Steve Trimble writes:
Max Shulman (1919–1988) grew up in a Jewish community in Saint Paul’s Selby-Dale neighborhood. After graduating from Central High School, he earned a journalism degree from the University of Minnesota. His writings were invariably humorous and were published in novels and magazines. He eventually became a successful writer for theater and television. His novel Potatoes are Cheaper was a portrayal of life in the city in the late 1930s.
Max Shulman, Potatoes Are Cheaper (Doubleday and Company, 1971): 1–4, 23
Oh sure, potatoes were cheaper all right, and so were tomatoes, just like Eddie Cantor kept singing on the radio, but who the hell had money to buy any except maybe Eddie Cantor?
But finally, thank God, we got a break. On March the 14th, 1936, Pa went down to the St. Paul Public Library just like he did every day as usual. Not that he was such a great reader; in fact he could hardly read at all, not English anyhow, except maybe for eviction and foreclosure notices. He could read Yiddish all right, but that didn’t help because there were no Yiddish books in the St. Paul Public Library. But Pa went every day anyhow. What else could he do? He didn’t have a job to go to, and if he stayed home Ma would give him the whammy all day long. So where else could he find that was (a) warm; and (b) free?
So on this March the 14th, 1936, we’re talking about, Pa started walking into the library as usual, but he never got inside because he slipped on an icy step and fractured his tailbone. Or as my mother told the whole neighborhood, “He fell and broke his ass, my smart husband.”
Naturally we sued the city. My cousin Herbie who got out of law school five years ago took the case—his first case, as it happened. But he was confident. “Don’t worry, Aunt Pearl,” he told my mother. “We got ’em dead to rights. You’ll collect fifty thousand minimum.”
Herbie figured a little high. The actual settlement came to $125 of which the doctor grabbed twenty. Still and all, it was the biggest chunk of money we’d seen since my father took up unemployment back in 1929, and we had a family conference at five o’clock one evening to decide what to do with it...
“So who got a suggestion?” said Ma.
Pa stepped forward. Pa used to be a house painter back in the olden days when he was working and this is what he suggested: He’d take the hundred dollars and get his Plymouth back from the finance company. Then he’d drive around St. Paul looking for houses that needed painting and when he found one he’d try to sell the people a paint job.
Ma gave him a look. “Very intelligent,” she said. “But I got a question. When a house needs painting, it’s because they ain’t got money to paint. So how are they gonna pay you, Dr. I.Q.?”...
Now my sister Libbie stepped forward. … “I think I should have the money,” said Libbie, “so I can buy some decent clothes and get invited to nice parties and meet the right kind of people.”
Ma gave Libbie a look. “Very intelligent,” said Ma. “But I got a question. Who among your shlepper friends is gonna invite you to a nice party?”
Libbie couldn’t think of an answer so naturally she started in crying. Ma turned to me next. “Well, breadwinner,” she said, “I suppose you think you should have the money too?”...
“This is gonna be better than you think,” I said. “I will go to college.”
What a bombshell! College? Who ever heard of such a thing? First of all I was twenty years old and already two years out of high school. Second, the highest mark I ever got in high school was a B-minus and that was in tin shop. And third, even if you were a genius and came out of college with a lawyer degree or a doctor degree you’d still starve to death these days like everybody else.
They gave me a look, all of them, not just Ma, but Pa and Libbie too. They just stood and stared at me like they couldn’t imagine where in the world I got such a nutty idea...
“In college I will have a chance to meet rich girls,” I said, “and let’s face it, the only way this family is ever gonna see any money is if I marry it.”
Then I stepped back and waited for Ma to give me the whammy.
But she just stood and rubbed her chin for a couple minutes. “Makes sense,” she said finally.
Steve Trimble lives in the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood near Indian Mounds Park. He has researched, written, and taught Twin Cities and Minnesota history. He serves on the editorial board of the Ramsey County Historical Society and the St. Paul Heritage Preservation Commission. He has recently authored a large article in Ramsey County History on three East Side neighborhoods in the 1940s and ’50s. He also collects novels set in Minnesota and plants heirloom tomatoes.