As I watch the economic news both locally and nationally, I marvel at the changes in the attitudes toward money — and the overall amount of it in circulation.
I grew up in the depths of the Great Depression, when money seemed to be the driving factor for almost everyone around me, because nobody had any. I don’t remember when I didn’t know that money would buy something and that it was absolutely necessary to earn and save every cent.
Why, even a penny had commercial value: With just one, a child could buy a piece of candy or a small toy.
When older people came to visit homes where there were small children, they would often give each child one or two pennies — which was, of course, a source of great delight.
I had an “old maid” aunt who lived with my grandparents and claimed to have a money tree hidden in her small room. When we children came to visit, she would go into the room, close the door, wait a few seconds and play on our huge imaginations by dropping some pennies loudly on the floor, knowing we were listening through the door. She would then come out and, with great fanfare, distribute the “harvest.” She would never let us see the tree, but to this day I know exactly what it looked like.
I was 5 years old when I made my first capital purchase.
It was a big Mickey Mouse pocket watch that cost $2. I saw a picture of it somewhere and begged my parents for it. Thinking this was a good way to educate me in the ways of commerce, they insisted that I save the change people gave me in a piggy bank till I had enough to buy the watch.
While I couldn’t yet tell time, I already knew how to count that change, and when I’d accumulated a little over a dollar, a miracle occurred. I was playing in the street one day and found a dollar bill. I went home screaming, as if I’d just won the lottery. I cherished that watch for several years, and I wish I still had it.
Somewhere during this time I began to realize that money could be obtained by doing something called “work.” There were monetary rewards for doing chores and providing services. As one grew older, one was able to perform more difficult and complex services, and if you could develop a special skill, you could reap even more lucrative rewards.
Raking leaves, filling the coal stoker and hauling out the trash and ashes were mandatory chores compensated by an allowance. By the time I was 8 years old, however, I had also learned to assort scrap metal at my dad’s small hide-and-metal business. I could identify a large number of brass alloys and some nickel alloys as well as copper, aluminum, zinc and lead.
I was probably too young to be working with the metals, but my dad knew it was a rare skill that I could use for the rest of my life if I needed to. Sometimes I loved the work, especially the black men who would patiently teach me, and sometimes I hated it, because it was mostly in the summer. It was hot, strenuous toil for a little guy while all my pals were out swimming and playing ball. However, I knew that on Saturday I would get a pay envelope with real money inside, just like the rest of the employees.
School lunches, believe it or not, were a treat. They cost about 25 cents, and there was always a good homestyle meal with a dessert. Most days, though, I brought my lunch in a brown paper bag as a money saver, and God forbid that I should fail to bring that bag home again, neatly folded for reuse. To this day, I have a problem throwing away paper or plastic bags.
We saved and recycled everything: lead foil, rubber bands, soda bottles, string, old toothpaste tubes and coat hangers. All these things represented “money,” which was always in short supply.
I also learned budgeting and money management from a young age. My allowance was a quarter a week. It cost 6 cents each way for a bus ticket to Pack Square, and the Saturday movie was 10 cents. That left me with a huge budgetary decision to make if I wanted the expedition to include an oh-so-compelling 5-cent cone at the Blue Bird Ice Cream parlor. I would either have to hustle a ride back, come up with 2 extra pennies or walk 2 miles home, which happened on occasion.
Buy cheap, sell dear
In the fourth grade, we were taught how to manage a checkbook, including writing checks, filling out deposits and reconciling the account. I can’t understand why our current school system doesn’t provide this kind of financial education.
I was able to put my special knowledge of the value of various recyclables to good use early on by becoming the neighborhood scavenger. Alert to neighbors moving out, I would ask whoever owned the property to let me clean out the garage or basement. There were always assorted scrap metal items and stacks of National Geographic magazines, which everyone saved because they were too colorful to discard. They brought 2 cents a pound, and the metals brought 15-25 cents a pound.
I used to bring all kinds of stuff home from the junkyard: auto hood ornaments, discarded comic books from Asheville Waste Paper, steel ball bearings (which we used in the game of marbles to destroy the other guy’s marbles), old auto inner tubes that we cut up to use as ammunition in rubber guns, and many other items that I bought by the pound and sold by the piece to my schoolmates and the neighborhood kids.
I am grateful to my father for teaching me how to work hard and earn money. Accumulating money clearly offered individuals and their families both security and comfort.
He also taught me that with financial success came a great responsibility to help those who were economically disadvantaged and needed a hand up.
During those dreadful years of the Depression, when he himself was struggling to make a success of his business, many people came to his office door in that shabby little building on Depot Street to see “Mr. Joe.” They were desperate for help to care for their families. He would lend or even give them money out of his limited resources, because he recognized that no matter how difficult his own situation was, these people were much worse off. “Mr. Joe” wrote a different epitaph to the concept of Mammon.
Next time: “More Money.”
Asheville native Jerry Sternberg, a longtime observer of the local scene, can be reached at email@example.com.