The Gospel According to Jerry

By 1936, the Great Depression had savaged the nation and the world, and Asheville and Buncombe County were left in dire financial circumstances.

Schoolteachers were being paid in scrip (IOUs from the county that some local merchants reluctantly accepted, at deep discounts, so that teachers could buy the bare necessities of life). Land was still being "sold to music," as my grandfather used to say. (Public foreclosure auctions literally "drummed up" a crowd for the sale.) Unemployment was in the high double digits, and soup kitchens were still common.

Of course, as a 5-year-old boy trudging off to my first day of class at Claxton School, I was completely oblivious to all of these circumstances.

Still, the Depression did dictate a way of life, and we children received constant reminders of "waste not, want not" — and how much worse off others were.

About every six months, we got a new pair of shoes at the Thom McCan store on Pack Square. Children's shoes were about $3 and adult shoes about $6, and the price didn't change for years.

The new shoes were, of course, saved for special occasions, and heaven forbid you scuffed them before you outgrew or wore out your "regular shoes."

The worn and outgrown shoes were sent with you to school for the many children who had no shoes at all. It wasn't uncommon to put cardboard in worn shoes till a determination could be made as to whether it was worth having them half-soled. A darning egg was standard equipment in most homes to prolong the life of worn socks.

It was always a treat when my parents let me eat in the school lunchroom, where lunches cost about 25 cents, but I usually carried my lunch from home.

I don't know if there was a free school-lunch program, but there were always children waiting around in case you didn't want some part of your lunch. They seemed as if they never got enough to eat, and I understand that to this day, the best and sometimes only meal many children get is the one they eat at school.

I, meanwhile, was constantly admonished to bring home my stained paper bag, neatly folded, so it could be reused.

In those days, people saved everything — string, pins, rubber bands — and almost any house you visited had balls of "tinfoil" sitting around. It was as if some huge silver duck had laid silver eggs and was expected to come back and hatch them.

Actually, this foil (which was a common food wrap) contained lead, but then this was pre-Environmental Protection Agency. It also had scrap value, and we bought tons of it at the scrap yard.

I was probably more aware than most youngsters of how desperate people were during those times, because I hung around my daddy's scrap-metal business at the depot.

I remember seeing children, some no older than I was, walking the railroad tracks with a burlap bag and picking up chunks of coal that had fallen off one of the endless stream of coal trains that came through Asheville.

Many young people dropped out of high school, not by choice but because they had to work to help feed their family. This was especially true in the rural community, where farmers depended on the vagaries of produce, tobacco prices and fickle weather, which together dictated crop production aimed at saving their land and homes from foreclosure.

Many farms failed anyway. The Grapes of Wrath was not a fairy tale.

I may have mentioned in an earlier column a vision that still resonates with me — of a constant stream of men coming to my daddy's office looking for work. Many were dressed in coats and ties, and my daddy told me that some had been bankers, clerks, bookkeepers and government workers, but they were now willing to take any job to feed their family.

My dad would explain that the only work he could offer included loading heavy barrels and working in the nasty hide basement and that they wouldn't last two days. Others came seeking financial help, and I know my dad, a kind and generous man, made many loans that he knew would never be repaid.

I guess the whole point of this column and my last one ("Depression-era Memories," May 20 Xpress) is to give the young people of this community some perspective on what it was like during the last big Depression and what might be coming amid the rapidly deteriorating economic conditions we now face.

I know that the last thing this better-educated, high-tech, up-and-coming generation wants to hear is free advice from an old curmudgeon, and of course it's worth exactly what they're paying for it.

Well, I have 50 words left, so I am going to give it anyway.

You've been told all your life that someone will take care of you. Don't believe it: Many of those people who told you that are now in financial trouble themselves.
Prepare for the worst scenario you can imagine. If you have a job, even if you don't like it, respect it for now, and do your best to keep it.

Save every dollar you can.

If you don't have to have something, don't buy it. Forget about new; try to extend the life of what you have.

You are in a real-life reality show, and it ain't going to be fun.

Finally, I want to quote my daddy one more time: "It is a lot easier to live up than it is to live down."

[Jerry Sternberg has been active on the local scene for many years. He can be reached at]


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16 thoughts on “The Gospel According to Jerry

  1. Jerry, you and I have disagreed on some issues over the years, but I’ve got to say that I couldn’t agree more with what you’ve offered here. While we can all hope that brighter economic times are not too far ahead, the numbers don’t support that optimism yet. My advice to friends for several years has been like yours now: save; pay off your loans; make do; make it last. “Castles, built out of sand, fall into the sea, eventually.” (Jimi Hendrix)

  2. Carrie

    Hi Jerry! I enjoy your writings very much. However, to preface your story with, “Welcome To the Next Great Depression”, is not accurate, to say the least. You’ve given a wonderful tale of the past. I enjoy your writing, but, please don’t say it’s present day. It’s not. That’s OK. Much love.

  3. Bill Milestone

    Jerry, don’t you know that Barack Obama is now president? He is our political messiah! Everything will be all right. After all, the Great Depression was caused by a republican. Then the people were saved by comrade president Roosevelt! Now, the worst president of recent memory, the evil George Bush Jr, has caused another economic meltdown. But we have a new comrade president now in power! Plus he has an “in” with the man upstairs. It will be all right. Rejoice, rejoice! Barack Hussein Obama and Nancy Marx Pelosi will make our lives perfect!

