HOW ONE FAMILY LIVES VERY WELL INDEED ON $58 A WEEK
They dine out lavishly, buy books, records and prints, and they holiday in the South. They're not in debt. How do they do it? With an appetite for getting the most from life and the knack of getting at least some of it free
ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN
HENRY DICKLER, A DARK, even-tempered man with a quiet wit, and his wife Ruth, a bouncing little woman with bright copper-colored hair, live with their three children and Henry’s Rumanian mother in a Torontosubsidized housing project for families earning less than $5,200 a year. From the outside, the project looks like a neatly kept concentration camp but it provides comfortable, efficient and economical housing with more grass and garden area per person than was available to entire communities in the congested Collegeand-Bathurst district where both Ruth and Henry grew
up. The Dicklers pay $84.50 a month rent ($71.00, plus another $13.50 which is levied because the elder Mrs. Dickler receives a $55-a-month old-age pension) and live on what’s left of the $58-a-week take-home pay Henry receives as ticket-examiner at Toronto Union Station. This involves no economic magic; many people live on less. But few people in this or any other income bracket manage to live as lively, interesting and imaginative a life as the Dicklers, who get just about everything they want from this world, including good food, travel, entertainment, art and music.
A birthday party for Laurel, the Dicklers’ second daughter. Birthday cake was served and Henry’s mother, left, gave Laurel $3. The Dickler children are well dressed but their mother says, “It doesn’t bother me to see kids get dirty.’’
HOW ONE FAMILY LIVES VERY WELL INDEED ON S58 A WEEK
“We tune our life to what we can afford”
The Dicklers have moved into the Elysian fields of culture with a supermarket carriage and a praiseworthy conviction that the best things of life arc free, or close to it. and that many of them come by way of the promotion man. For instance, they have a twentyalbum collection of classical records which they bought, one at a time, for eighty-nine cents each at the supermarkets nearby, and a set of books, The Cyclopedia of World Knowledge, which they obtained the same w'ay. The Dicklers take advantage of every free offer they hear of, including the introductory offers from book clubs and “famous paintings” clubs, and a lot of things that are ignored by edizens too blasé for their own good. When the T. Eaton Company held a store-wide promotion called Eaton's Salutes the
Commonwealth, the Dicklers arranged to take the kids down to see a baby elephant, a demonstration of how to wear a sari, an exhibit of Scottish abstract art and a free movie. "It was a triple threat,” said Flenry, a man who doesn't fuss over getting the exact phrase.
While thousands of people are going broke on $200 a week, and marriages of the well-heeled are breaking up from boredom, the Dicklers go on, a loving and tight-knit family, taking in the good things of life and brightening the lives of promotion men. They’re unique in this age of frantic merchandising: they don’t fight it, they join it. When they receive junk mail, they read it and send away for the free offers. Mrs. Dickler, w'ho says, “I’ve never been bored
in my life, there's too much to do." not only sends for all free recipe books, she uses them. She got a free Chinese cookbook and learned how to make chow mein, sweet and sour beef balls and glazed ribs. She loves cooking and trying out new dishes, much to Henry's approval. "When a woman cooks, she gives something of herself.” Recently in an excess of enthusiasm, she promised to make a Jewish meal for an Italian stationary engineer Henry works with in Union Station, and it took her two days to prepare fourteen dishes, including knishes; gefilte fish; beet borsht; chicken liver with kashe; tzimmes, a carrot pudding; lima beans and sautéed onions; lokshen, a noodle pudding with pineapple and maraschino cherries; and teglach.
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HOW ONE FAMILY LIVES VERY WELL ON $58 A WEEK
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The Dicklers don’t budget. They watch for the bargain in every basement, the bonus in every buy
While shopping plazas are decried by many people for their robotlike overtones and funereal piped-in music, to the Dicklers they’re bonanzas of good things, as are the big, blaring, neon-lit bargain book stores like Coles, where the Dicklers purchased for $1.50 each a print of "The Skill" by Renoir, which they have nicely framed in their living room, and "The Ballet Master" by Degas, which hangs in a bedroom. They obtained at even less expense a copy of a boat scene by Van Gogh ("The one who cut his ear off.” Mrs. Dickler chirps happily) which came in a tencent introductory offer of art books. I hey saved the tickets to the "Cinemiracle" movie "Windjammer.” given with each fivedoll ar purchase of groceries at the local Dominion Store, and took the kids to the movie at a saving of a dollar a ticket. "It was terrific!" Mrs. Dickler said. But they don't go to just any movie. Henry carefully reads the reviews in the magazines left in the waiting room of the Union Station by restless travelers. He gets both daily papers free the same way and scans them for the next attractions coming to
town. T he latest to catch his interest was the Scandinavian Fair held in the Queen Hlizaheth building in Torontos I xhibition grounds. (He never finds Maclean’s magazine, incidentally, and deduces that this is either because nobody reads it or because people think too much of it to leave it behind.) Another example of how Henry makes the best of his opportunities: he had a brakcman friend of his bring him fresh blueberries from Northern Ontario for blueberry cakes, which Henry baked himself, until the brakcman reported that bears were scaring the kids he had hired as pickers.
