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Thursday, November 25, 2010

Brother can you spare a dime?

Americans enjoy their high standard of living by waiting in a bread line (mid 1930s)

There’s an old depression era song that Al Jolson sang called “Brother can you spare a dime?”  When Jolson sang the song in the 1930s a dime was worth a lot more than it’s worth today, about $1.30 in today’s money.  Needless to say, today, during the great recession as the talking heads who make more money in a year than most of the people they’re talking to make in a decade are calling it, giving someone an actual dime won’t do them a bit of good.  Nothing is actually sold for a dime anymore.  When I was a kid the Chinese stores* would sell a single Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup for a dime.  Now they’re worth 35 cents or so and get sold for 50.  Even dollar stores rarely sell anything for less than a dollar anymore. 
So when I was waiting for a train in New Brunswick and a young guy with a thick Brooklyn accent stuck his face up to mine and said “boss, can you give me a dime, my financial situation is real (expletive) up right now and supper* is waiting for me” I felt like I was in some kind of retro time-warp.  Since I knew he couldn’t have been referencing the old depression-era song because odds are better than fifty fifty that he had never heard it, I figured he was asking me for ten bucks.* 
On the surface he was making this request like he was asking his baby sister to pass him a box of cereal, like it was the most ordinary thing in the world.  But a look into his eyes and past his Brooklyn-street posturing revealed that he was truly desperate.  So I asked him how much a dime meant to him, figuring that he didn’t really have the chutzpah (and I mean it in the real Yiddish sense of shocking gall) to ask me, a fellow university student, for ten dollars just before he planned on boarding a train he had no money to pay for. 
He looked at me like he’d call me a moron or worse if he weren’t asking me for money. 
“A dime’s ten boss” he half snarled half sung at me. 
“Ten dollars?” I said, surprised by the incredulousness in my own voice. 
He then looked at me like he’d deck me if he weren’t asking for money.  So I told him that I’d see how much I had and opened my wallet (understand that I was in no way planning on actually giving him five dollars, let alone ten).  And of course, as per the unbreakable axiom of Murphy’s Law, there was one bill in my wallet and it was a “dime.” 
I felt some unexplainable shift of power occur in the universe and before I fully realized what I was doing the bill was in his hand and he was ten feet away barrelling towards the stairs out of the train station. 
“What the –expletive—is you doin’” a black woman yelled at me, chomping on a cigarette that suddenly went out and fell to the ground. 
“Well,” I said, “maybe now someone will give me ten bucks if I need it for a train.”  
“Shit don’t work that way,” she said.  “It should but it don’t.”
She pulled out and light another cigarette, all the while looking at me and said “he should’a come up to me, I would’a axed him where he was gonn’a get d’udder 9.90.  And if he would’a thought from me, he would’a found hisself smashed up against dat train.” 
We both laughed and she told me about her various woes, beginning with her being thrown out of the VA* hospital where she was visiting her husband.  She had bags of food prepared for him that she learned that he wouldn’t be able to eat when she walked into his room and saw that he had tubes down his throat.  In short she had come sixty miles by train to bring him a home-cooked meal just to find out he was too sick to eat it.  She didn’t look too good herself; morbidly obese, unable to keep cigarettes in her mouth due to an incessant hacking cough that was interrupted by occasional wheezing.  But boy was she full of life!
We talked for about ten minutes and despite describing herself as a “tough Trenton ghetto girl” seemed very sweet.  As it turned out her husband’s health was just the beginning of an endless series of personal crises which she spent the whole time telling me about. I listened politely, half laughing and half crying along with her as the stories got sadder and somehow inevitably funnier due to her manner of relating them.  And soon enough I realized that I had given the wrong person the “dime.”  But the people who most need help are usually the last to ask for it and this tough “girl” would be about the last person to ever ask a stranger for a handout. Our conversation ended when her daughter called and soon enough I spotted our train in the distance.   
And as I boarded that train I heard a young man singing “brother can you spare a dime” and could barely recognize my own voice in the cold night air. 
*What the corner stores in some parts of Philly are called.  The one in my neighborhood was run by Koreans.  There is nothing Chinese (or Korean) about the stores except the people who own them. 
*Only New Yorkers say supper to refer to the evening meal in the US.  New Yorkers and especially working class whites from the Bronx and Brooklyn are also the only people I’ve ever encountered who will greet a stranger with “boss” but this may be used elsewhere.  Supper though is a famous Newyorkism. 
*In drug-slang a “dime” is ten, hence a “dime-bag” is ten dollars worth of a drug sold as a package.
*Veterans Administration.  The VA runs hospitals that only serve army veterans.  She was in her early fifties, about the right age to be married to someone who served in the later years of the Vietnam War. 


  1. I enjoyed your story.
    One question: If he took your last bill, who payed for your train fare?

  2. The machines that sell tickets take credit cards.