The Magazine

Fried Bread Lines

Christopher Caldwell, wise man.

Dec 8, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 12 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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Holes are opening in the populated landscape. Outside the attic window where I write this is an abandoned house. A "For Sale" sign, hanging from a yardarm by the front walk, creaks eerily in the wind. It has a permanent look to it, like the soggy "War Is Not the Answer" placards that have lined our street since the spring of 2003. On K Street, two blocks from THE STANDARD's offices, an office building was demolished over the summer to make way for well, nothing so far. It reminds me of my childhood in the 1970s, when the gains from knocking down a building were limited to more parking and more space for throwing broken furniture and empty beer bottles and syringes.

As in those recession years, there is once again a younger generation that knows nothing of real hardships and an older generation ready to lecture and bully. The generation that condescended to mine is now mostly gone. I believe they perished from injuries sustained patting each other on the back. All the wisdom we now possess about austerity comes from the 1970s, and, as it happens, I'm one of the possessors. Yeah, pull up a chair. Nixon's wage and price freezes, Ford's Whip Inflation Now buttons, Jimmy Carter's sweaters and his 55-mile-an-hour speed limit and his sad, unlit holidays that might as well have gone under the motto "Christmas is for losers" I remember them all. I remember money being tight. I remember the car being used only for the strictest necessities, like dates, and trips to the New Hampshire state liquor store.

And I remember the smugness of older people--teachers, broadcast personalities, and well-off bien-pensants of the town I grew up in. They really enjoyed the recession, as they enjoyed anything that opened a new avenue for snobbery. I was relatively lucky. My father was less dogmatic about such things than the other adults I knew. When I was 10 or so, he told me that there were times during the Depression when he ate fried bread every night for dinner. "Wow, that's really sad," I said, having been conditioned to think the occasion called for it. But it didn't. "I loved fried bread," he said.

My father understood that recessions aren't about children. Children have childhoods, no matter when they grow up. Recessions are about adults lying awake and staring at the ceiling, seeing, correctly, that what they've built--not just things, but reputations, value systems, and self-respect--is going to unravel in a slow, ineluctable, and humiliating way. My grandparents' generation, born in the first decade of the century, was really up a creek in 1932. But those born after World War I weren't, and in the 1970s they were just using the Depression to lord over us an authority they hadn't really earned. That's how I plan to lord over younger readers my own more modest struggle and the lessons I drew from it.

What are my lessons? I recall hearing something about "the value of a dollar," even if the present crisis is an indication that not all of us took that one fully on board. There was also, if I remember correctly, something about "hard work," which is less of a worry, since we all work hard. Americans work so hard, political candidates assure us, that we deserve everything we have--in fact, much, much more.

There is good news, though. Our own economy, cluttered as it is with luxuries, has a lot of "give" in it. What was there to cut in the 1970s, when no one knew what pesto or sushi was, and when a "big spender" was someone who was paying 5 cents more a bottle to drink Michelob instead of Budweiser? Austerity meant eating three potatoes instead of four. That time may come for us. Right now, we are in the stage of paring away not staples but hedonistic indulgences, from windsurfers to gas grills. Travel is also expendable. My schoolteachers were constantly harping on how one didn't need to travel, given that there was so much heritage, architecture, and culture right around us in Massachusetts. Good advice, although it didn't explain how people who lived elsewhere were supposed to get to Massachusetts.

Perhaps this generation's experience will be more like that of the adults of the 1930s. The last generation's futuristic invention will be the next generation's consolation and opiate. Just as our grandparents huddled around the radio, we will tap the unrealized potential of the Internet--which, like the radio and the television before it, permits you to drown out the nagging sense that no one outside your own house has any particular need of you, or will anytime soon.