T he Dicklers sing in a folk choir once a week. "We met there fourteen years ago.” says Henry, "and have been making music ever since." One night a week Ruth goes bowling with a group from the development. In the huge Playtime Bowling Alleys at Duflerin anti Samor Streets, amid an enormous racket that less wellbalanced people might find nerve-wracking and lacking in cultural subtleties. Mrs. Dickler happily bowls as if she were feeding chickens, racking up a score in the midhundreds. anti enjoys the friendly banter of her friends, among whom one good-natured bit of chafing between husband and wife goes the smiling rounds for about five minutes, accompanied by shrieks, head-shaking and mock throttling gestures. Henry likes to bowl too, but the Dicklers feel that they shouldn't take advantage of Henry’s mother, who is a willing sitter. A tiny, gray-haired woman with an Old World manner, the elder Mrs. Dickler prepares all her own food in accordance with
strict Jewish ceremony, something that delights the Dicklers. who follow the Jewish faith about the way most Christians follow theirs, as it gives old Mrs. Dickler something to do. Ruth Dickler makes no pious claims for getting along wdth her motherin-law. "1 can see that it wouldn't work out in many cases. But she's a rare person. She’s wonderful. She wouldn’t even give
the children anything without asking me first."
The Dicklers usually spend another evening out. every week, at a movie or visiting, and once a month make a point of dining out with friends at such posh night spots as Gaslight. L'Aiglon or the Rathskeller room at the Walker House, places that they've found aren't as expensive as
they look. In spite of great joking and banter about drinks, these parties are models of temperance. Mrs. Dickler is inclined to be in such high spirits anyway that she couldn't do much better on alcohol. She makes a great fuss over a fancy drink, admires the froth, the smell, the lemon peel, but is inclined to slip it to Henry, who is liable not to drink it either. Conversation
is lively, full of jokes, and an occasional bit of dialogue from the Yiddish district they know well, like; ‘'You’re not speaking so good looking how you are.”
They have no financial system and no tiresome budget. If they want a thing and have the money to spare, they buy it, and they don’t mind buying on time, but they watch that their debts don't pile up and see that they keep tip their payments. One thing that gives Henry a real advantage is his pass on the railway. Many railway people don’t make as much use ot passes as they could, and a few make no use id them, afraid that they’d weaken their case while griping against management. Henry makes full use of his. Recently he took his wife and children to Ottawa, showed them the Royal C anadian Mounted Police outside the Parliament buildings, took them to the visitor’s gallery and pointed out the Speaker, the government on one side, the opposition on the other, anti one member who was sound asleep. " I he Senate was just the same as the Commons except more people were asleep,” says Henry, who takes a keen interest in politics.
The pen is mightier than the dollar
Many of the things the Dicklers get they obtain by simply writing for them. When the Canadian Brotherhood of Railway Transport and General Workers invited members to write letters of application for an all-expenses-paid trip to the United Nations in New York. Henry sat down, wrote his letter and won the prize. He entered a letter-writing contest for a tree term at a summer school at Port Elgin, on Lake Huron. and won that. too. this time taking his family along with him. Mrs. Dickler is a great letter-writer herself. Il was through writing a letter early that the Dicklers were able to get into the Lawrence Heights development. for which there is a long waiting list.When Mrs. Dickler’s last child was born, she wrote to the Visiting Homemakers Association and got one of the homemakers to attend her free. In April of 1958, when the Dicklers had saved $200 and Henry received another $100 for his services as president ot his local, Mrs. Dickler wrote to the Miami Chamber of Commerce, like a bird walking straight toward a hungry cat. told them that they were coming to Florida, that it was their dream trip, that they were bringing the children and didn’t have much money. Could the Chamber of Commerce givesome advice on a place to stay? For a week she was almost raking the literature oil the front lawn with a rake.
I hey stayed in a utility unit on Miami Beach for $45 a week, with living room, kitchen and bedroom, spent eight days there, getting around by 1ms, took in a lot of the tours, cruised on a glass-bottomed boat, saw the parrot jungle, swam, took pictures, gathered sea shells, and took the kids to see their first stage show. Coming back, they got shuffled around by mistake and traveled from Jacksonville to Washington on a cattle train with one coach, then changed to a train for New York, stayed with Henry’s uncle, went up the Empire State Building, and arrived home without regretting a nickel of the $300. 'I'd do it again tomorrow.” Mrs. Dickler says. "It was like a technicolor movie. All those beautiful colors. Every thing looked so clean”—an attitude that could well serve as a model for the growing numbers of Canadians who go to Florida prepared to spread the word that it’s a hoax because they don’t have Muskoka pines down there.
I he Dicklers take the children on almost all their out-of-town trips. They’ve been to Fort William, where they visited a woman who used to live near the Dicklers in the project and now lives in a project in Fort William; to Montreal; Detroit; and
often to Niagara Falls. Their attitude to travel is so ingenuous that it almost amounts to a new twist. What they do at Niagara Falls, for example, is take a lunch and sit looking at Niagara Falls.
