Hard Times Remembered


Dynamite Garland , forty-five, is now a waitress in Chicago. She formerly danced in burlesque.

Every Sunday we used to go house hunting. That was a recreation during the Depression. You’d get in the Model A with the family and go look at the houses. They were all for sale or rent. You’d go look and see where you could put this and where you could put that, and this is gonna be my room. I knew where I was gonna have my horse in the barn. My mother’d go down in the basement, saying, “Oh, this is well constructed. This is where we’re gonna put the potato bin, this is where we’re gonna put the onions.” We knew just where everyone was gonna be ( laughs )….


Tad , twenty years old

It’s something that has been filtered through by my parents. I didn’t know much about it, and they don’t mind my not knowing much about it. They control the source of information—sort of like the high priest: you can’t approach the altar too closely or you’ll be struck dead. This purple heart in their background has become a justification for their present affluence….

Hiram “Chub” Sherman , sixty years old, is an established Broadway actor.

It was rock-bottom living in New York then, it really was. Cars were left on the streets. There were no signs about restricted parking ( laughs ). If somebody had a jalopy—a few friends, you know, would have some old car —it would sit there for months on end neither molested nor disturbed. It would just fall apart from old age.


You didn’t count your possessions in terms of money in the bank. You counted on the fact that you had a row of empty milk bottles. Because those were cash, they could be turned in for a nickel deposit, and that would get you on the subway. If you took any stock in yourself, you looked to see how many milk bottles you had, because they counted. Two bottles: one could get you uptown, one could get you back….

I remember being employed once to stand in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, Easter morning. With a clicker in each hand. A fashion woman had engaged me to note the acceptance of patent leather purses and white hats. Each white hat I saw, I clicked my right hand. And each patent leather purse I saw, I clicked my left hand. Then I had to go home and tote up what the clickers said. White hats were in that spring, patent leather purses were out.

I remember also what you’d pick up odd dollars doing. There were sight-seeing buses—see Chinatown, see the Bowery, see New York. They were lined up right on Times Square. If you’ve ever noted a sight-seeing bus, there’ll be a couple of people sitting on the bus. And they’d say: “It’s leaving right away, guided tour, just leaving for the Bowery and Chinatown.” Well, the people inside were usually shills. They’re engaged for a quarter or fifty cents to sit there and look eager. I shilled in Times Square sight-seeing buses ( laughs ). As people came on, you got off: “Excuse me for a moment.” And then you got into another bus. It’s a sitting job.

There were all sorts of things that went on like that from which you earned a living. It wasn’t a very good living, but it kept you alive….

Ben Isaacs , a salesman, now lives in a middle-class suburb.

We tried to struggle along living day by day. Then I couldn’t pay the rent. I had a little car, but I couldn’t pay no license for it. I left it parked against the court. I sold it for fifteen dollars in order to buy some food for the family. I had three little children. It was a time when I didn’t even have money to buy a pack of cigarettes, and I was a smoker. I didn’t have a nickel in my pocket.

Finally people started to talk me into going into the relief. … I didn’t want to go on relief. Believe me, when I was forced to go to the office of the relief, the tears were running out of my eyes. I couldn’t bear myself to take money from anybody for nothing. If it wasn’t for those kids—I tell you the truth—many a time it came to my mind to go commit suicide. Then go ask for relief. But somebody has to take care of those kids….

Wherever I went to get a job, I couldn’t get no job. I went around selling razor blades and shoelaces. There was a day I would go over all the streets and come home with fifty cents, making a sale. That kept going until 1940, practically. Nineteen-thirty-nine the war started. Things started to get a little better. My wife found a job in a restaurant for twenty dollars a week. Right away, I sent a letter to the relief people: I don’t think I would need their help any more. I was disgusted with relief, so ashamed. I couldn’t face it any more.

Justin McCarthy quit college in 1933 and went to work in a Ford assembly plant near Chicago.

I sandpapered all the right-hand fenders. I was paid five dollars a day…. The gates were locked when you came in at eight o’clock in the morning. They weren’t opened again until five o’clock in the evening. People brought their own lunch. No commissary wagons were permitted on the grounds. Nobody bothered to tell me. So I didn’t eat that first day.