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DANA PARSONS / ORANGE COUNTY

No comparison to Depression

September 19, 2008|Dana Parsons

Edith Masherah is following the news this week from Wall Street. She's heard analysts say it's the worst stock market crisis since the Depression and that the potential exists for ongoing financial and economic pain.

If you press her, the 89-year-old can summon the memories with relative ease . . .

A young girl. A five-story apartment building in Brooklyn. Clothes hanging on the lines outside apartment windows. Pulling a wagon around the train yards to collect pieces of wood or coal for the family stove. People standing in line outside a bank. Her mother giving up her plate at the table to someone else who dropped by the apartment and was hungry.

"Do I remember the Depression? I certainly do," Edith says.

She was a 10-year-old girl when the market collapsed in October 1929. Her parents didn't make an announcement about it, but children eventually realize that something is different in their world, even if they're not sure what it is.

"I remember as a young kid standing there watching people with money in the banks," Edith says, "and the banks were closing and people were standing in line, fainting and wetting their clothes."

She doesn't know if that was because they had to stand so long in line or because they just didn't care, but she swears that her memory is correct. "Things were so bad, you can't forget them," she says.

These days, she's living at Leisure World in Seal Beach, a century and a continent away from her girlhood.

"I remember there was a place down there," she says of her Brooklyn neighborhood, "a big open field and they used to call it Hoover Village. Every piece of wood they got they used to build shacks. I remember as kids we'd walk down and see how miserable those people were, and we were jealous. We liked those shacks. It was like an adventure. It shows you how stupid kids can be."

Her father was a construction company foreman and never lost his job. But he died in 1934, with the country still in the grip of the Depression, and it rocked Edith's world.

"In those days, there was no Social Security, no nothing. Times were bad," she says. "I remember on Sundays, we'd be busy looking all over the house for a penny here and a penny there because my brother was very good at hiding pennies. Milk was nine cents a quart and bread was 10 cents, and I'd say, 'Johnny, you got any money?' and he'd say, 'No.' "

To anyone who didn't flunk history, the Depression with a capital D dredges up searing memories. To most of us, they're things we learned in books or from newsreels. To invoke its specter in 2008 is to take most of us to a time and place almost beyond comprehension for modern-day America.

"Everybody was struggling," Edith says. "Nobody had much. But you knew that everyone was in the same boat so nobody thought they were poor. If they had food and a roof over them, they thought they were rich."

After her father died, she quit school at age 15 to work in a garment factory for 20 cents an hour. "I used to work like a donkey," she says, "but I always say that hard work doesn't kill anybody. I got 20 cents an hour no matter how many hours I worked, and we managed to live on it. Today, young kids get more in allowance than I got working."

Despite this week's news of various financial institutions either teetering or toppled, she has trouble linking today's crisis to the one she lived through. "Oh, come on," she says. "They don't know what they're talking about."

That doesn't mean she's indifferent to the despair. "Of course, it doesn't look good," she says. "But it's a piece of cake because there's help. In those days, there was no help. Nothing that could happen today measures up to what we went through. But we made it."

Her generation learned to cope. It had no choice -- the Depression was followed by World War II.

Perhaps Edith, then, is a good one to ask for advice on how to deal with today's bleak economic news. "Oh, come on," she says again. "Look at the good side. This is not going to last forever. Think of the good days that are coming. That's all. When things are bad, they're going to get better."

Really?

When Edith says it, it sounds more like streetwise philosophy than a platitude. As a near-lifelong New Yorker who didn't come west until 1994, she has earned her "been there, done that" spurs.

"Our Depression should have been like this," she says, with a Brooklynite's bite. "We'd have thought we'd died and gone to heaven."

--

Dana Parsons' column appears Tuesdays and Fridays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at dana.parsons@latimes.com. An archive of his recent columns is at latimes.com/parsons.

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