Pete Peterson's 'The Education of an American Dreamer'

I started working at the cafe when Prohibition ended in 1932. I was eight. It was my job to take cash and make change at the register at the front of the long counter, and I liked it from the start. The numbers fell in line for me. Customers squinted at the bills and coins I counted out into their hands, looking for mistakes I never made. This success emboldened me. One of my father's pricing innovations, designed to keep the cafe filled, was a 10 percent bonus for customers who paid in advance—diners who bought a $5 meal ticket up front would get $5.50 worth of food. Many of the tickets were kept in a little box on the counter and once I took my station at the register, I made it my business to look them over to see whose were on the verge of running out. Woe to the patron who was a ten-cent slice of pie away from spending his $5.50. I would confront him at the register while he was fumbling for his change. "Would you like to renew your meal ticket? This one's almost out." Most of the time they did, without a fuss. But the Depression had reduced the number of people who could advance $5 against their future meals, even with a 10 percent return, and sometimes I ran into resistance. I responded with aggressive salesmanship, a trait I would refine and depend upon as time went on; learning early on not to take no for an answer was a valuable lesson. I sometimes hovered near tables while customers were eating. Once I chased the local haberdasher down the street (when he forgot to pay a nickel for a cup of coffee). I never questioned whether my targets thought I was pushy or obnoxious; my goal was to improve my numbers for the recognition I would gain, and, maybe, win my distant father's approval.

For many, of course, the Depression was far more serious than mustering $5 in order to save fifty cents. Millions had nothing at all. In Kearney, we saw enough to know the country was struggling, and that people had to try to take care of one another. Dozens of jobless and underfed men found their way to the Central Cafe's back door begging for food, and my father never turned a single one away. He didn't just hand out meals for free, however; sensing that their pride depended on it, he always found some chore that they could do in exchange for a heaping plate of stew. It was his version of a welfare-for-work program.

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