The Second Avenue Deli School of Economics

Lessons from the Great Depression

Esther Rothman
Magazine Issue
July/August 2009
The Second Avenue Deli School of Economics

On this very ordinary day in the last year of my ninth decade (as incredible as that may be), I sit down to breakfast with the significant other in my life, Charlie my cat. He’s on the table in front of me, sniffing and pawing and trying to steal my extremely crusty leftover bagel schmeared (a New York euphemism for lightly coated) with cream cheese and layered with red radishes and onions

“How can you eat that?!” I can hear my sophisticated college-student grandsons ask me.

How can I eat that? Why, because my mother always told us kids that if we learned to like stale bread and onions and had some salt, we’d never starve. She didn’t tell us we’d have to like it, but being the impressionable and adjustable kid I was, I did.

The Great Depression hit us when I was about 9. I remember knowing in the fourth grade that my president was President Hoover, and that he looked somewhat like an overstuffed baked potato, with dripping butter.

I remember men selling apples in the street who didn’t look very stuffed.

I remember looking down from our apartment building window into our backyard, listening to a sandy-haired man singing “Marta, Rambling Rose of the Wildwood,” a song made popular by Arthur Tracy, a radio singer who called himself The Street Singer. I was sure my street singer was asking for money because he didn’t have a job and needed to feed his wife and children. To me, he was Father Damien curing leprosy in some godforsaken stench-filled island. Or St. Francis renouncing his wealth and feeding the poor. I reached into my mother’s small brown change purse, which she usually kept in her pocket but was now on the bureau, and threw out a quarter strategically wrapped in a newspaper. I knew he’d see a mass of paper, when he might not see a coin the color of the cement.

I hope he fed his wife and children on the quarter because my mother, catching me in my act of compassion, gave me hell. What was I doing?! Was I crazy?!! That quarter was meant for a three-pound sack of potatoes that was to go with tonight’s supper (we never used the word dinner) of boiled chicken feet. Or was it boiled brains?

My mother’s reaction caused me to question for the first time whether socialism was a viable economic policy.

I remember going to the corner grocery run by Mr. Brezinsky and swinging a quart-sized tin can especially designed to carry milk, which Mr. Brezinsky ladled from a huge metal container, and saying very nonchalantly as my mother had instructed, “charge it.” At the end of the month, my father would tally up the bill. My father paid with cash. I don’t think I ever saw a check until I was about 13, when I worked in my father’s factory during the summer to help out, as everyone in our family did. There I learned that checks often bounce, especially those from my father’s customers.

That was my formal introduction to the evils of capitalism.

Despite my mother’s influence, the idea of sharing wealth was implanted early on. My father was a confirmed supporter of the perennial socialist presidential candidate, Norman Thomas. But what did I know about Norman Thomas back then? I knew he was a good man. My father said so. He also told me I should learn about Eugene Debs—another good man. The thing was, as I understood it, those good men somehow seemed to land in jail regularly for protesting something or other. But if that was okay with my father, it was okay with me.

I remember when Franklin Roosevelt, wanting to be president, promised to repeal prohibition, throw out the crooks, and give honest people the crooks’ jobs. It sounded all right to me, and certainly to my father. He immediately designed and manufactured red triangular felt pennants, announcing in red and black letters “Beer Is Back.” He expected the pennants would fly in every household in the land and we’d become rich. Well, beer came back, but those flags didn’t fly anywhere. We remained broke as usual. Nevertheless, I remained heavily invested in the repeal of prohibition, mainly because I hated the stuff my father used to drink called “near beer,” which tasted like the raw tobacco I once tried to chew that made me violently ill. Of course, I never told my parents.


Then there were cigarettes. My mother complained that they cost too much money. My father would send my brothers out to buy him Camels, without my mother knowing. But she always found out. It wasn’t really the money that concerned her, I knew that. My father had been forbidden to smoke by his doctor, but since he’d been smoking since the age of 6 in Poland, where his father had run a saloon and tobacco shop, he was a poor candidate for rehabilitation. So being very self-righteous, I’d call out, “Mama, Papa is smoking,” which may be why today I remain an admirer of whistle-blowers.

I remember moving a lot. Our first move was when I was 4. I remember it distinctly: standing in the doorway of 119 St. Marks Place in the Lower East Side, where I was born, and telling my friend Haikie, who lived on the floor below me, that I was moving to a strange new place. As I now know, we were part of the great upward mobility of immigrants, people like my parents, who were beginning to “make it.” Like the Jeffersons, we “were moving on up” to the great new horizon—a suburb—Astoria Queens. Our first apartment was a whole floor in a two-family house. Six rooms, imagine that. But then . . . .

Five years later came the Great Depression, and we couldn’t pay the rent. I remember moving from apartment to apartment, once every two years at least, sometimes in the same building, sometimes to an entirely different building, because landlords needed tenants and were giving two months’ free rent. They called it a concession.

