The Big Moment Of a Frugal Holiday
IF, as the news mongers so cheerfully tell us in mournful tones, we are truly having a recession, where do the impoverished masses find the money to go to football games every Sunday? I speak not in ire or jest, because as an alumnus of the real Depression back in the 1930s I am aware of the options.
Just out of college, I was struggling manfully for 48 hours every day to gain a pittance, and my friend Pat Sawyer was trotting his legs off seeking somebody to buy insurance so he could eat. We used to cheat our penury by telling what we proposed to do on our vacation in Bermuda.
It was in the summer of 1933 that we defied the Depression and went to Quebec City for a week - fie on Bermuda! The details are sharp in my full-color memory. Pat had $32, and I had $28. Pat had no vehicle, but I had a 1928 Model A coupe, pronounced coop, which I had bought for $52 and saved it from the dump. It ran, but was hard on oil, and the rumble seat had no relevance whatever to the interior. If the ladies would endure the open-air luxury of the rumble, we could go to Quebec. Between me and Pat an d at the ladies' feet in the rumble, we stowed food and supplies, and lighthearted we set out.
Understand that to us in Maine, Quebec City is, and was then, just a few hours away. Up to the Canadian boundary through the legendary Bingham wilderness, and then down the Chaudiere River Valley to the St. Lawrence River.
We found rooms in an ancient family home where la madame apologized for extorting $1 each overnight, but explained that times were hard, and she needed the money. We found we could loll about at no charge in the sedate lobby of the Chteau Frontenac until we had accumulated a feeling of great wealth, and then we could go down to the lower city and get a substantial meal of pea soup and fresh bread chez nous, all included, for 15 cents.
A football game never entered our heads. I remember we found a small factory in a nook off a narrow alley where men were making horse collars. There we spent a fascinating hour or two, and the men explained every step. And we shopped every window in the city.
The big moment of this frugal holiday came in the salon of Messrs. Holt and Renfrew, furriers, whose veddy-veddy British presence in gallic Quebec remains impressive. Their show window may well have exceeded the value of Fort Knox, but Pat and I were taken by a small card next to the glass that said anybody wishing to hunt and fish on the company's northern preserves should step in and see Mr. Pettigrew. Pat and I, being trout-brook cronies, decided to look into that.
Inside the store, we were greeted warmly by a young man sartorially in the nines, even to ascot, with an Oxford tone as prominent as a snow shovel, and our request to see Mr. Pettigrew didn't fool him one little bit. I think we must have been the first prospects to step into the Holt-Renfrew place since last Michaelmas, and the young man was ready for us. He bowed and shook the ladies' hands, and then shook with me and Pat, and he led us into a conditioned vault about the size of Rhode Island that was hu ng four walls around with silver fox pelts. Just pelts, not yet made into anything, and stashed away as overstock until money appeared again. The ladies were excited, but rational. Then the young man began working downstream, hoping he might come to some figure that Pat and I would feel comfortable with. We soon realized he wasn't about to let us leave without something.
And we didn't. After he had dwelt on the nine-and-fifty-nine ways we might make our brides happy with Holt-Renfrew souvenirs, he brought out two black caracul jacket-coats that most amazingly fitted. The one on my wife was priced at $34, and because it had a swagger cut the other one was $36. I heard Pat say, "Yes, yes, but we came in to see Mr. Pettigrew!"
The young man took us aside while the ladies looked at themselves in the mirror. He would take $2 down apiece, he said, and put the two coats in the vault until we sent him the rest. Whatever we could send. Take what time we wished. Then he'd mail the coats, and take care of clearing customs at the border. Times were such, he said.
The ladies wore those coats for long years, and my wife then had hers cut to a cape which she still has. It could well be worn to a football game.