When we think about the past — especially a past that precedes our own personal past — we tend to think of it the way it looks in jerky old newsreels. Or in black and white photos now fading to gray, or in brownish sepia prints from the pre-World War II rotogravure.
The costumes in the photos and newsreels are funny-looking, too. Who in his or her right mind could possibly put on all that, day after day? And the artifacts of life — the high manual typewriters with round noisy keys, the brown wood living-room radios around which people gathered in the evenings, black telephones with white dials attached to a phone jack, Western Union telegrams for sending urgent messages out of town, bathtubs on legs, cotton sheets that had to be ironed, rumble seats on the back of coupes — they all look like props for a movie. Oh, and the voices and music on the old records, even where digitally restored as well as possible — they’re so dim and scratchy. Were those real people making those sounds, real like you and me?
The very young even assume those of us who are considerably older can’t possibly understand anything about their high-speed world, the one that’s on the screen right now, because our slower world is gone and we’re not so quick on the uptake with the new iPhone6. (From their point of view, we’re hanging around almost by sufferance; we have to be good, and quiet, and stay out of their multitasking way.) How can we possibly know anything about anything? There were no television sets, no cell phones, no email, no texting in our world. No air-conditioning in the hot damp city summers. No Salk vaccine to hold off polio. Letters took two or three days to reach their destination, Food was seasonal. Refrigerators were small with virtually nonexistent freezer compartments. Contraception was iffy, abortions illegal, without anesthesia and sometimes on kitchen tables. (I’m writing off the top of my head here.This is not a reasoned or philosophical disquisition.) There were also so many other things that were different — great big life-extinguishing things, too many and profound to list completely — like no unemployment insurance, no health insurance, no social security, no economic or racial or religious or ethnic equality.
So how can we — let alone the young — believe a fading memory of an uncomfortable, often painful, world that’s gone still has relevance today? How can we believe the sky was as blue then as it is now (when it is), or the touch of another’s hand as exciting, or calming, or comforting?
It’s even easier to think patronizing thoughts about this past when you consider how little it once cost to live. It’s like looking backwards through reverse binoculars and seeing everything shrunk to doll size. As you may know, I’ve lately been trying to write a longish piece about the year between my sixteenth and seventeenth birthdays. That was in 1947-48. I thought I remembered a lot. I don’t. I still know a stamp used to cost three cents, and a subway ride a nickel. But memory has failed on so much we all take for granted (and therefore make no effort to remember) that I’ve had to fall back on the internet.
I therefore just learned again what I probably once knew: that in 1947 America, a car cost $1,500, gasoline was 23 cents a gallon, cigarettes were 20 cents a pack, you could buy a house for $13,000, a loaf of bread for 12 cents, and a gallon of milk for 80 cents. In 1947, the federal minimum wage was 40 cents an hour and the average annual salary $3,500. Those weren’t doll-size numbers then. My own father earned $100 a week when he worked, but he was able to find work only for half the weeks of the year, so he saved $50 every week he was paid, and the three of us lived on the other $50. This worked out to less than the statistically average American annual salary. Yet I always had decent clothes and good shoes, and new books and records for Christmas and my birthday, and even piano lessons, for which I practiced on a brand new $1,000 Steinway baby grand my father paid off in installments until it was ours. I didn’t feel deprived at all, until I began to dream of expensive colleges beyond our reach.
[There’s probably a good think piece to be written by someone else on what these numbers tell us about inflation. Raise the wage floor and you have to raise wages throughout the organization so that people earning more than the minimum wage go on earning proportionately more. But that eats into profit, so the employer raises prices, the minimum wage eventually becomes inadequate again, and there we go, up up up and away ….. But that’s not a piece I can write, because I have no idea what to do about it.]
This piece though — the one I ‘m posting today — started out as a sort of progress report on where I am with writing “The Practice Boyfriend.” It seems to have become something else. Not about inflation, but not about how far along I am with the longish piece, either. That’s because lying in bed in the morning thinking about this now long-ago part of my life has not only generated lists of things to research when I’m fully awake, but also brought up out of my own subterranean depths thoughts and feelings so much still alive (blue sky, comforting touch and all) that I categorically reject the notion the past is valueless because it has a quaint set design. Much of what reposes deep inside the aging heart remains so meaningful to what life is all about that it seems a shame to send it off to dead storage. Time enough for that when those of us who still remember no longer can. Until then, let’s write about it — so it can go on living a little longer through our words.