(Note: This is an elaboration of a little anecdote I put in Better Made Potato Chips Inc.)
Two brown shoes stamp down the cracked sidewalk. Then four, then six... eight, ten, and more, 'til you can't keep count. Now 'round the corner come the scuffed knees, the patched up blue jeans, the socks that have lost their elasticity, the drab pleated skirts. A button comes undone on a boy's overalls and a strap flaps in his face as his smile widens. Victory. He's the first one there, but the rest aren’t far behind. Here they come now. A sweaty factory worker chuckles and hands him a bag of potato chips.
"Here you go boy, have at it," he says. "Who's next?"
The chips are broken and burnt, but they're free. The year is 1936, the height of the Great Depression. When dinner is cabbage and fried pig fat, if you're lucky, this is a treat. It's a simple joy, but that's probably the only kind that matters.
The boy was my grandpa. May God rest his soul.
Sometimes, when we'd be driving somewhere in Detroit, he would reminisce to me about his childhood. I loved that. He had all of these amazing stories about things like the petting zoo on Bell Isle, or the old soda fountain shops, and even this one story about a movie theater that gave out plates and silverware sets to its patrons. By the time I was 9 or 10, I had developed into a quiet, shy child, and I genuinely liked to listen to other people talk. I preferred it, even. Their stories fascinated me.
One story my grandpa liked to tell me in particular was about how he would get bags of rejected potato chips from the Better Made factory. At the end of the long work day, the workers would give them away to any kids that stopped by. He and his friends (a rough bunch from what I could tell, but that story deserves its own space) would make trips there whenever they could.
"Hey ma, we're goin' down to the chip factory, be back by 8!" he'd yell as he ran out the front door.
"OK!" she'd shout, but he was already gone.
It was probably the best advertising Better Made ever could have done. It made the hard times a little lighter for a few minutes, and it's hard to forget a memory like that.
Spoiled children like us would've have balked at the misshapen and charred chips he coveted, but the 1930s were a different time. It wasn't just the homeless or the bottom 5% or 10% of the population that had to worry about where their next meal would come from. Almost everyone had to. His mom, my great-grandma, kept the many shelves in her basement lined with canned foods well into her 90s as a matter of practicality. Most of the it went bad before she could ever eat it.
“You never want to run out of food,” she'd say.
I can still see the ghosts of yesterday running down the street. They laugh as they play.