Depression Babies

Mother f**ker. They have done it to me again. The Depression Babies that sold me this house, that is.

Every now and then I feel bad about the hard bargain I drove them — I insisted they take off an unconnected TV antenna which amounted to an ungrounded lightning rod; I contended that an “As Is” placard on the clothes dryer did not amount to legitimate disclosure of the fact that said dryer had been hot-wired into the 110 volt juice at the breaker box and smoked when you ran it on the High setting. (They relinquished a thousand bucks back on the earnest money so that I could replace the dryer and pay an electrician to run 220 volt current, standard for dryers in the US, to a nice safe outlet on the wall behind the laundry station.)

I stole the place, really, so I ate the fact that they had painted the whole first floor in duelling shades of lipstick pink and primrose yellow, shades that screamed of the “Oops” rack at the paint store, yea even to the doors and baseboards and floor molding, all a uniform flat-finish that collected munge and fingerprints from the ether. It took a coat of Kilz and three of home-store generic warm-white to get rid of the awful maquillage (the floor molding was scraped and lacquered by the guy who sanded the floors, or rather by a member of his crew who resembled a depraved Santa Claus, reeking of stale wine, able to do his entire job from a reclining position, likely the only one available to him).

But I keep finding this shit. The invasion of palmetto bugs or roaches or what you will has made me frantic and among other measures it seemed like time to pull out the cracked caulking that sealed the kitchen counter to the wall, scrub everything and apply fresh caulk. Come to find out that the backboard behind the sink had warped away from the wall at either side, and to close the gap, the fucking Depression Babies had rolled up newspapers (Sunday supplements, full of ads featuring Keebler elves and the like) and stuffed them between the backboard and the wall before applying caulking. Damp and age had had the imaginable effects.

Feature me with a steak knife and church key in hand, once again swearing in terms usually reserved for drill instructors and successful rappers. After about an hour I had dug out all the old caulk and Franklin Mint ads, and found in my workbench an adhesive-backed roll of rubber gaskety stuff meant for insulating casement windows, which bridged the gap and could be caulked over.

Goddam Depression Babies. You know the term? These are the people who had reached the age of reason when the shit hit the fan in 1929 — the ones who had to make do, or watch their peers making do, with clothes that you could read a newspaper through, who learned never to spend a nickel if you could make it till tomorrow on a penny, who saved everything in the shrieking fear that next year they’d have nothing. And who kept on living like that decades after the privation and squalor you incurred by not spending money far outweighed the slight risk of letting go of two cents that you might want five years from now.

I hope to Frog that the kids growing up now, the ones whose parents have been foreclosed and lost jobs and had to go to food banks, don’t get caught up in this insanity of treating money as if it’s something irreplaceable that should never be spent if you can possibly avoid it, no matter what you have to endure.

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17 thoughts on “Depression Babies

    • It screwed up a whole generation’s relationship to money. The father of a guy I dated, who was a bit older than my own parents and so square in the crosshairs, used to keep the house tightly closed YEAR ROUND because he paid for heat and air conditioning and he was damned if he was letting any out. This is a guy who owned a home in the swanky end of the county and had full military retirement with commissary privileges. When they started reporting how everyone ought to get more fiber, he went to a working horse barn and bought a couple of bushels of bran cheap, stored it in a clean 50 gallon trash can in his pantry, and that was what he put on his cereal because why pay more for something you could actually enjoy eating?

      There was another guy in the same age group who used to keep the can of Raid with the last few drops rattling around in it because someday he was sure he would find a way to get them out. He had about two dozen stacked at the bottom of his coat closet.

      • Those are some real extremists. I car pooled to my summer job in college with some DBs. We had to cross railroad tracks and if we’d get stuck by a train (which took less time than a red light) the driver would turn off the ignition to save gas. I think that the plastic covering on the living room furniture comes from the same philosophy.

        • Ha! The horse bran guy’s wife had those on her furniture. Her son called them “sofa condoms” derisively — but he had picked up a lot of this behavior from two parents who were strongly marked with it, and that is where the real tragedy and frustration lies. (Edit: I don’t mean for just the individuals here, I mean in the larger sphere of whole generations passing on the warping.) He used to coast his car the last several hundred yards, also to save gas — he had learned by experimentation exactly where to cut the ignition going to my house or his. And once I suggested we go get some of the very new treat, “frozen yogurt,” at that time only available at one place in the area. I didn’t have wheels at that point in my life. “No, I’m trying to save money,” he said. “I want some, I’ll buy,” I said. “No,” he said, “if we go out, I’d feel wrong if I didn’t pay, and I don’t want to spend any more this week.”

          So we sat home.

          You can imagine this romance didn’t last long.

          • I wonder how much of the materialism and conspicuous consumption of the last few years was the result our generation’s reaction against that kind of behavior. I always thought that when they talked about the generation gap in the 60s it really existed and that the tribal difference between the generations was the tension between the “penny saved is a penny earned” mentality and the “live for today because tomorrow may never come” mentality as embodied in so many songs of that day.

          • I’m sure that was a large part of the conflict. The weird thing is that some parents of boomers were the worst conspicuous consumers ever — every year or two the new car, the new fashion — while some boomers became hippies and tried to live on next to nothing, recreate a barter economy, etc.