  4. who

    And kids don’t know how good they got it today. When I was a kid, I had to walk across the whole living room to manually turn the t.v. channel.

  5. Brilliant piece of writing Jerry…one of your best pieces yet.

    A great job of adding historical perspective to current day events….. and of giving sage advice about living simply without turning it into a political indictment of either party.

    I look forward to more great balanced writing in the future……

    Have you ever thought about writing a book of your perspectives on working class history of Asheville?

  6. Piffy!

    Bill, the only people I have ever heard referring to Obama as a “Messiah” is the far-Right. Certainly no one on the Left.

  7. entopticon

    I actually agree with the (PFKaP)’s point here. I have never, ever heard anyone on the left referring to Obama as a messiah. The truth is, in the absence of any legitimate argument whatsoever, the far right keeps making up ludicrously fallacious claims about the left calling Obama their messiah. It really is kind of sad that the far right has to substitute such a ridiculously blatant lie for any real argument.

    And I have to say that it is mind-boggling to see the cartoonish McCarthyism in Bill Milestone’s post in this day and age. No rational person who knew the slightest thing about Marxism would make such off the wall claims. Nancy Pelosi is one of the most succesful businesswomen in the United States. Do your homework. And Barack Obama may be a lot of things for better or worse, but he is certainly no communist.

  8. Bill Milestone

    “Nancy Pelosi is one of the most succesful businesswomen in the United States. Do your homework.” – entopticon

    Entop, can’t you see parody humor when you read it? I was poking gentle fun at myself and my liberal comrades for the overly wishful and emotional expectations we have of our new president.

    And entop, do YOUR homework. Nancy Pelosi is no business woman. Her entire career has been as a politican. Now, her husband is a “successful” evil capitalist and Nancy is way way way rich because of it. It makes it easier for her to raise taxes on us peons. She has way way way enough money to ride out any tax increase herself. And that is the primary reason she is such an embarrassment to us liberals. She is the epitome of the term “limosine liberal”.

  9. entopticon

    Yuck, yuck yuck, ho-ho-ho, there’s just nothing funnier than right-wing extremist communist humor about Obama being a Marxist and a messiah at the same time. It’s just SO original. I never heard that one before. What a knee-slapper.

    You might want to brush up on what parody means there Bill. If it was a parody, that would have meant that you were making fun of the type of imbeciles who call Obama and Nancy Pelosi Marxists. Calling Obama a Marxist wouldn’t logically be a parody otherwise. Is that really to hard to understand?

    Why is it that right-wingers just can’t grasp the concept of parody? Recent psychological studies have shown that most right wingers are literally incapable of understanding parody, and apparently you are no exception. In fact, in the study, most right wingers were so clueless that they didn’t even know that Stephen Colbert was laughing at them, not with them:

    Actually Bill, Nancy’s real estate investments have been made by both her and her husband. You don’t know anything more than what’s on her tax returns, and her tax returns say that she has been extremely successful in the real estate market. Your asinine claim that she is a Marxist doesn’t really gel with the fact that she’s worth $20 million dollars. If you seriously think that she’s the rich capitalist kind of Marxist, you will be disappointed to learn that there is no such thing.

    Yes, she is indeed a limousine liberal, if all you can do is think in terms of right-wing soundbites, which appears to be the case, as illustrated by your xenophobic race-baiting by calling him by his middle name. He doesn’t go by his middle name. You and I both know that the only reason that you use it is because you hope to fan the flames of bigotry. At least moderate conservatives acknowledge that.

  10. Ken Hanke

    I was poking gentle fun at myself and my liberal comrades

    Cullen the liberal!

  11. Bill Milestone

    Entop, stupid me. I forgot that we liberals are only supposed to make fun of those evil rightwingers! Well! At least we can always blame any failures of our messiah on that evil Bush administration,can’t we! -:)

    Jerry. Keep up your Gospel. A good read most every time.

  12. entopticon

    “Entop, stupid me.”

    OK, so we do agree about some things.

    “At least we can always blame any failures of our messiah on that evil Bush administration,can’t we!”

    Do you really think actual liberals use Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter’s asinine rhetoric about Obama being a messiah and Marxist conspiracy theories and “Barack Hussein Obama”? Do you really think that an actual liberal doesn’t have serious problem’s with the catastrophic consequences of the Bush administration? You are about as liberal as Michelle Malkin.

  13. Bill Milestone

    Entop, stupid me. I also forgot you know exactly how every one of the millions of liberals here in the USA think on every issue. Can I peer into your crystal ball sometime? Wait. No. It has to be quite murky with a big crack on the left side. -:)

    I assure you, this liberal is his own man and does not fit into a neat little ticky tacky box. Entop, stretch yourself and peer beyond the narrow little world you live in. There is a great big DIVERSE world out there. Don’t miss out!

  14. entopticon

    Silly me Cullen, I didn’t realize that you are the type of liberal who spends all his time spouting off right wing extremist rhetoric about Marxist conspiracies about Nancy Pelosi and how the left thinks Obama is the messiah. How refreshing it is to see a liberal taking the words right out of Rush Limbaugh’s mouth. And even moderate conservatives think making an issue out of Obama’s middle name is disgraceful race-baiting, so it is certainly novel to see someone who claims to be a liberal falling to the right of the right wing.

    Enlighten us, what exactly is it that makes you a liberal? Vegetarianism? There is this wacky new term for McCarthyesque right wing conspiracy theorists that spend all of their time spouting Rush Limbaugh rhetoric… They are called conservatives.

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