One year, we lived in an unheated bungalow in Coney Island, three blocks from the beach and the boardwalk. The bungalows were meant only for summer rentals for affluent families who could afford to move for the season and luxuriate in a cottage by the sea. Well, we luxuriated through most of the winter without heat or hot water, because we couldn’t afford to move and the landlord looked the other way regarding the rent.

During those peripatetic days, I felt ugly and stupid, I was unhappy and hated school, but I never felt poor—it was just that we had no money. Not having money meant scouring the neighborhood for discarded milk bottles (yes, there were real glass bottles that could be redeemed for 2 cents). With enough bottles to redeem, I could go to the flea-infested movie theater with the roof that opened in the summer like a sliding door, and sometimes opened unexpectedly in the winter, and see a matinee for 15 cents. How else would I have managed to see Gold Diggers of 1933, with Ginger Rogers in beautiful satiny evening gowns and velvet-lined ermine wraps seducing Warren William, a man rich enough to finance a Broadway show starring Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell?

Anyway, as I said, I didn’t feel poor. My father was an entrepreneur. He ran a small factory we called the shop on Astor Place in Manhattan, later on West 17th Street, where he designed and manufactured canvas bags for women. They were huge and nearly broke your shoulder carrying them—not so different from Prada or Ferragamo today. My father was definitely ahead of his time, because nobody bought them.

As I remember it, he was always going into bankruptcy, contemplating bankruptcy, or coming out of bankruptcy. But for a man who came to this country from Poland alone at age 16 and worked his way up from being a street peddler to starting his own business, this was nothing to be ashamed of. At school, when we were invariably asked to fill out a questionnaire on what our fathers did for a living, I’d proudly write “manufacturer.” I was proud that I was the only kid in my class whose father wasn’t a laborer. We may not have had money, but we were rich broke people!


I also knew that money definitely made a difference. There was no doubt about it, kids whose fathers had jobs had nicer clothes than I had. When I was about 5 or 6, my mother hand-sewed my clothes. I wore “bloomer dresses”—dresses with matching bloomers peeking out from under them. It was a flashy style indeed, made up in boldly colored prints. I remember a panoply of red and yellow daisies blooming on my behind.

As I grew older, the bloomers went sub rosa, and school clothes meant middy blouses and dark, pleated skirts. Usually we had to wear a red or blue satin or silk tie. Oh, how I hated that starched shirt and that satin tie! Satin always made me feel sick—something about the feel of it bothered me. But other kids seemed to like it, especially Concetta, who seemed to nourish satin ties within her soul and to make fun of me because my ties were skinny, not flourishing like hers, and because I had to wear those huge, horrid, brown corrective shoes for kids who had flat feet and bowed legs. Oh where were those Mary Jane patent leather one-strap shoes that I longed for? Not on my feet.

And maybe, too, let’s face it, sometimes I didn’t look as polished as the other kids. My hands were always red, coarse, and chapped. That was because my mother never bought us gloves. And scarves? Forget it! My mother’s antipathy to scarves was related to the huge goiter that grew on her throat. As a child, I always loved her throat. I used to sit on her lap and kiss her on the throat, which made her different from all other mothers. It wasn’t until many years later, when I was an adult and she underwent an operation to remove the goiter, that I realized how ashamed she was of her appearance. That was why she’d never wear a scarf—because she felt it made her goiter more obtrusive.

So, Mom, now in my dotage, and because deep inside I’m still the little girl sitting in your lap drinking a glass of warm milk and toying with your hair, I understand you. And I love you. But please, Ma, explain the lack of gloves.

Although I think I’ve overcome the trauma, I’m now a glove person. I pride myself on the number of gloves of all colors and styles I own. In fact, I hoard them. If I lose one, I never discard the other. As a result, I have an impressive collection of single gloves, which I often wear if I can make a pair of them, regardless of the mismatched colors or styles. Why not? I’d wear diamond earrings that didn’t match if I had them—one stud, one down to my navel. If my memory of ads serves me correctly, Tiffany seems to approve.

However, I’m basically a styleless person. After all, that’s what my husband Arthur’s mother told him when he brought me to his house to meet her for the first time. I didn’t pass muster. I wore a musty brown raggedy jacket that was definitely unworthy of the Grand Concourse of the Bronx, where he lived with his parents.

As a matter of fact, when I met Arthur, the true love of my life, on June 6, 1942 (a date that’s embedded in my DNA), I was totally styleless because my family didn’t have money. I was 22 and worked for the United States Employment Service, earning $47.50 every two weeks, which I promptly gave to my mother. My father had died when I was 18, and she tried valiantly to keep running his factory to make a living, but didn’t manage to. So my paycheck went totally to keeping that business running. Our delusion was that we were capitalists, but we still couldn’t pay the rent. I lived with my mother and sister, and the Great Depression remained in our bloodstream, although it was slowly draining out.

Arthur lived with his parents and a sister. He was 24 and worked as a pharmacist for $30 a week. Our dates were spent walking the streets of New York, from the Lower East Side, where I lived, to Central Park and back. We walked over the Brooklyn Bridge. We took the five-cent ferry ride to Staten Island. On our first date, we discussed the meaning of life while licking huge vanilla ice-cream cones. I firmly stated the meaning of life was to be happy. Arthur thought the purpose of life was to make the world better. So we compromised: we’d commit ourselves to mankind and to being happy. We marched in the May Day parades, passed out leaflets on street corners, and went to mass rallies in Peekskill to hear Paul Robeson sing—and we were happy.


