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Manhattan in the Depression

image98.jpg (45689 bytes)From Sunnyside, shortly after the stock market crash of 1929, we moved back to Manhattan. We rented a less-expensive walkup apartment at 169th Street, between Broadway and Wadsworth Avenue, in the same neighborhood where I had first resided. It was across the street from an armory.

We were in the throes of the Great Depression, though at six years of age it didn’t make a dent in me. A lovely lady in her mid-forties, named Katherine Blythe, came to live with us. She slept on a mattressed cot and shared my bedroom. I didn’t know it at the time, but she paid my folks three dollars a week for room and board. She baby-sat me when my parents were out for an evening of bridge. Katherine worked as a secretary or clerk somewhere downtown. She’d never been married, had her graying hair in a bun at the back of her neck, wore no makeup, and was very plain looking. She was a quiet lady with excellent manners.

She and I took to each other immediately. She treated me like the child she’d never had and I seemed to have the advantage of belonging to two mothers again. Often on Sunday mornings, being a good Catholic, she’d take me to mass with her — with my parent’s permission, of course. Whether I was exposed to religion or not was of little concern to them. It was the way I was raised that mattered, with honesty, good manners, and consideration for others. I didn’t need a church or synagogue to learn those values, I just got them from home.

Years later, when I was twenty-two or -three, long after Katherine had parted company with us, I bought a bouquet of flowers one Sunday. I knocked on the door of her rooming house in upper Manhattan. When she opened the door, a surprised look came over her face. I smiled down at her, having grown several feet since she’d last seen me.

"Don’t you know me?" I asked, smiling.

She reached up and threw her arms around my neck. "Why, Richard, I’d know you anywhere."

We spent part of the afternoon over tea. She was in her late sixties, retired, and living on a small pension plus an even smaller amount of social security. Nothing would do but that I had to tell her about everything in my life. When I left, she gave me a big hug. I never saw her again. Dear Katherine Blythe. Wherever you are Katherine, I remember, and still think about you. You made a little boy’s growing years that much richer.

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