Nick Meets Sarah

The Saga of the Seventh Generation Trilogy, Book Two: RIPPLES by C. J. Hotchkiss

From Chapter 11: The Depression

By the time the Depression was creeping into New England, Nick and Jo had settled back into New York City.  Jo taught anthropology at Columbia University and Nick continued to work for the Saturday Evening Post.   When the banks crashed following the stock market, Nick was sent out to take the pulse of a stunned and needy nation.  He wrote about the patched together social galas of old money, failing gas stations and small businesses of the plummeting middle class, and the newly inhabited streets of tent cities called “Hoovervilles”, named after the fumbling, stubbornly optimistic president. 

By 1931, the largest Hooverville in the United States was an amalgamation of tents, cardboard boxes, crates, and makeshift shanties along the primary artery of America, the Mississippi River.  Formerly the fourth largest city in the country, St. Louis had been struggling, as shipping turned from rivers to trains and prohibition undermined the city’s biggest industry – brewing.  Frustration was high, organized crime was filling in the holes created by prohibition, and, by 1929, unemployment in St. Louis was approaching 25% for whites and 80% for Negroes.  By 1930, over 5000 St. Louis men, women, and children desperately gathered in the informal Hooverville community along the Mississippi River.   This slipshod community had four churches, numerous collection centers, and it’s own mayor, a worker named Gus Smith.  One of the owner’s of a local bunkhouse, built a Welcome Inn, under Eades Bridge at Fourth Street and Chouteau Avenue, three blocks from Hooverville.  It was built out of the same scrap lumber and dirt floor as it’s neighbors, but it served over 4000 meals a day, using a makeshift brick oven for cooking and an old bathtub for washing up.  St. Louis philanthropists, great and small, were quick to help, raising money, providing work, and establishing a canning kitchen at the Welcome Inn for processing donated produce.  This was the story that Nick went to St. Louis to write.

In spite of his liberal sympathies, Nick was not prepared for what he saw.  The cobblestone banks of the Mississippi were saturated with tents, campfires, rats, cardboard boxes for sleeping, and buckets for urinals to be dumped in the river.  Rats scrambled around the docks wherever it was dark, searching out precious scraps on their newly populated riverbank.  Children ran between tents, some playing, some begging, most of them hungry.  Some women swept or made soup out of twice used vegetables, while others had given up and were sitting with the hobos, passing a bottle of bootleg wine around a scruffy fire of scrap wood.  The ranks of men ranged from those who waited in line every day for temporary work to those who talked about waiting in line for temporary work to those who drank and stared vacantly into the indifferent Mississippi River.  Colored and white homeless families, who had clashed so violently just 10 years earlier and were deeply segregated in St. Louis itself, lived together indiscriminately in Hooverville.  The women worked together, the children played together, and the men shrugged, humbled by their common plight.  Some wanted to tell Nick their stories; others glared like trapped animals in a zoo and turned away from him.  None of them had imagined they would be where they were or who they had become.  Many believed everything was temporary and their old lives would rematerialize in just a matter of time.  The more disheartened shook their heads and laughed at such foolishness.  Most just woke up every morning to see if anything had changed.  

In the business of interviews and reflection, Nick happened on a small, out of place store that sat by the warehouses and was now surrounded by tents and vagrants.  He might not have noticed it except that there was a constant line that gathered around the back door where free coffee was given to anyone who asked.  It was called Parker’s River Store or The River Store for short.  Several men that Nick interviewed had referred to it, saying it was the place to go for news or work or gossip. 

It was an attractive, trendy store full of handmade wood items sold under the name Hillbilly Woods.  The items combined a pleasant functionality and beauty in a way that drew tired women into the kitchen to chop and stir, feeling more like a chef than a drone.  It was not a store that would have catered to the inhabitants of Hooverville, even in their previous lives.  Its costly wares were priced more for the upper classes. It was a family run business from Cape Girardeau.  The majority of their wares were made by country folk from a small town in the Ozarks in Missouri.  The owners, a rather extended Parker family, were country folk that were clearly doing quite well, but had none of the airs of the rich folks that frequented their stores.  When Nick learned that these simple people had eight stores and sold their merchandise in Chicago, New Orleans, Boston, and his own New York City, he became curious. 

Nick browsed through the merchandise, curiously observing the interactions between clients, Hooverville residents, and the owners of the store.  Oddly, the blend did not feel awkward.  On this particular day, the actual owner of the store, a 95 year old woman, Sarah, accompanied by her middle aged son, Charlie who appeared to be the primary manager of the franchise, were in the store.  They lived in Cape Girardeau, but with the Depression and hardships of Hooverville, Charlie and sometimes Sarah, came up to the St. Louis stores, at least once a week.  They brought fresh produce and home baked goods, donated by the people who worked in the Hillbilly Woods factory in Doniphan.  Charlie was a wiry, homespun looking guy about Nick’s age with a boyish cowlick and wire rimmed glasses.  He chatted easily with his well-heeled customers who seemed to view him as some sort of sage.  He joked around with their servants and respectfully conversed with the homeless men and women who dropped by for coffee, work, or to pass the uninterrupted time.  They inquired about Charlie’s family and sweet wife, Emily, like old friends.  Nick was impressed by the man’s ability to move smoothly between tiered conversations without judgment or affectation.

