Monday, December 01, 2008

Facing Hard Times

In early 1981 I purchased my co-op apartment from an older lady who had moved in with her husband in 1931. She had remodeled very little: the claw-foot bathtub that a few apartments in the building still have is gone, but I still have the kitchen cabinet piece then known as a "hoosier," which I knew only from the TV show "The Waltons."

Nostalgia, grainy photographs were almost all I knew about the Great Depression. The stories of people jumping off buildings after the crash are mostly apocryphal, I have recently learned.

From time to time, I wondered how the couple that had lived those years in my apartment had coped. Were they happy living in simplicity? Did they fight over the dollars that had to be stretched for their needs and those of the daughter brought up in this place?
I never found out.

Mr. G. was handy or knew someone who was. There's a manual can opener (still works!) screwed to the wall. When I moved in a brass plaque with their family name had been screwed onto the door. I also found a toolbox with a sturdy heavy metal wrench and hammer -- conveyed with the hoosier.

The only calamity I feared for most of my life was nuclear war. Of all the disasters that were predicted as a result, the one that seized my imagination were the electromagnetic impulses that would render all electronic gadgets useless instantly.

What would work? Technology from the 1930s, which was mostly mechanical.

Thus, I still hold onto a Smith-Corona manual typewriter (although I haven't figured out where I'll find ribbons after nuclear war) and for years I harbored the illusion that most of my life could go on more or less unchanged if technology from after the 1930s were wiped out. Indeed, back then my carbon footprint was tiny: I had no car or television. By choice.

These thoughts have come back as the prospect of a second Depression looms large on the horizon.

The adjustments we face are each very small. It is only when we account for it in the aggregate -- when we have pictured giving up our Internet connection to buy cat food for our dinner -- that we realize that we face losing a way of life that so recently seemed destined to be the future of humanity.

Interestingly enough, life goes on no matter what, in soup kitchen lines and even in concentration camps. We all cling even to what is obviously a miserable life. Even in the camps, as Primo Levi wrote in his Holocaust memoir, there was humor and inmates played practical jokes on each other.

After all, hard times are just like good times, without the pleasure.
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