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In the Roaring Twenties my grandfather, Diamond Ben, was a flashy guy. He had a taste for Cadillacs. He owned a tux and a diamond stickpin. He had a big house by the beach, and two garages on Broadway. He hung out with celebrities.
But my grandfather lost the house and the two garages and the flashy life in the early Thirties, and my mother's family was forced to move into a tenement apartment in the Bronx.
Diamond Ben turned out to be a standup guy. First he tried to sell vacuum cleaners door-to-door, but the doors were mostly slammed in his face. Who could afford a new appliance?
He ended up in the basement of a bakery. Above, in the retail shop, when crumbs of bread and cake fell onto the floor, they were swept down into a hole. The hole had a funnel attached to it. My grandfather stood under it, catching and bagging the crumbs for resale. He was the crumbcatcher.
My mother, who couldn't go to college because she had to help to support the family, often talked about going to cafeterias during lunch to make catsup soup out of hot water and free condiments.
Her fears became my fears, and her values became my values. The first time someone showed me a hat with the words, "He who dies with the most toys wins," I thought he came from another planet.
Now, as overweight America lumbers into its crumbcatcher phase, those values -- saving money, avoiding debt -- are starting to make sense again.
No one can explain why the price of gasoline is going up -- it seems to be a combination of increased demand, competition for resources, lessening supplies and wide-scale speculation. (As the dollar sinks and only commodities are gaining in value, investment dollars are flocking there, driving up prices).
Our entire economy is predicated on cheap oil, so it's just a matter of watching the building blocks tumble, one by one. And even if we could stop gasoline prices from escalating, there's China, flush with cash, building an automobile industry. And did you know that last month an Indian car company bought Jaguar?
Yes, America is no longer the big cheese standing alone. What happens elsewhere in the world is going to hurt us here.
We're hearing about food riots on just about every continent. In Africa, there have been recent protests in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Mauritania and Senegal. On Tuesday, the United Nations' secretary-general said he was setting up a task force to tackle the global food crisis in an attempt to avert "social unrest on an unprecedented scale."
In the United States, there has been a 41 percent surge in prices for wheat, corn, rice and other cereals over the past six months.
Those most-toys-wins Americans, with their sense of entitlement, are starting to feel the pain. If they haven't already lost their houses, they're feeling threatened now. They're selling their antiques, their jewelry and grandma's tea kettle to make the mortgage. This could be a banner year for flea markets.
Make no mistake, the rich are still with us, and they're still filthy rich. At the top, CEO and star salaries are inflated to the skies, and corporate profits are huge. The middle class, which should be the cushion on which the wealthy class rests -- well, there's almost no middle class left. The fat backsides of the wealthy are resting on all our shoulders now.
What will Americans do? How will they react? In the Depression, extended families banded together. Tent cities grew up on the outskirts of towns. People sold apples on the street, or begged, or caught crumbs in the basements of bakeries to help support their families. Soup kitchens and bread lines were people's lifelines.
People sacrificed. They also elected Franklin Roosevelt, who put the government to work for them. Then, when America entered World War II, people sacrificed more and worked even harder for the common good.
Today there is no common good. We've been taught that government is bad. We've been at war in Afghanistan and Iraq for seven years and we've barely noticed it at home. George W. Bush took office with a budget surplus, and we're a debtor nation now. No one here seems to care.
We're isolated, each in our own nuclear family, in our own private homes, with our own entertainment centers and our own gyms and our own offices. Or we're out driving in our big cars -- again alone. Or we're exhausted, working two jobs to keep a roof over our heads.
We are so disconnected that we suffer from all sorts of rage when we encounter other people -- road rage, parking lot rage, airport rage, gas line rage, high school massacres -- and who knows what's next.
American politics has encouraged us to scapegoat. We've been taught to fear people who are different and to blame them for our problems. So we beat up African-Americans, or immigrants, or gay people, or Muslims, or atheists, just to get a little relief from our own anger. I have a horrible feeling that this will only escalate as resources become more scarce.
We don't riot. Instead, we act as if we're drugged. We don't join together to protest and fill the Washington Mall. We don't get angry at politicians and demand results. Bush may have lower approval ratings than a cockroach, but we just shrug and wait for the next election. Maybe the next president will save us. Maybe that person will also wear a cape and be able to fly.
Or at least blow something up and give us a moment's release from our pain.
Americans are used to plenty. What crumbs, I wonder, will this country be catching as it wakes from its long, low dream.