My grandparent’s generation grew up without access to credit. They arrived in this country from Poland around 1900, during that period when American business needed a vast workforce of unskilled labor to service a rapidly industrializing nation. The immigrant generation quickly found work in the meat packing plants, factories and refineries along the Delaware River just south of Philadelphia. My great grandfather had at one time served in a Polish cavlary regiment attached to the Austro-Hungarian army. My family has a black and white photo of him in uniform, retouched with colors brushed on later by an unknown artist. Like most Polish peasants, he was uncouth, ignorant, brutal, and frequently drunk when not at work. One evening after a binge he passed out on his way home and slept in the rain. He caught pneumonia and died. His eldest son, my grandfather, had to quit school at age twelve to take his father’s place on the factory floor. Employers at the time customarily reserved a man’s place for a member of the family. In those days this accommodation to the families of working men was the only form of social security extant. It served to provide widows and orphans with food and a roof over their heads. Life was hard and there was never enough money. The day started at 0400 when trains bearing coal from the western mountains began their crawl into Philadelphia. Young boys from the neighborhood would jump the coal cars, clamber up the sides, and begin heaving coal to mothers and sisters waiting below. The women gathered the fuel in aprons and trundled home to put fire in family stoves. The daily windfall was the only form of heat for most of the row houses in the little Polish ghetto of Chester, Pennsylvania.
Throughout the Great Depression life was hard, but through a combination of gritty endurance and thrift, most families in the neighborhood managed to pull through. Extended families serve as a safety net in lean times; the community would suffer casualties through illness and accident, but as a whole the Polish community arrived intact in time for World War II. Neighborhood sons shipped out to the various war theaters without complaint. My great uncle was accepted for service despite a disability; one leg was two inches shorter than the other. Men who can’t march are not combat material so he spent the war with a garrison unit in Puerto Rico. Back at home the war was providing an economic miracle for the working class. Despite rationing, for the first time there was enough to eat and even a few nickels left over for entertainment. A boy could see a double-feature at the movie house and get a bag of popcorn thrown into the deal for a dime. Life was suddenly very good. No one had a refridgerator yet, but there was a certain compensation in being able to chase the ice truck down the street in the hope of catching a few cool chips. Christmas was a bit lean, bringing maybe a hairbrush for the girls or popgun to the boys, but nobody complained. Genuine needs had finally been met. About this time my grandfather put down a deposit on a modest row house and took on a mortgage, the only time in his life he ever borrowed money.
When Ford Motor Company refitted after the war, turning from tanks and jeeps to consumer vehicles, my grandfather had a chance to purchase a new Ford at the factory discount. But he didn’t because he wasn’t going to borrow for it. He bought a used Pontiac instead, got fired for disloyalty, and was only reinstated after an appeal by the shop steward. His belief, amounting to an unwritten societal norm, was that if you didn’t have the cash for something, neither could you afford it over time with interest. The Polish working class remembered hard times, and they squirreled away coins in preparation for the next. They were savers not borrowers. Money was a concrete asset to be stored in a hole under the garage if necessary. But they did spend for education. My great aunt worked as a scrub woman for the day when her eldest son would be old enough for college. She was furious when he took a job instead on the factory line like his father. The nest egg defaulted to her daughter who used the funds to attend nursing school. My uncles attended college and began the ascent into America’s middle class.
No one saw it coming at the time, but education and increased mobility would be the death of the immigrant community. The kids began to move away to seek more gainful employment elsewhere. Before long the Polish neighborhood had become a community of pensioners. Slum lords began to buy up the modest row houses. The welfare class moved in to take advantage of cheap rents. Trash accumulated in the streets and crime ruled the night. The old people began to die, and within a decade it was all gone. Finis. My grandfather’s house, valued at 35K in the mid-70’s, sold for $5,000 in the early 90’s when it was time to move grandma to a nursing home. My last visit to the old Polish neighborhood was like a walk through a morgue. Entire streets were borded up. Buildings were collapsing into the sidewalk. Nobody even bothered to bulldoze the debris and haul it off. The field where I played ball as a kid had become a repository for derelict trucks. The neighborhood was dead; sons and daughters had moved to greener pastures.
