Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Are We Scared Yet?

If you are old enough to remember Lassie and hula hoops, chances are your grandparents lived through the Great Depression. You may have been taught in school that the stock market crash of 1929 sent the country on a disastrous 10-year economic decline; you also may have heard, and heard again, personal stories of that time. Often these stories consist of a single memory, one that is meant to stand in for all the rest, and to convey what it was like to live through such an event.

My grandmother's story was this: She was working in a real estate office in Palm Beach, Florida, before the Crash. Sales were booming and times were flush. This exuberance was reflected in a large mosaic map of Florida embedded in the office floor. At the center of the map was Florida’s Gold Coast, and that the center of the Gold Coast was Palm Beach, marked by a shiny silver dollar that the artist had cemented among the tiles.

Not long after, the Florida boom became a bust and my grandmother ended up losing her house, her car and the money she had been saving for my father's education. But the story she told wasn't about that. Instead it was about the silver dollar – and how one morning she and her colleagues came in to work to discover that someone had chiseled it right out of the map. Times were that hard.

For a while after the '29 stock market crash, nobody understood the extent of the economic crisis. Especially the nobodies. On Wall Street, stockbrokers were jumping out of windows. But lots of ordinary people bought the government’s assurances that the shortage of cash was temporary, nothing to worry about. Then something would happen - in my grandmother's case it was the disappearance of the silver dollar - that crystallized the new reality. Yes, times were now that hard.

I haven't come upon my own silver dollar yet, but I'm on the lookout. It stands to reason, when in the same week, a major Wall Street firm collapses and Alan Greenspan announces the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. (Actually he said World War II, but that is essentially the same thing, since it was gearing up for war production that decisively pulled the U.S. out of the Depression.)

I was raised on stories of the Depression. I still have in my possession a photograph of the beautiful Victorian house my grandmother lost. I admit to being a pessimist about money issues, and I sincerely hope I'm wrong this time. But if I see something that looks like it might be my silver dollar, I will let you know.

No comments: