No. 13: The Other Depression

Oh, right.  That Depression.

Did my grandfather have very good or very bad timing?

Richard Ebel receives his first greenlight to leave Germany on July 14, 1928.

That’s the date on the postmark of the postcard that saved his life and is going to do some as-yet-to-be-determined thing for mine.

Yesterday I am wondering why my grandfather didn’t set sail, join the throng, open the White Castle, meet the determined young secretary/ Rabbi’s eldest daughter, sneaking out for a gobble of treif, find the jolly, wisecracking circle of Greenhorn friends with whom he would play cards, smoke cigars, and eventually open a talent agency on Tin Pan Alley.

Yesterday I chalk it up to a sweet spot in my grandfather’s life, where cosmic forces and inertia are totally making out.  Where fear of displacement and loneliness conspire to keep him displaced and lonely, only in his own life in Berlin, not across the sea where his accent will be amusing.  Or maybe it was plain old depression…


I wake up at 3:12 AM with one thought in mind.

A vintage chart of plummeting stock values.

You know, The Depression.  The one we’re in the process of living up to.

Richard Ebel has a notion of a better life planted in his ear by a friend with better timing.  He discusses his idea with his mother, Berta.  She refuses her fears of his leaving and instead applauds his entrepreneurial spirit, which she worries about easily as much.  At her kitchen table, a sugared coffee and a half-eaten almond horn at his elbow, Richard draws up a spreadsheet.  If he takes his lunch to work instead of meeting friends, if he forgets the idea of the automobile for which he’s been saving, by next October he should have enough saved for his relocation expenses and the White Castle franchise itself.

But then October 24, 1929 rolls around.  Black Thursday.

“This is no time to have a big idea,” my grandfather tells himself, locking the lid of the safe deposit box, the visa tucked inside, his thoughts turning with reluctance and hope to a littler idea, the Polish-Jewish shop girl.

At this very minute in America the jagged rollercoaster of the markets is having its way with our imaginations.  Babies will be born from this fear, and hamburger franchises will congeal in the bank’s basement tomb, and people who were thinking about leaving will stay.

Also, somebody is about to remember something they put away ten years ago, and it’s about to change everything.

At this very moment, she is searching her pockets for the key.


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