|Talking with students: Afterthoughts
By Paul Kusuda
| Around 1930 when I was eight, my parents bought a small grocery store in West Los Angeles. They decided the area in which their small hotel was located in downtown L.A. was not a suitable place to raise their three children. The so-called Uptown area was much better, even though they knew few people who lived there. Soon, they got to know a number of Japanese families. Though not church-goers themselves, they had us children attend an Episcopal Church about three-quarters of a mile away from their grocery store and the three-bedroom house they rented. In addition to the five of us was my mother's stepmother.
My father ran all operations of the grocery store, learning the intricacies from scratch. He knew how to keep records from his experience running a small over-a-tavern hotel. However, he had to find out how to contact wholesalers, arrange delivery dates, and open charge accounts with them; estimate needs in advance for fruit, vegetables, perishable grocery items such as milk, eggs, and cheese, and non-perishable items such as canned goods; open a business banking account; and establish a system to record accounts for customers who were short of cash but who needed groceries.
Fortunately, my father had a working knowledge of English before he emigrated to the United States in 1906. He had graduated from high school in Japan where English was taught to all students. His accent could have been better, but it was acceptable. Most non-Japanese called him either Frank or George. He preferred George, but he didn't mind being called Frank either. (By the way, in keeping with my parents' resolve that their children be good American citizens, since they were born in L.A., they gave each of their children easily pronounced American names: Bill -- not William, Paul -- because I was a small baby, and Helen. My mother came to the U.S. when she was about 13. When attending elementary school in L.A., she was given the name Elaine.)
The grocery store was owner-occupied when my parents bought it, but the living quarters were too small, so they rented a nearby house. The rent was reasonable because someone had earlier hanged himself in the garage (which we never used since my folks never had a car). My mother occasionally helped out at the grocery store while my grandmother kept up the house and, from time to time, cooked meals. Most of the time, we ate lunch and supper at the store, which had cooking and eating facilities. Breakfasts were eaten at home rather than at the store. Either my mother or grandmother prepared the food, and I remember that sometimes we had eggs and toast, but mostly we had cereal, either cold or hot cereal -- oatmeal or cream of wheat. We also had freshly-squeezed orange juice in which my mother always put drops of cod liver oil which none of us appreciated but had to drink.
Operating a grocery store during the Great Depression was not profitable. I remember that when a customer (whom I considered rich) paid for groceries with a $20 bill, he had to wait for change while I ran to one of the two gasoline stations to get smaller bills. Incidentally, most customers were men. (Now, I wonder why more women did not do the shopping for groceries.) On Saturday mornings, I used to have to go to the Bank of America about a half-mile away to make a deposit to cover checks my father (in agreement with wholesalers) dated for the following Monday. The bank closed at noon, so I always got there in time without having any idea as to the amount of money I was carrying./Money was always in short supply; the grocery business was not truly profitable. However, we weren't the only ones who just got by. We didn't have much; actually, we were poor, but didn't recognize it. Everyone else we knew were facing similar financial situations. I noticed that my father gave small bags of fruit and vegetables to men who came by on Saturday or Sunday mornings. Other times, I noticed he put a couple of sacks of stuff by the door when he locked up the store on Saturday night. We never talked about it.
My father carried a notebook which had names, addresses, and a running account of dates and amounts owed by customers (only very few were women) who charged their groceries. From time to time, he'd get paid. Most paid, but some didn't. As you might guess, I was more curious about things than I should have been, considering my age. Once in a while when I was about 11, my father would ask me to try to get a partial payment on an overdue account. That was kind of a scary job for me to go to an apartment building, ring the door bell, and ask a stranger to pay an outstanding debt. That was a job my father gave me, and I don't remember ever being successful. It was a learning experience I think I could have done without. BUT, it was a learning experience that youth today would not be asked to undertake.
Those Great Depression years evoked other memories too. I often wonder what memories my mother and sister had. We grew up together and shared some happenings, but our life experiences were so different, and we reacted so differently to what we faced. I'm certain that our memories are the same for some occurrences and different for others.
|Last month, I reviewed some of the questions raised by James Madison Memorial High School students when they interviewed me for a project looking back to the Great Depression. The questions, many of which were quite insightful, brought back almost-forgotten recollections. However, the variety of experiences undoubtedly affected my thinking and how I later reacted to situations.|