Our country has been hard hit by unemployment during the current pandemic. Growing up in working class Youngstown, many of us went through tight times. I remember a period when my dad was unemployed in the ’60’s, and under-employed for a period of time. Unemployment checks didn’t go very far, and there were no supplements. At other times, union workers were on strike and had to live on strike pay, as long as it lasted. Here are some of the ways we got by:
- We grew, caught, and shot our food when we could. We had gardens, canned, fished, and hunted. We went out and picked strawberries, apples, other fresh fruit from local fruit farms. Going picking took care of one meal as you picked and ate.
- Many of our favorite dishes came from inexpensive staples. Brier Hill pizza, haluski, pierogies, and what my mom called “slumgullion,” a cheap stew.
- We bought “day old” bread from the Wonder store that cost less than half a regular loaf. Fried baloney sandwiches were a great treat.
- Dad used to get “retreads” for his tires. As long as the sidewall was in good shape, this was a lot cheaper than a new set of tires.
- Cars were easier to work on and many guys did their own oil changes, brake jobs, tune ups and even engine repairs.
- Clothes were saved and mended for hand-me-downs. Somehow, mom always made us look presentable for school.
- We started doing odd jobs early–cutting lawns, baby-sitting, raking leaves, shoveling snow, delivering papers. Some men did house painting or other home repair work for hire; women took house cleaning jobs.
- I’m used to a lot of books around the home. Back then, we brought armloads of books home from the library. No videos. Just books.
- We went to matinees or double features. If we went to movies as a family, it was to the drive-in and brought our food.
- When we couldn’t pay to go to sports games, we played. Sometimes we got by with baseballs wrapped in electrical tape or basketballs worn smooth that you had to pump up before, and sometimes, during the game.
One big resource many of us had were extended families that lived nearby and helped out. Grandparents, aunts and uncles. I spent most of one summer during this time with grandparents. I suspect one less hungry mouth helped the rest of the family get by.
The funny thing was that we not only got by but had a rich life growing up. War stories and baseball biographies were great for rainy days. My friends and I spent hours over the family Monopoly game, making and losing imaginary fortunes. The equipment wasn’t the greatest, but our games of baseball, football, or basketball were no less fun for it. The money we earned at those odd jobs gave a sense of pride and taught us how to work and be responsible.
None of this is to make light of the struggle people face today. The suddenness of how everything has changed has caught us off guard. Whole businesses have gone from profitable to closed in a day. The complication of a potentially dangerous illness is unique. But there was a “Youngstown tough” that we grew up with that we can remember and learn from. We can get through this.