and ever since had an obsessive need to have a stash of food for “a rainy day.”

As I learned more about that era from both of my parents, I could understand the fear. Both my parents were young children when their families went through hard times. My father, a Texan, lived on a tiny farm (called a “dirt farm”), where his father (Papaw) eked out a meager living from the land, and odd jobs. My grandmother (Meemaw) took a job pumping gas at the town station. Every day after school, my dad would leave elementary school and walk to the gas station. Across the street was a diner, where for a nickel he would purchase a big hamburger. Then he would go across to his mother, and they would share it as their dinner. He told me that once, when a family friend came to visit from the city, he gave my father a dime to go buy candy.
When he came back from the store, Meemaw saw that he had bought bread for the family instead. I cringed to imagine how I would have felt if my children were in a situation where they needed to be so concerned about the family’s welfare that they wouldn’t even use a dime to buy candy.

Now that this downturn is so dramatic, I not only understand intellectually how my relatives felt, I feel it emotionally. I remember a similar unpleasant epiphany when we had the September 11 tragedy. I had never understood how Americans could hate Japanese/Americans in the days after Pearl Harbor. After all, they hadn’t bombed Pearl Harbor; they were Americans. Why couldn’t they see the difference? Were they ignorant, uninformed, or just stupid? But after September 11, I had experienced those pangs of hate and rage toward an ethnic group, and no matter how unreasonable it was to feel those feelings, I could now empathize with the way the Japanese citizens of the US were treated. Of course, it’s horribly wrong thinking. I am a better person for seeing that I could be filled with unreasoning prejudice. Now I can guard against it. It scared me to see the veneer of my intellect brushed away like smoke, to be replaced with some primal emotional response.

Now I feel those same feelings of rage against the faceless, greedy corporations. These entities (of course they are people) made a pyramid scheme out of the whole US population, unfettered by any common sense regulation and unchecked by any agency. Even after the savings and loan regulatory crisis, no action was taken to stop the train wreck. They got rich, went back into the woodwork like the roaches they are, and left all of us holding the IOU’s for their behavior. And now we are all in danger.

Looking at the world through the lens of my husband’s unemployment, the tribulations of our friends and family who have lost so much in the past few days, I feel betrayed. When we refinanced our home a couple of years ago, a young broker tried to push us to take an interest only package, one that we turned down because we could see it was crazy, not prudent. He was like a used-car salesman, calling every five minutes, pressuring us relentlessly. When we declined, he charged our credit card a $500 fee anyway, just to see if he could. We had to go through the process of protesting to get it removed. He is just one of many, many backroom brokers who sat in motel rooms with their laptops, cranking out the endless, crazy mortgages for their fee. They had to know it was wrong, that it would come around to disaster. The people who encouraged them, their evil minions, to do these things, certainly knew it was wrong.

Now we seem to have an America that is divided into three strata: rich, struggling to tread water, and dirt poor. There doesn’t seem to have been any payoff for being good citizens, paying on time, trying to get ahead, saving where we could, planning for retirement, honoring our employers by behaving honorably in our private lives. My husband is still out of work, still feeling his age as a horrible stigma. My children (who are grown, thank God) still worry endlessly about whether we will lose our home. That saying about following your bliss is inspiring, but unrealistic. We will do what we have to do, what we can do, to stay afloat. Our healthy retirement nest egg is decimated. We planned to take care of ourselves; who will take care of us now? I no longer have confidence that the government is running this country, or can control runaway business practices. Businesses, and the rarified strata of the richest of the rich are in charge.

We can only hope for some more reasonable future where things aren’t quite this difficult. That’s all anybody wants. Not to be rich, no, just to have enough so every waking moment doesn’t seem like a ticking time bomb leading to disaster.

So, Mimi, wherever you are, I understand the canned goods. It’s no mystery to me why Campbell’s Soup was the only stock to go up on the day of the worst drop in the market. Your pantry, full of dented, dusty soup cans, was a harbinger and your great grandchildren recognize the signs .

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