Stock Market Blues
When I was a girl, I listened to my parents talk about the stock market each night at the dinner table. I didn’t know what the stock market was, and when I asked, Dad said it was like a roller coaster or a giant swing on which our net worth went up and down each day. Whatever net worth meant. I was pretty sure it had something to do with my parents’ moods. This was the Seventies, and everyone was talking about self-worth and self-esteem, trying to feel better by drugs or therapy or both. We were reading I’m Okay, You’re Okay and Jonathan Livingston Seagull in English class. My best friend’s mom was a manic-depressive, and I remember the day she burst into tears when we ate all the brickles from the butter brickle ice cream. She was the most beautiful mother I ever knew, sort of like an Audrey Hepburn with hips. I used to think if only I could be pretty like her, I’d never be blue. Sometimes in spring she would get so depressed, she would have to spend weeks in a mental hospital where they gave her shock treatments to make her forget she was sad. I’d wonder what it felt like to wish you were dead. My dad said that during the Great Depression men jumped out of windows on Wall Street. It happened on October 29, ’29, the blackest Tuesday there ever was. He would play jazz and blues on the stereo to let me hear what music people listened to in nightclubs back then, as if somehow hearing Louis Armstrong or Billy Holiday would transport me back in time. I’d listen and picture those businessmen in their suits and ties, perched on windowsills, preparing to die. I’d imagine them listening to trumpet solos or Louis’s raspy voice as they went. Why did they jump? I would ask. When you’re rich, my dad always said, with a deep sigh, rattling the ice in his whiskey glass, you have too much to lose. And sometimes you do. You just lose it all.
Whenever the stock market falls, I check the news to see if anyone has jumped from a window on Wall Street. It’s a morbid habit I learned from my dad ages ago. If no one has jumped, I feel reassured things aren’t as bad as they can get. Yet. Some nights, I hate to admit it, I dream of men jumping to their deaths. I never see them hit. (I take this as a good sign.) But other nights I dream I am still a child, and a stranger is trying to break into my room and steal me away. My mother always said it could happen to anyone if you’re rich. And we were back then. She told the story of the Lindbergh baby again and again. How the mother and the nanny, Betty Gam, put the baby to bed at 7:00 p.m. By 10:00, little Charles was gone. There was a note on the window sill and a ladder on the ground beneath the child’s room. Years later my therapist said, It’s no wonder you never slept when you were young. I stayed awake night after night, staring out the plate glass window in my room. I hid a knife in the drawer by my bed, just in case. One day, when my father found the knife, he replaced it with a twenty dollar bill. If a kidnapper comes, he said, give him this. It’s money a man wants, silly girl. Not you.
I was taking a college history class when I first discovered that everything I’d learned of U.S. history was somewhere between fantasy and fact. That investment bankers did not, for example, jump from buildings on Wall Street after the crash. It’s true there were a lot of suicides in the early ’30s. But they happened all over the country, and most of them were done with gas. When I called my dad to complain that I had been misled, that history is full of myths and mistakes, he said the whole country imagined those rich men jumping. Even reputable newspapers like The London Times reported the deaths that never happened. And there was at least one man who jumped from a hotel window when Churchill was visiting the Savoy Plaza Hotel in New York City in 1929. Maybe we just wanted those men to jump. Maybe we needed them to.
It’s so sad they didn’t, Dad added, because they should have. My father became angry whenever he talked about it. How his own father lost all his savings. The first thing his mother did was to go out and buy chickens, which was the same as admitting to the entire neighborhood that you couldn’t afford to buy eggs at the market. At school recess, the boys would circle my father and make fun of his voice that hadn’t dropped yet, and wouldn’t for years because he was pushed three grades ahead. Hey Chicken Boy, they sang in girly voices, you laid any eggs yet? The ringleader would pummel him to the ground until he gave up his lunch. My father was always hungry. And pretty soon the black maid they hired was working for leftovers. The family ate soul food instead of chicken and rice or roast beef—lots of pokeweed, stewed tomatoes and black-eyed peas fried in bacon grease. Of course they weren’t the only family hurting then. Unemployment went up to 25%. What did people do? I asked. Dad smirked. They went to church. What else? Everyone loves God when He takes away his paycheck. When He sends tsunamis, wars, plagues. And you know what else? It wasn’t too long before they went back into the stock market. Yep. Americans love their gods. And the stock market is up there. Folks always believe it will rise again.
Nin Andrews is the author of six poetry chapbooks and six full-length collections, most recently The Last Orgasm (Etruscan Press, 2020). The other works are titled Why God is a Woman, The Book of Orgasms, Why They Grow Wings, and Midlife Crisis with Dick and Jane. She is also the editor of a book of translations of the Belgian poet Henri Michaux, Someone Wants to Steal My Name (Cleveland State University Poetry, 2004). Her poems have appeared in four editions of The Best American Poetry as well as Ploughshares, AGNI, The Paris Review, and elsewhere. (updated 4/2022)