Brooklyn, New York, 1948: There was always a big Memorial Day parade on Eastern Parkway. I was four, old enough to enjoy the spectacle, so Dad took me while my baby sister stayed home with Mom. I’d squeeze through a forest of adult legs and sit on the curb, waving a miniature flag enthusiastically while troops of soldiers marched by with much bigger banners, while mounted police rode past (followed by a cleanup squad with brooms and dust pans), while band after band played patriotic airs. Bright sun, sycamore trees in full leaf, and an occasional whiff of horse dung. My favorite was the Indian, as we called him back then, just one of him, also on horseback and in a full eagle feather headdress. We didn’t realize that his headdress was from the Great Plains and didn’t represent any local tribes—if any in fact had survived.
Nor did we realize back then that we were at the peak of empire. After WWII, ordinary American workers—at least the white ones—were better off economically than they had ever been. Dad had a civil service job, which was a vast step up for him from the insecurity of the Depression years. Mom had known hunger as a child in Poland and as an immigrant in Cuba, but now she could put three meals on the table.
Years later my father commented that, according to government statistics, we were always just on the line between poor and middle class but never managed to get a leg up. My sister, growing up, thought of us as poor because she couldn’t have the nice clothes she wanted. I wasn’t interested in clothes and had all the necessities: a stash of comic books, chocolate pudding for dessert on Friday, and lox and bagels on Sunday morning, so I thought everything was just about right.
Our family rented a one-bedroom apartment in the Crown Heights neighborhood. My parents had the bedroom, and my sister and I slept on a fold-out couch in the living room. Mom scrubbed a few small items in the kitchen sink but took most of the wash to the laundromat. On clear days she’d bring it home wet and hang it out the kitchen window on clotheslines that stretched across a concrete courtyard between our apartment building and the next one. Those lines crisscrossed the entire yard, ground floor to third floor.
Some mornings we’d hear singing in the courtyard. Then the mothers would wrap a coin or two in bits of newspaper and throw them to the singers, who were always black and mostly women. After a shouted thank you, the singers would pick up the coins and move on to the next building. I didn’t understand the words of the songs and thought they were opera, since I didn’t understand that either when it came on the radio, and I thought the performers were respected professionals. All those coins seemed like wealth to my four-year-old self.
Dad left for work, usually before I got up, and came home at 5:00. I remember watching him count out his pay, $70 per week take-home, of which he kept $5 for subway fare at a nickel a ride, and incidentals. He handed the rest to Mom, to pay the rent and buy necessities.
$70 per week doesn’t sound like much now, but according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, its purchasing power is the equivalent of $729 today, or $37,908 annually to support a family of four. Not very much now, especially in New York City. But we’re talking apples and oranges here.
We had an ice box, not a fridge, and the iceman would deliver a big block every morning. We didn’t get a TV until a couple of years later. At one point we got a phone—a party line, shared between four families. If you picked up the receiver and heard someone talking, you hung up and tried again later. Dad managed to buy a used car and fixed it up himself. But most important, we went to the country every summer. Mom and Dad rented a bungalow and packed up the car after Memorial Day. Mom, my sister, my cousin Ira, and I spent the entire summer in the Catskills, returning home after Labor Day. Dad would drive up for weekends and his two-week vacation. For three months we swam, picked berries, breathed fresh air, and ate farm-fresh food—all on a single income. Even a middle-class family today can’t begin to afford that. The peak of empire, indeed.