            What happened in the 80s, I’m not sure. I always think of the 70s as the decade when the Boomers turned cynical, the 80s as the decade when “Fuck you Jack I’m all right” became a praiseworthy motto and the 90s as the decade of “Say It Now and Say It Loud, I’m an Asshole and I’m Proud” (when it got to be funny and clever to cut people off in traffic, for example).

            But it’s getting harder and harder to find people with a reasonable attitude to money, which I think of as an encoded reservoir representing the value of the hours of your life. You trade your breaths on this earth for things you want or need — always knowing your supply is limited, but then the amount of time you have left to use the breaths you’ve banked is also limited. Some perspective, people.

  1. I suppose if you haven’t got the cash you simply lose the habit of spending it.

    If we had had some of the DP determination not to live on credit we might not be in the mess we are now.

    Watch this space.

    • I’m all for not living on credit, if you can avoid it. I learned not to resent people my age who seemed to have a lot more stuff when I grasped that they had put it all on their Visa cards. It’s the people who have the money in the bank, yet will not spend it on something as critical as safe wiring in their house, that boggle my mind. (In fact, if you have a Visa card and the choice between running up a few months’ interest and hot-wiring your clothes dryer, any sane person runs up the interest. It’s not a beach vacation, an unneeded new car, a hi-def TV or a jet ski.)

      And we should consider that extreme stinginess tends to create a backlash — Newton’s Third Law or enantiodromia, take your pick. We’ve all known people with tightwad upbringings who reacted by letting money run through their fingers.

      Anyway, it really wasn’t people with overextended Visa cards that messed up the world economy. From where I sit, the fire touched the fuse when a lot of financiers decided to go high-stakes gambling with the assets under their control.

      • I agree with all that. If we don’t want bankers to ruin our lives we try not to borrow from them, otherwise we only have ourselves to blame.

        The desire to own before we earn helps to maintain the power of the rich to mis-spend. What money is spent on matters deeply because it affects what people do – do we waste it on fading frippery or do we have an eye for our nieces’ and nephews’ prospects? Our comforts derive mostly from the sacrifices of our forebears.

        Most of us seek the “good” life. Succeeding generations have done so, of course, and that is why we have to borrow for our homes. It is a myth put about by bankers that we have to borrow for our businesses, thus trying to justify the existence of banks and their actvities. Then they lend to and recover from, the wrong businesses and in the wrong circumstances. Governments tend to treat taxes in the same way and for the same reasons.

        • As much as I concur with your basic point of view, Richard (I suspect that given a set of options about how to allocate a sum of money or about making or abstaining from various types of purchases, we would behave much alike) I have to invoke a caveat about people who have plenty of means admonishing others to live within their means.

          A client of mine who is a research scientist for a government-fueled defense industry contractor expostulated to me at the beginning of the financial crisis in 2008. She is, incidentally, married to someone with a similar career and they have no children. After venting a bracing rant about how we wouldn’t be in this place if people would just LIVE WITHIN THEIR MEANS, she got in her Lexus and drove off.

          Not everyone can be a well-paid engineer, lawyer, vice president of a nonprofit, or, in this area, Congressional staffer or lobbyist. Critical sectors like the housing market, however, seem to take no heed of this. People with jobs that offer no benefits or security and entry level wages are supposed to put a roof over their heads in an area like mine where old apartments get knocked down every year and replaced by “luxury” units that are hard to afford even with a legal number of roommates, and where local law literally prohibits renting a room in your house to a lodger. The market has jumped since I bought to a point that I couldn’t hope to buy my own house back from myself. I could go on, but you must grasp that the basics of life, obtained at the cheapest prices the market offers, can strain a working person’s cash flow to the breaking point. Yes, some young people on their first job are going drinking and buying toys with their credit cards, but others — young and not so young — have to use those cards in order to keep from losing what they do have. Prices would probably come down if enough people banded together and said “We will camp out on the public green until housing prices drop to a level we can afford on our salaries,” but when will that happen? Oh wait — we had a bit of it, and everyone reviled Occupy…

  2. Maquillage. I love this word.

    My parents were infants when the Depression hit and teenagers when the War came and in hindsight seem to have been reasonably balanced in their relationship to money. I on the other hand have become fairly profligate, but that might be a temporary reaction to being freed of the disciplined influence of my ex-wife, who was raised by people with no understanding of money at all (and little enough to learn with) and accordingly swung towards parsimony.

    With respect to something said above, I believe we *should* borrow money for our businesses, if we have a good plan for growing both, but not so much for our lifestyles. When I look back on the past year’s charges for dinners out and rooms away and Burning Man accoutrements, I’m not sure what I’ve been investing in.

    • Actually some of the stupidest expenditures I ever made were directly out of what was at the time fairly copious cash flow, while money I have spent on credit (equity line, MasterCard) was always pretty well spent (i.e., represented an ultimate saving over what would have otherwise been required of me). But then I grew up with a horror of debt, since it represents the fate-wrose-than-death of People Getting To Fuck With You. I guess I only do it when the pros and cons are clear cut and forcibly on the side of pro.

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