THE FEAR ECONOMY
Shortly before his death in October at age 96, I visited my dear friend Studs Terkel. His crackling voice
was thinner than it used to be, and he didn’t hear so
well. But when I arrived at his North Side Chicago
home—with the stock market in free fall, the headlines dire—the
author of Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression was hardly wringing his hands. Sitting in his usual chair by
the living room window, a blanket warming his legs, he talked
to me with the spirited wisdom of a man who’s lived through
national crises and witnessed the upside. —Alex Kotlowitz
o here we are at a crossroads. In a strange
way, I’m hopeful. Franklin D. Roosevelt
sums up how I think about tomorrow.
When asked a tough question once, he
said, “That’s an iffy question.” I think if
we don’t remember what happened in
the past and if we don’t remember there
was a way out, it’ll be an iffy question as to
which way we go. During the Depression
people believed that the man behind the
desk was a better man. They’d think, “I’m here with hat in
hand. He knows more than I do.” We’ll have less of that kind
of thinking now because so many of us have been through the
Civil Rights Movement and the ’60s. In the Depression they
didn’t have that as a preface. We do. That’s the big change.
We’ve seen what activism does.
The Great Depression. I was about 17 years old. Hoover
was still president. People had been living high off the hog.
And then, boom, comes the Crash. It was so sudden. Guys
jumped out of windows. They didn’t know what to do. The
wise men ran around, and then they cried out after Roosevelt
for the government to help them out. Regulation. They asked
for it. They cried for it. The wise men were lost, just as they
are today. The free market fell on its fanny. We learned nothing. It’s exactly the same today.
My mother ran a hotel, the Wells-Grand Hotel, for men,
just outside Chicago’s skid row. Skilled workers. Mechanics.
Guys with jobs here and there. Some retired. It was fine. The
lobby in the hotel was empty in the daytime. It was just a
little room, and at night they’d come play hearts and pinochle.
Then came 1929. Suddenly they’re not working. Or those guys
who retired, suddenly their pensions are gone. Now they’re
in the lobby in the daytime. They don’t know what the hell to
do. So they drank more. And played the horses more. And
there were fights. What were the fights over? Their own self-
respect. I mean, they had nothing to do. They were furious.
Who do you blame? Who do you hit? You hit each other. That
was sort of a metaphor for what happened to the country.
They blamed themselves. Yet I met these people who weath-
ered it one way or the other, some just by lending a hand.
of the Great
The big boys
are not that
Studs Terkel’s P.S.: Further Thoughts From a Lifetime of
Listening (New Press) was published in November. Alex Kotlowitz
is the author of There Are No Children Here (Anchor) and
Never a City So Real: A Walk in Chicago (Crown).
JEROME DE PERLINGHI/ CORBIS OUTLINE