The Dicklers are devoted to their children. Henry established some sort of record recently by being the only father who turned up at his children's school for a parent-teacher interview. When their youngest child required special medical care at birth. Mrs. Dickler had Dr. L. Nellcs Silverthorne. senior physician at the Sick Children’s Hospital, look after him. Mrs. Dickler takes on other people's children in the same hearty good spirits as she bowls. In spite of her flaming hair, according to Henry, who should know, she never loses her temper. She keeps her children well dressed and very presentable but doesn't get into a state of nerves about it. "It doesn't bother me to see kids get dirty.” When her sister had her second child. Mrs. Dickler took her own children by bus, subway and streetcar to her sister's small apartment in a congested west-end area of Toronto, told her sister to go away for a week somewhere and take a rest, and settled down amid a bedlam of wind-up toys, shrieks, games and wails to hold the fort. Her sister returns the favor w ith equal wholeheartedness, taking care of the Dickler children if the Dicklers decide to take a trip without them.
Mrs. Dickler’s speech is easy, unhesitating and lively. An example delivered while dealing with the children who had just come home from school ( Robyn, a pretty youngster, who saved her SI.00 allowance for sixty-eight weeks and bought a bicycle, was standing in the doorway drinking milk and Laurel, the youngest girl was putting the bite on her mother for a dime): "I met a woman I knew at Lawrence Plaza. People go there to see what everyone else is wearing. She said how busy she'd been. It was in Woolworth’s at the cake counter. She was trying to sell her house because she lived near a street she didn’t like. 'I can't stand it.' she said. 'It's right near the project.' 'You're talking to me.' 1 said. Tm from the project.' She said she'd see me later. Oh. you're a wild one. Laurel. Have you got any fairy gold? Fairy gold! That's what they call money. She's very orthodox. She drinks her milk with her hat on. Mummy-Daddy-say s-give-meten-cents. I should give you ten cents. Fairy gold only. That drugstore's a pain in the neck. . . ."
One thing Mrs. Dickler doesn't like is
the attitude of many people toward the housing project, an attitude that attains rare heights of prejudice. A while ago, while Mrs. Dickler was shopping at the plaza, someone's little girl fell off the mechanical horse inside Loblaw's, and like all little girls who fall off horses she let loose a yell that stopped the shoppers. "She must be from the project.” sniffed a haughty woman bystander, a remark that still puzzles the Dicklers. Another time, at a hairdresser's. Mrs. Dickler overheard a customer say that a man who lived nearby had won some money on the sweepstakes.
"It will be so nice for his daughter,” the woman said. "He'll be able to get her out of the project.”
Henry takes an amused and tolerant attitude toward his wife's attempts on occasion to camouflage her address, and never helps her out w hen she talks herself into a spot by giving her address as Ranee and Bathurst and has someone trying to pin her down to the exact street.
"We tune our life to what we can afford. A great fault in people is to want things because others have them. It's a fault not just in people but in countries. 1 know.
myself. I'll always be a working man. I'll never be a millionaire, even if I did sell papers when I was a boy. There's nothing wrong with being a working man. A lot of people say. Today I'm a working man. but tomorrow I'll be rich, so 1 won't act like a working man.' Other people, just because they don't feel they're making their potential. lie down and die. Or they get stiff over the week end. We take advantage of situations, not of people. There's nothing detrimental in that. I've always felt that we should take advantage of the finer things in life. Some people think cvery-
thing has to be expensive to be good. They equate goodness with bigness. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not content with everything just the way it is. I’m not one of those people who say, ’as long as the sun comes up in the morning and goes down at night, I’m all right.’ That’s what 1 call Reader’s Digest philosophy. Hut my goals arc modest and within reach.”
Henry gives the feeling that his goals, modest or not. are very worthwhile. With singular freedom from pose, or snobbery, he tells of taking his children to the Royal Ontario Museum, the Toronto Art Gallery, sending them to hear a children’s concert given by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, or taking them to see an ice show.
“There’s a certain amount of pride in taking your children to these places. You almost see them growing up in front of you. Going to the museum you see them begin to take an interest. Maybe you can
move faster if you go by yourself, but taking them along—I don’t know how to put it — it’s part of you, watching them see it for the first time. You’re seeing it through their eyes. These are your children. The only danger is wanting to run their lives. There's a Jewish penchant for this. It works out like the fable of the Arab and the Camel. It’s love of a sort, I suppose. Hut it’s not doing the best thing for the children. It’s a hard thing to love children and not suffocate them. Sometimes I have to check myself. Hut if people would only stop and take time to go out with their kids, that’s all. Hoy, it would be good for them, too.” At this point, embarrassed by becoming slightly carried away, Henry recalled himself with, “Let's see. I’ve forgotten where I was already.” W'here Henry, and his wife Ruth were, in fact, was in the middle of a life about as warming and worthwhile as anyone is liable to see. ix