My very Catholic mother married a local Pennsylvania farm boy after his discharge from the military following the Korean War. They moved to Allentown where I was born. A little brother followed two years later. My parents purchased a small house in what was then considered a middle class neighborhood. The family did just fine on dad’s single salary. My father might have been the first on my German Lutheran side, going back to the Thirty Years War, to attend college. Pennsylvania Military Acadamy, known now as Weidner College, wasn’t exactly West Point or The Citadel, but the school graduated a hundred or so dependable cadets for the military every year. Dad was put in charge of the school mascot, a mule, on the assumption that a Pennsylvania farm boy new something about livestock. Actually, my father grew up on a chicken farm during The Depression. He hates chickens to this day, and I have never heard him in my life ever refer to the bird without some sort of profane adjective. But one must suppose that on a chicken farm in lean times everybody eats. Mom and dad had a lot in common being both products of the depression generation. And I inherited the family propensity for hard work and thrift. As a kid I lacked for nothing important. I had good schooling, the best medical care, and toys in abundance. The only snag in the new eutopia, if I really wanted something bad enough, I had to save for it. I didn’t get everything just for the asking. So I learned the lessons of Polish factory workers and German chicken farmers. I saved. Even birthday money was squirreled away for college. In 1975, I left for the University of Maryland with a nest egg of $400. I thought it quite a lot.
I am hesitant to admit certain truths, but the facts of my college education lend themselves more to a life of debauchery than erudition. Nevertheless, in my rare moments of lucidity, I managed to figure out the game. In my final semester I earned a perfect 4.0 while juggling 21 credit hours. But something else had happened in the interim; credit had arrived. Not college credits, real monetary credit: bucks, denarii, ducats! And I had some of the world’s largest banks willing to finance my debauchery. Is this a great country or what? Well, I nibbled a bit. Then I worked the math this way and that. It didn’t work. I quickly deduced that credit was a cheat and a lie. I watched as some of my friends took the dive into consumer culture and quickly found themselves shackled to intolerable levels of debt. They were drowning in a sea of red ink. I reverted to form. Work hard. Save money. Then do what you will once you’ve earned it. So I did. I took six extended trips abroad between ’78 and ’91. And I never borrowed a dime. Sure, I returned each time with nothing more than the shirt on my back, but recovery was easy without the loadstone of debt. Today I carry one debt: a mortgage. But unlike my parents, who were always savers, I have joined the investor class. The ability to run a surplus will do that for a person.
I marvel today at the number of people I know who manage astounding levels of debt. Worse yet, many of them have no assets. Debt without anything tangible to show for it? My cursory research on the Internet tells me that half of all American households have no assets. These are the worker drones who live paycheck-to-paycheck. I see statistics that claim the average American household owes 12K to 20K in ordinary consumer debt. One must conclude the lessons of the past have been lost. What will happen when the bottom drops out? Traditionally it does, you know, it’s called the business cycle. Economies, like the Kreb’s Cycle, or any cycle known to nature, tend to move in an ebb and flow. What happens at ebb tide?
I might shrug it all off and not worry too much because it’s not my problem. But then, I see that consumer culture is eroding the values and virtues of my forefathers. They believed you couldn’t have what you couldn’t pay for. Immediate gratification was always deferred in the face of experience that taught hard times might come again. European peasants have taught me a thing or two. Surplus: good. Poverty: bad. And debt: unthinkable. But today we live in a society of grab and grasp at any cost. The rule is payment deferred trumps gratification denied. I don’t buy it; this is not a virtue. It’s a fool’s bet. The whole bloody racket smacks of societal decadence. And the present generation of college kids has bought into with a vengeance. They’ll be paying for pizzas bought when they were freshmen till they’re forty-five. Maybe I was just a garden variety drunk during my college years when I stumbled down to the Town Hall for a 50 cent (the cent symbol has been removed from the current keyboard. . . arghh!) quart of Ortlieb’s, but at least I didn’t borrow for it. I think I’ll stop now on this overlong discourse for a dram of J.D. It even tastes better when it’s paid for. It does, I swear it.