When I was a kid, we were at the low end of the working class, but in the 1950s post-war expansion of the economy, even the low end of the working class was actually working. We had many deficits in our lives, but a sense of crushing poverty was not one of them. Everybody in our neighborhood had a job and made a living wage. My mother even owned her own house. She, two of my sisters, and I lived on the ground floor, which consisted of a living room, a dining room, a kitchen, and one bedroom. Sleeping arrangements involved roll-away beds. Another sister, Evie, was married, and my brother Bill, who was 20 years older than me, lived in California. We couldn’t buy whatever we wanted, but we ate well. Most dinners included meat, and it seems as though we had halibut every Friday night, always baked in a spicy tomato sauce. I was an adult before I realized that halibut could be served any other way.
Mom rented two upstairs rooms to two middle-aged working men with some sort of shipwrecks in their lives. One of them, Homer, was a bachelor who worked as a short-order cook at Adam’s Eatery, about two blocks from our house. He was small and extremely thin, had a glass eye, and chain-smoked Lucky Strike cigarettes. Every night he came home coughing and wheezing, and carrying a box of fried chicken. And every night he wet the bed. On Saturday, one of my chores was to go onto Homer’s room, take the sheets off his bed, empty his ashtrays, and collect the boxes of chicken bones. My sisters told me that he kept a spare glass eye on his dresser, and I wanted very much to see it, but I could never stand the stench long enough to do a thorough search.
My father had died when I was four, and my mother worked as a cook in a bar and grill. She drank heavily and could be a difficult parent, but everything is relative. My brother Bill used to tell a story about a friend of his when he was a kid. His friend’s mother was making them French toast. They were talking about paper routes and the need to have a bike to get one. Bill’s friend said “Man, I wish I had a bike.” His mother looked at him with a sneer and said, “Why don’t you wish in one hand and shit in the other and see which one fills up first.”
Once when I was about 10 or 11, I was walking with Mom on the main business street in our neighborhood a few blocks from our house. A hardware store had an English racing bike in the window. At least that’s what I called it. Unlike the sturdy American bike I had, it had very thin tires, a three-speed gear, and hand brakes on the handle bars. We stopped and looked at it. In my mind that bike was so far out of reach that I don’t think I even really coveted it. It would be like now looking at a Jaguar. I could admire it, but the thought of actually owning it is completely out of the question. We walked on. A few weeks later, I came home from school, and there was the English racing bike on the front porch. I don’t think I have ever been as thrilled with a material acquisition since. I’m not sure what she gave up to pay for that bike, but it must have been something of a hardship for her to buy it.