Taken together, the letters from families struggling through the Great Depression create a larger story of a city and a nation struggling to accept a new notion: that without help they might not survive, no matter how hard they worked.
“In many cases these were individuals with their backs against the wall, watching their children go hungry every night,” Mr. Gup said in a phone interview last week.
At a time when accepting charity was seen as a moral failure, Mr. Stone’s promise of anonymity shielded the letter writers from shame. An unemployed woman caring for her sick daughter and disabled sister wrote to Mr. Stone, “If I thought this would be printed in the papers I would rather die of hunger first.”
About five years ago, I was a single mother with a few-month-old infant daughter. I lived in a studio apartment in the same town as the college I had just had to drop out of it. I had no job and my daughter and I were living on savings and public assistance.
Us middle-class and above folk tend to think of those less fortunate as another species, whether we’re aware of it or not. We don’t think of them as individuals, with pasts and passions and talents. We think of them, if we’re kind, as creatures who deserve creature comforts and not much else. This may come out of an underlying conviction the unfortunate have done something to cause their situation. Sometimes this is the case. Sometimes they’ve done nothing more than the fortunate who are born into different situations have. In either case, they’re still individuals, and we sadly misrepresent them as something less.
Few people realize now, what situations I’ve personally lived through. They assume I’m just like them. But I’ve been without a home and money and food. I’ve pulled myself and my daughter back from the edge of poverty with little but my own hard work - and the much-needed bits of help given by the few people who saw us both as individuals who were worth it.
The first Thanksgiving of my daughter’s life, someone set two grocery bags outside of my apartment door full of food - boxes of stuffing, potatoes, cans of vegetables and a whole turkey. I never had any idea who did it. I didn’t even have the skill or time to cook all of it. But I’ve never forgotten what it meant to have a stranger express to me that I was still worth helping.