Then we discovered the Second Avenue Deli.

For those of you who don’t know the Second Avenue Deli, it’s a New York institution, once located on Second Avenue at 10th Street and since moved to high-toned Thirty-third Street and Lexington Avenue. But the deli that resides in my heart is still on Second Avenue, where Arthur and I would go after a movie for a pastrami sandwich that we shared because the meat was piled a mile high. One of the best parts of going there was that we could afford the 45-cent sandwiches and that everyone was there. No matter what time of the day or night, people were scrunched together at small tables with waiters rushing between them so quickly that we felt honored to be waited on. If they were somewhat rude, so much the better—it was home.

Through the 4 years of our courtship and the 57 years of our marriage, the Second Avenue Deli was a constant. We went there for dinner often and ordered from them for birthdays, anniversaries, Thanksgivings, and other special events like graduations. But during Passover we suffered because it was the one week in the year they were closed.

Now I have to explain that, stemming from our Depression upbringing, Arthur and I are brown-eaters, and everyone we invite to our parties has to be a brown-eater. That’s just the way it is. Corned beef, brown; pastrami, brown; rolled beef, brown; egg barley, brown; mushroom and barley soup, brown; knishes, brown; potato pancakes, brown; even the celery tonic is brown—kosher and brown. White packaged bread? Everyone knows that’s for people who live in Staten Island or Queens, and vote Republican!

Two weeks before a planned event, I’d take myself off to Second Avenue Deli to meet with Abe Lebewohl, the owner-manager, who’d sit with a pencil stub in hand and a paper that looked like an order form, but was totally indecipherable to me. I was always nervous. Should I order enough for 15, 20, or 25 people? I was never exactly certain who’d make it. Abe would start the process: Whole turkey? Definitely. With stuffing. Chopped liver? What else? Stuffed cabbage? Indubitably. Gefilte fish? How could it be without?

Then it was my turn. How did he feel about brisket? Not necessary. Neither was mushroom and barley soup—too hard to serve, and besides, I didn’t have soup plates.

Then, should the knishes be round or square? Open for discussion.

It was Abe’s turn again. Did I want applesauce or sour cream with the potato pancakes? I very absolutely wanted sour cream. Thank God he didn’t listen to me because he sent both sour cream and applesauce and saved my marriage. Arthur was a confirmed applesauce person.

Finally, all the decisions had been made, down to the types of pickles we wanted, and I ask, how much will that be? He looks at me uncomprehendingly. What kind of question had I dared to ask?

I try again. How much is the bill? All he has to do is check what he’s already added up, or so I think. Even though I can’t read his order, I know he can.


I wait, and ask again. What’s the bill?

No answer.

He’s standing up ready to leave. The audience is over.

How much is the bill?

It’s clear he feels sorry for me. I can hear his thoughts. Oh, you poor person of little faith.

He looks pained.

Finally he speaks, his voice low and soft as if I were in a hospital bed coming out of a coma. Don’t worry, he says. I feel safe.

I go home. Arthur says knowingly, I bet you overordered. How much was it?

Don’t worry I tell him. So we didn’t.

The food always arrived on time. It was always hot and delicious, and what wasn’t hot could easily be reheated. There were always leftovers, and the bill was always reasonable.

I’ve thought long and hard about those days and the lessons I’ve learned. One is that worry is pointless. Just find the right people or doctrines to believe in, and do your part.

We came through the McCarthy period, which to me was one of the most frightening periods in our country, and the people came to their senses. We’ve come through the Vietnam War, and the people came to their senses. We’ve come through Bush, and the people came to their senses. As Ma says in The Grapes of Wrath, “Us the people” go on.

It seems to me now, in this deranged world of economic corruption, folly, greed, ineptitude, and anything else you want to call it, that “don’t worry” is a perfectly sane and reasonable way to approach the current mess. Us the people will come through.

This, too, shall pass—the country isn’t going down the drain.

I’ll not worry, even as I look at my monthly financial statements.

I’ll not worry that some people who I believe should be in jail aren’t in jail.

I’ll not worry that the money I thought I’d put aside for my grandchildren’s college education is half what it should be.

I’ll not worry that, if rent control ends, I’ll be in serious trouble

I’ll not worry, and occasionally I’ll still throw a quarter to a traveling troubadour who may be singing under my window sill, and still manage to believe in a Eugene Debs or people like him—they’re out there, somewhere.

I lived through it all once, as did Arthur, and we kept on going.

And now that I’m at ease with my Second Avenue Deli philosophy, I think I’ll go out and buy a lottery ticket. I think the jackpot is $54 million.

As they say, “You never know.”

Esther Rothman has lived through 17 presidential administrations, and still has high hopes for the future. She resides in New York City. Contact: