By Maury Z. Levy
The Italians call it polenta. And if you mix it up really good with a big heavy spoon, you really can’t tell what it is. Which is probably better because all that mattered was that it went into your stomach and that it filled you up and that it kept you warm.
In the later days, when times were good, they would make it with bits of pork and bits of sausage and bacon and things like that. And real milk. But that was a good time off. In 1934, in West Philadelphia, on Chancellor Street near 55th, they mixed it with water and leftovers and bits of scrap they stole from the dish of the dog. But you couldn’t afford to stop and think about where it came from or what was in it. Only that it kept you from going hungry and that it was cheap. A lot of this doesn’t mean anything if you were born in the past 30 years or so. Sure, maybe the new Depression has you worried about the price of meat. The people who lived in this town, or tried to, back in 1934 didn’t worry much about the price of meat. Actually, meat wasn’t expensive. But it didn’t really matter, because when you’ve got no money in the first place, when you’re forced to steal a couple of lumps of coal to keep the furnace going, when you’re the 75th guy in the soup line and the kitchen closes in 20 minutes, you tend not to worry about such worldly things as the price of meat.
A lot of people suffered in 1934; they suffered from a lot of things. They were bad times, times a lot of people would like to forget but can’t because growling stomachs leave scars. And just in case you think you’re having it really rough now because the price of gasoline for your second car has doubled, maybe it wouldn’t hurt you to look at some of the pictures that follow, or listen to a report of the times by a man whose reporting has made him a legend in Philadelphia, a man who lived through and worked through and managed to survive 1934 and the few years before and the many years after.
JOHN FACENDA WAS GOING to school then, to school at Villanova on a scholarship because that was the only way he could afford it. His father, an engineer, a professional man, wanted his son to be one, too. But Facenda’s voice became his profession. He was destined to become the top newsman in town at WCAU. But then, to earn some pocket money and to help keep some polenta on the table, he was working two jobs while he was going to school. He figures he put in a good 90 hours a week between the old Public Ledger and his first announcing job at wit’. He was making $18.75 a week in radio. He remembers it well. Reporting the strike stories, the labor violence, the political convention. He worked hard for his money, for his $18.75. ”Today,” he says, “a booth announcer makes that much for saying ‘Sears sale starts tomorrow.'”
Facenda remembers the bad times and the good times, but mostly the bad times. And how people rallied to make them good. “It was the most difficult thing in the world,” he says, “although nobody really thought that they were poor because everybody else was in the same boat. It wasn’t a question of any disparity between a Cadillac and a push cart. It seemed that everybody had the push cart.”
Facenda says that one of the things that impressed him most as a boy growing into manhood was how hard it must have been for parents in those days. “To go to bed not knowing what you were going to put on the table the next day for the kids. And to wake up the next morning realizing there wasn’t enough food to go around, I can even remember my mother sacrificing her own meals so the kids could eat. She would say she had a little ageda, a little acid in her stomach, and that she wasn’t really hungry anyway, only because she knew there wasn’t enough for all of us, for her and for my father and. for my six brothers and sisters. I’ll never forget that, watching my mother go hungry so the kids could eat and grow. The memory has helped me realize the fact that there are a lot of things besides bread alone that man lives by.”
The Facenda family came to Philadelphia from Portsmouth, Virginia, in 1926, the year of the Sesquicentennial, a year when the good times rolled. And when things got tough, everybody pitched in.
“A couple of the girls were old enough to work in the department stores, making peanuts,” he remembers. “And that helped keep us going. But the old man became ill, and that made it even rougher.”
Young Facenda saw the Depression take a heavy toll on his father’s spirit and health. There was little work for engineers because no one was building very much. And his health fell on bad times and he got old. But John Facenda tries not to remember that. That was one way a lot of people made it through the Depression, living the good with the bad, but trying to remember only the good. His memories of his father are good and proud.
“He was one of the most handsome son-of-a-guns I’ve ever met in my life. Six-foot-four, blond, blue-eyed, spoke three or four languages, played four or five instruments. He was quite a man. I’ll always remember him like that.”
