Dad was born in the Bronx, NY in 1906. (For those of you who are wondering about my age I was born very late in his life).
He was the second son among seven siblings. Dad’s family was poor. Dirt poor.
Each of the children was expected to help contribute to the family’s welfare. (In those days, welfare meant survival). There was no unemployment insurance nor were there government subsidies. If you couldn’t support yourself you had only family and friends to whom you could turn. The alternative was death.
The immigrants who came to this country at the turn of the 20th century understood this – and they conducted themselves accordingly.
Dad used to tell me that having meat of any kind on the dinner table was truly a reason for celebration. Most meals would consist of some home-made bread and a bowl of vegetable soup (the soup being determined by whatever veggies were currently in season and the least expensive). Nevertheless, the family survived and was never in excessive want.
Dad was a dreamer. Although the highest form of meat that he had ever experienced was “chopped meat” – what we today call hamburger – he had heard about something that was truly miraculous. It was called “steak”.
Dad held down a job as a newspaper delivery boy. At this he earned eight cents a week. But dad, the entrepreneur, told my grandparents that he actually earned seven cents a week at the job. Apparently he had a secret place where that precious extra penny went each week.
One day he had that “Eureka” moment. Dad was born in July and the fireworks displays that went on for the 4th gave him an inspiration. He realized that people liked to set off fireworks. You could buy them in his neighborhood for three cents each. But dad realized that fireworks were a Chinese invention – and he wanted to see how much he could buy them for in Chinatown. So he took 40 cents out of his stash (all of which was still in pennies) and took the streetcar to Mott and Pell Streets. In Chinatown you could find fireworks in many varieties – and you could buy them at a cost of five for a penny.
Dad’s mind rushed as he computed the profitability. A penny would return a 14 cent profit! This was huge. This could truly help his family.
Dad converted the remaining 38 cents he had (there was a charge of one cent each way on the street car) and went back to the Bronx with his cache of fireworks. Along the way he saw a sign on a little restaurant that had a “blue plate special” with steak on the menu for only 69 cents. He knew he was getting closer to this steak. Closer by the sale of each firecracker in his little bag.
Dad sold out his inventory in just a few hours. He hadn’t told his parents about his enterprise and now armed with well over five dollars, the next day he returned to Chinatown to buy more inventory. He was again successful in unloading the entirety of his purchases. He was ecstatic – as were his parents when he handed them $65 and told him how he had earned it. This was rent money for more than six months. This was as much as his father earned in three months.
The family had a celebratory dinner. Grandma went out and bought “chopped meat” and prepared it for the meal.
What dad didn’t tell them was that he had sniggled away several dollars – so that he could go to the restaurant and buy the “Blue Plate Special”.
It was several weeks before dad could get away to consummate his desires – but the day finally came. He boarded the streetcar and got off at the restaurant’s stop. The sign was still in the window – “Blue Plate Special. Salisbury Steak, Mashed Potatoes, String Beans and Mushroom Gravy – 69c”. Dad went into the restaurant and ordered the special. Imagine his surprise and disappointment – “CHOPPED MEAT”!
Think about how grateful we should be. We live in a nation where our grocery stores are fully stocked. There is no rationing of essential goods and services. We can buy whatever we want within the constraints of our incomes and budgets – and thanks to the liberality of credit extension – we can exceed those merely by signing a form and using a piece of plastic.
Thanks dad for teaching me a valuable life lesson. I love and miss you.