Originally published in the British edition of Waiting For Nothing (Constable, 1935).
I AM twenty-eight years old, and was born and attended school in Huntington, W. Va. My people were working people. My father started to work in a coal-mine when he was eight years old. Later, he became a glass blower, and unable to afford medical treatment, died of cancer at the age of forty-four. There were five children and I was the oldest. My mother took my father's place in the factory. My father's father was crushed to death in a coal-mine. My father never hoped for anything better in this life than a job, and never worried about anything else but losing it. My mother never wanted anything else than that the kids get an education so that they wouldn't have to worry about the factory closing down.
I worked in glass factories and proof-read on newspapers at nights while going through three years of college. I remember that the Art Appreciation book was pink, and the Biology book was green. Other than that, I do not remember very much about my college education. I taught for two years in mountain schools in West Virginia. I do not remember anything memorable about that except that Emil, one of my star pupils, who invariably made six on the Intelligence Tests, and who wanted to do nothing in school or in life but catch flies and pull their wings out, caught fifty-four flies in one day without ever having completely left the edge of his seat. At the end of nine months I had taught him to count to sixty, which, I felt, left a wide margin of safety in Emil's life for any emergency which might come up. Since the best that he had ever done under any other teacher was forty-three flies, and as far as I know he never beat fifty-four, I feel that I was a passing success as a school teacher.
At twenty-three I started out for Kansas to make the wheat harvest. My intentions were to hitch-hike, and after hiking all day without a lift, a freight train pulled to a stop beside the road. I crawled into a box car. I never again voluntarily took up the responsibilities of hitch-hiking, but I always aligned my interests with the interests of the railroad companies. They generally got me where I wanted to go, which was never more definite than "east" or "west."
There were no jobs in Kansas. The Combine had come, and I got my first taste of men trying to buck a machine. I got my first taste of going three days without food, and walking up to a back door and dinging a woman for a hand-out. It was a yellow house, but not too yellow, and I made it. Since then I have hit a thousand such yellow houses and have never been turned down. Women who live in green houses will not even open the door for me.
I remained on the fritz for five months and came home. There was no work at home. I bummed to California and then back again to New York and Washington, D.C. I was sentenced to sixty days in Occoquam Prison in Washington for sleeping in an empty building during a storm. Some friends got me out in eight days. I did not like Washington after that and came home and hunted for work for three months. There wasn't any work, and it was about that time that people started laughing at you for asking for work. After a while I stopped asking for work. I started out again and have been on the road almost constantly since then, except for fifteen months I spent in a CCC camp. This last time has been four years. Sometimes I would stay in a town for four or five months doing odd jobs for a room and something to eat. Most of the time I slept and ate in missions, dinged the streets and houses, and used every other racket known to stiffs to get by.
I had no idea of getting Waiting for Nothing published, therefore, I wrote it just as I felt it, and used the language that stiffs use even when it wasn't always the nicest language in the world.
Parts of the book were scrawled on Bull Durham papers in box cars, margins of religious tracts in a hundred missions, jails, one prison, railroad sand-houses, flop-houses, and on a few memorable occasions actually pecked out with my two index fingers on an honest-to-God typewriter.
Save for four or five incidents, it is strictly autobiographical. Some of the events portrayed did not occur in the same sequence as I gave them, for I have juggled them in order to better develop the story. The "Stiff" idiom is, of course, authentic.