It was Sarah who noticed Nick.   She approached him with the offer of a cup of coffee.  He deferred, but the resolute old lady insisted.   She asked him to join her on the porch swing; she had been standing much too long.  Nick smiled and agreed, seating her on the swing and going to get coffee for the two of them.  He was actually delighted at the opportunity to talk with her.  Sarah thanked him for the coffee and inquired directly.  “So what are you doing at the River Store?  You are not homeless and, if I have observed you correctly, you are not really in the market for native woodwork.”

Nick blushed and smiled at the no-nonsense woman.  “ Yes, you are right on both counts.”  He said candidly.  “I am a reporter for the Saturday Evening Post, sent to St. Louis to write a story on the Hooverville here.”

“What a good idea!”  Sarah smiled with a nod.  “It is quite a mess.  Mr. Hoover himself ought to come and explain to these folks in person how they should just work and not worry so much.”  Sarah shook her head and said quietly.  “I suspect they would love to work and not worry so much.”

“How come you are serving coffee out the backdoor?”  Nick inquired.

“Oh, these folks won’t come to the front door, “ Sarah smiled.  “They have seen better days and, outside of Hooverville, feel a little ashamed about the way they look.  Besides, it’s more neighborly to come to the back door, makes them feel more familiar, not just asking for a handout.”

“Why coffee?”  Nick asked.

“Oh, we have some milk for the kids, but there’s something about a cup of coffee that makes you feel like you still have a stake in things.  Like you are just taking a break to chat with a neighbor.”  Sarah smiled again.  “Like you and me, here.  Give us a cup of coffee and we start talking like old friends.”

Nick nodded at the woman’s insight, then pointed to the copper kettle, a stack of newspapers, and boxes of produce that stood behind the register.  “What are those?”

Sarah glanced where he pointed and shrugged.  “The rich folks that come in to buy their fancy wood wares bring them.  It makes them feel less embarrassed to pay a whole dollar for a wooden spoon and leave another dollar for the homeless.  We give most of that money to the Welcome Inn or the churches here in Hooverville, but I keep a little cache put away for someone who comes in with a desperate situation.   That way, I can help them out right away.  I admit it has occasionally been used to buy some penny candy for the children, after they have finished their homework.” Sarah added, somewhat bashfully.  “It can’t all be about necessities.”

Sarah said that the newspapers were collected in Cape Girardeau and Doniphan, sometimes for getting a fire started, but mostly used as “Hoover Blankets” to keep folks warm when it rained or the temperature dropped.  “The boxes of produce, baked goods, and hand me downs are from the folks that work in the Hillbilly Woods factory down in Doniphan.  They put together stuff every week for us to bring up.”

“Your factory workers collect food and clothing to donate to the Hooverville folks up here?”  This caught Nick by surprise.  “How are they getting along themselves?”

“Oh, they are getting by OK.   There are always extra zucchini and watermelon to share.  You never miss the last can of beans or strawberry jam when somebody else needs it more.” Sarah said.  “We haven’t had to lay anybody off and Ozark people aren’t the type to buy on credit, so the Depression hasn’t hit nearly as hard down there.  Plus, most of those folks have known hard times, so they are generous to people who are down on their luck.”

Nick listened for a note of condescension, but he couldn’t hear it.  “Why haven’t you had to lay anyone off?  Hundreds of small businesses have gone bankrupt and over a half of the factory workers here in St. Louis have lost their jobs.”

“I know,” said Sarah.  “Isn’t that ridiculous?  I can’t say that it has been easy.  My son, Charlie, over there, he goes in to work at 3:00-4:00 every morning and doesn’t get back until after dark.  He helps out wherever needs help.  When the workers see him working so hard, they want to pitch in too.  We are kind of a family down there; everyone is happy just to have work.  Last spring, we met all together.  Charlie explained what was going on in the business world and the company.  Charlie assured everyone that we were ok.  My deceased husband, Paris, bless his soul, had built the company and we had no debt.  The problem would be that our market was shrinking as people could afford less and stores were less willing to stock what they called luxury items.  The high-end market would stay reasonably stable – it always did – but we might have to tighten our belts while the market got itself out of trouble.

“Charlie asked everyone to work five hours less a week.  Their take home pay would be smaller, but they would have all the benefits they currently had.  He also gave them the flexibility to decide when they wanted to take those five hours, an option that a lot of folks appreciated.  Some of the older workers who didn’t need as much income gave some of their working hours to younger folks with hungry families.  Some of the younger folks worked their lost hours for free, just to get a job done.  The workers themselves came up with the idea of using some of the scrap wood to make less expensive bowls and utensils that might still find a niche in the market while things were tight.  Emily, that’s Charlie’s wife, was so proud of everyone’s efforts, that she organized a women’s group that provided a free hot lunch to all the workers on shift.  The meeting ended with a community potluck and barbecue down by the river.  Everyone felt like they had helped and they had.  We aren’t doing as well as we have at times, but we are doing good enough.”

Nick listened intently to Sarah’s reasonable explanation of what the business world back in New York would find incomprehensible. Living within your means. Tightening your belt.  Collaboration.  Talking things over.  Pitching in.  Helping each other out.  Even a free lunch.  It echoed the community spirit that he had observed on the riverfront Hooverville itself.  This would be his story. Turning to Sarah, Nick said  “I would like to meet your son.”  

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