Hard times can be harder than many imagine
“I’m just like Job’s turkey,
I can’t do nothing but gobble
I’m so poor, baby
I have to lean against a tree to gabble,”
– Big Bill Broonzy
“It shouldn’t be a crime to ask someone for food or money,” the young man told me as I headed into a restaurant the other night for some take-out food.
The fellow of 18 or so had just asked me for money, or food, or perhaps just comfort as I stepped from my car, prefacing his request with a quiet, “Nice car” compliment. He’d been standing in a shadow amid the early evening fog, waiting for someone in a “nice car” to perhaps offer up a hand.
I thought about that as I prepared for Thanksgiving. I have lots to be thankful for. Lots more than lots of people. For many of them, these are hard times, even in this age of prosperity.
And even prosperity is fleeting. In his oral history of the Great Depression titled, “Hard Times,” Studs Terkel reminds us how fragile we really are.
“We thought American business was the Rock of Gibraltar,” he wrote in his 1970 biography. “We were the prosperous nation, and nothing could stop us now. A brownstone house was forever. You gave it to your kids and they put marble fronts on it. It was there forever. Suddenly the big dream exploded. The impact was unbelievable.”
The question is how well we’ll handle it next time the big dream explodes. Many Americans are already one paycheck from homelessness. Worse yet, many of America’s older citizens are one Social Security check from homelessness. Especially in towns such as ours, where the price of a roof over your head has reached the point of ridiculous.
Hard times, mind you, can be a bit harder than we might imagine. During our recent “economic downturn,” we’ve had to do without cable television, with fewer nights on the town and vacations closer to home.
There have been no soup lines in my neighborhood. No hoards of men and women outside my building fighting for the chance to grab a day’s pay.
I wonder how we’d respond if there were. Not good, some say. Certainly not as well as they responded when hard times were really hard. “Back then,” they say we had a lot more compassion. Terkel’s book is filled with tales of woe. Families forced to sleep in abandoned cars. Once-proud providers riding the rails and begging on street corners.
The book is also filled with compassion. “There was none of this hatred you see now when strange people come to town, or strangers come into a neighborhood,” Terkel wrote. “They resent it (today), I don’t know why. That’s one of the things about the Depression. There was more camaraderie than there is now.”
Our system rewards winners; people who “get ahead,” and to a great extent, we are still a land of tremendous opportunity.
Yet, there is a myth that those left behind have simply chosen not to get ahead. Unfortunately, you can’t get ahead on a treadmill. Not unless getting ahead means doing without.
The cost of living has out-paced the ability for many to really live. Fortunately, Nevada County has a history of taking care of those in need. Our local United Way campaign is underway right now and the list of needs is extensive. In a few weeks the Salvation Army bells will be ringing in front of kettles they hope will provide food and clothing. No doubt those who can give, will give in spades.
Scores of shut-in seniors continue to be fed through a Meals on Wheels program that often lives hand-to-mouth itself.
Many businesses and government groups are addressing our need for affordable housing. They understand that failure to do so will continue to erode our economic foundation.
And as California looks to address its mind-boggling $21 billion deficit, we will need to become even more proactive in filling our needs. Some of our many, many non-profits (and schools) we are fortunate to have in western Nevada County will see state funding cut or eliminated in the weeks or months to come. The future will be up to us to determine.
I really do have lots to be thankful for this Thanksgiving. Most of all, I’m thankful to a young man who reminded me that it shouldn’t be a crime to be without.
If you can, please take time to share these holidays and remember that we’re all in this life together.
Jeff Ackerman is the publisher of The Union. His column appears on Tuesdays. Contact him at 477-4299,
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