The Depression was an economic state—an unbeatable one, it seemed at the time. But coping with it was a state of mind, if you had the mind to. ”There was a tremendously warm feeling among all the people we knew in West Philadelphia, because we were all in the same boat, everybody was struggling, but still in all, there was a great deal of kindness and courtesy and understanding among the people. Particularly neighbors.
“They all pitched in together and shared. If somebody made some bread and you didn’t get a loaf of it, you got half a loaf. Thank God they gave you that. Or if someone made a big pot of soup, everybody got a few ladlesful.
“And the pathetic sight of just seeing so many people without things. Grown men and women, proud men and women, having to ask for handouts to survive. The children didn’t mind it so much because they didn’t know any different. Everybody was in clothes that were hand-me-downs. I don’t think I ever wore a pair of pants or a shirt that was bought for me.”
There was little money to spend on such luxuries as clothing. And things were getting tougher. Facenda had to drop out of Villanova for a while because he couldn’t afford it, even though he was on scholarship.
“The tuition in those days was a small amount,” he says, “but there still were the necessary fees for drafting, chemistry and physics. And an athletic fee. And I couldn’t even go to a football game because I had to work on Saturdays. And I couldn’t engage in any of the social aspects of campus life because I didn’t have the money or the dress for it.”
His father, when he could get the work, made $65 a week as a construction engineer. “But most of the time they were tearing buildings down and making parking lots out of them. An awful lot of people who were engineers took jobs as floor walkers in department stores. All these great men who had built bridges to Alaska and railroads to South America were reduced to whatever would pay them an honest dollar.
“There wasn’t any real resentment of the government. There couldn’t be. At least they tried to give people apples to sell on the corners. At least the soup kitchens were open.”
At a time when material things were hard to come by, the church became a gathering spot, a last outpost for hope. “My mother and father were very religious people, as were my older sisters and brothers. They found quite a bit of comfort in that. Certainly more so than today. Because now the churches are starting to question their own usefulness. In those days, they never did. But it was hard. There were pennies in the collection plate on Sunday. They couldn’t do a hell of a lot with that.
“A lot of people found comfort from within, and from each other. My family had always been close-knit, but those times helped bring us even more together.
“At nights we would listen to the radio for a little while and then usually play some games. We used to play some sort of a word game, because my father, God love him, had more sense than we did. To keep us interested, to keep our minds off our growling stomachs and tattered clothes, he would invent a game of cards. He wrote a subject matter on each card. We would sit around the dinner table or sometimes in the living room and we would each take a card from the deck. And when it got to be your turn, you had to talk on the subject matter of the card for a minute. You would ad lib on it in both English and Italian. No one could offer anything unless it was constructive. It was not a time for negative talk.
“That kept us occupied and it kept us together. A lot of other families broke up. Men had to leave the area to find jobs. Children ran away from home to seek a better world that wasn’t there. But we got by.
“Gasoline was selling very, very cheaply then,” Facenda says, “but who had a car? Bikes were very prevalent. And a lot of skates. The kids got them because there was no traffic on the streets.
“Most entertainment was cheap then, too. Movies, especially. They were great escapes. And people who wanted to get away from the reality of what was happening to them and to their families went to the movies. But we never went that much. Even though it was only 15 cents on Saturdays, we had more important things to do with 15 cents. When we did go out, we sometimes went to a baseball game. Admission was cheap there, too. We’d sit in the bleachers at old Shibe Park on a Saturday afternoon and we’d watch Jimmy Foxx pop them onto 21st Street. It was a different world. It was something to cheer about.”
John Facenda reported the sports news back then, back in the days of one-man radio operations. But he remembers the harder stories the most. The formation of unions and the severe labor violence that followed. The economy and where it was going. Those were the big stories of 1934. Sure, there was unrest in Europe, but that was so far away. “What counted was what went on in your own house, on your block and in your neighbor hood. The world was a lot smaller for a while.”