Thomas Minehan


In company with millions of other Americans who have heard the panhandlers' plea for a couple of nickels for a cup of coffee, I often wondered what the man who is down and out thinks of us and of our civilization. Unlike the ordinary citizen, I had the professional time as well as the personal inclination to investigate. Three years ago I began to collect case histories of men who went down with the boom in 1929. But case histories gave me little inkling into the inner mind of the man on the bread line. When I asked the men what they thought they tried to anticipate my own ideas, thereby enhancing their chances of obtaining a dime. Truth in regard to the homeless man, I decided, could never be ascertained in this manner.

And how could it be ascertained? Were the men, I asked myself, any more truthful with each other? Would a man living on the relief line learn more than an investigator talking to men on the streets or to social cases across an interviewer's desk? One evening in November, 1932, I disguised myself in old clothes and stood in a bread line in the cold and rain.

The experience was memorable. I can still see the ragged cold line of men shivering in the rain and slime of an alley. They seemed like some strange night creatures who stirred abroad from caves and water holes. In the rain and fog I heard them talk, and their talk was not as other men's, nor as I had heard it on the main stem. Gone was the whine of the panhandler and the boastful attitude of the bum. In their own element, the flotsam and jetsam of our economic system seemed no different from other men.

And yet there was a difference. There was present, not only in their conversations but in their very postures a subcurrent of fear and anxiety, a sullen acceptance of life, a bitter apathy, absent from the attitudes and conversations of other men.

We inched down the alley in the gloom and into a dimly lighted hole where we were given a moldy cheese sandwich and a cup of what the men appropriately enough called "misery." Silent, huddled, we munched our food and gulped the coffee. Over us stood an argus-eyed attendant who had lost not a single cup in thirty years of mission work. Out into rain and wind we stumbled to stand again in dejected groups in darkened doorways and under the eaves of buildings. And the talk of the men was not the talk it had been on the main stem.

Here I decided was a possibility of getting ideas, attitudes, and viewpoints of the mass of men hit most cruelly by the depression. In my spare time I began to associate with them, dressed always like another homeless wanderer. And I learned things which could not be learned in any other way and ascertained opinions and attitudes not to be ascertained by other methods.' [See, "A Study of Attitudes of Transient Men and Boys," by Thomas Minehan - a Thesis, University of Minnesota, 1933.]

One of the first facts I learned was that a great number of homeless men were youths and even boys. By day hordes of unemployed men loitered about the missions and bread lines - marginal laborers looking for work in the slave markets, unemployed local men, chronic bums, and transients. Many were old. Some were crippled. All were down and out. At night bands of youths, too proud to be seen lingering in the sunlight with "old bums," came in for a bowl of beans and a flop.

And as I left the mission district to live in hobo railroad yard camps or jungles and river shanty-towns, I found more and more youths and not a few girls. In the railroad yards I waited near a block signal where freights from Chicago and the South stopped. Mobs of men got off every train. Many were not youths, but boys. And some were girls - children really - dressed in overalls or army breeches and boys' coats or sweaters - looking, except for their dirt and rags, like a Girl Scout club on an outing.

Where were their homes? Where were they going? How long had they been on the road? Why did they leave home? What did they expect to do in the future? I began asking questions.

How did they live? What did they eat? Where did they sleep? How did they get clothing? What did they do all day? I began living with them.

Before I stopped living with them and asking questions, I had collected case histories of over five hundred boys and girls, associated on terms of intimacy and equality with several thousand, traveled in six states as a transient, experienced in all seasons and under all conditions the daily life of a boy or girl living in box cars. Two years had elapsed.

I did not, of course, live with them continuously or consecutively. I am neither a boy nor a tramp. I am a sociologist, interested in man and in how he reacts to his environment. I might have gone to Africa to study the influence of environment upon man or to Russia to record the reaction of youth to social change. Yet it was not necessary. Here in America man was reacting to his environment and youth was experiencing as great a change in homes as in Russia. The changes in America were not directed, nor were they caused by external forces such as invasion. They were the result of economic and social pressure within the group itself. For that very reason they might be more significant, more interesting. Here was the possibility of a new, strange field of investigation. To it I turned my energies. My plan was to associate with as many homeless persons as possible under conditions of social equality, to experience their life, to record their stories, to ascertain in as scientific a manner as possible their opinions, ideas, and attitudes.

To accomplish this it was necessary to take notes. I could not take notes while living with the group. After associating with them at missions for a day, or traveling in box cars for a week-end, I went to a room and jotted down my impressions, returned to my classes at the University of Minnesota, and at the first opportunity discarded my school clothes for the rags of a vagrant. Week-ends, holidays, and vacations found me away from home. During the summers of 1932 and 1933 I spent considerable time on the road, chiefly in the Middle West.

In the fall of 1933, I had a thick dossier full of notes and impressions, 500 life histories of boys and girls I had met on the bum, 1,000 samples of conversations, and over 2,500 opinions, ideas, and attitudes expressed by all classes of transients under all conditions. What did my investigation reveal?

In conventional sociological form I drew up my tables, analyzed the data statistically, worked a few correlations... I was following approved technique. Yet, the analysis was unsatisfactory. It seemed totally inadequate to say that 324 youths left home because the father was unemployed and unable to support his family. Less adequate it seemed to say that fourteen boys in need of shoes had to steal to get them or that nine hungry girls had to sell their bodies for bread. Scenes of boys on the road, pictures of girls in box cars kept pushing into my mind to cry against the facts I had tabulated so carefully and arranged on such neat graphs.

I remembered the girl who shared my sheepskin on a cold and blustering night, the boy who stole a shirt for me, and the older transient who almost broke his neck trying to get a package of Bull Durham so that I might have a decent smoke....

These were not so many cases to be analyzed, so many sticks to be counted and arranged in sequential order. They were boys and girls, flesh-and-blood youngsters who should be in high schools and homes and were in box cars and jungles. I had seen pictures of the Wild Children of revolution-racked Russia. I had read of the free youth of Germany after the World War. I knew that in every nation, following a plague, an invasion, or a revolution, children left without parents and homes became vagrants.

Before my own experiences I had always believed that in America we managed things better. And yet in the face of economic disorganization and social change our own youth took to the highroad.

To describe their life in statistical terms was not only inadequate, it was untrue. Such a description omitted the most important phases of their lives, their strife against cold, their battle for bread, their struggle to obtain and repair clothing, their hates, their humors, and their loves....

An artist - not a scientist - was needed to paint what I had seen, record what I had heard. And I was not even an amateur craftsman. Yet for the sake of the homeless thousands of boys and girls, I decided to try.

In my descriptions in the following pages I have relied upon actual incidents and real characters for material. Nothing has been substantially changed; nothing added. My attempt has been to portray the life of migrant youth in America as I saw and experienced it.


IT wasn't so bad at home," says Texas to me in the early weeks of our wandering, "before the big trouble came." The other boys have gone to sleep. Texas and I are sitting on a log near a jungle campfire and talk of other days.

"Before the big trouble came," he goes on and his eyes are somber in the firelight. "We got along pretty good. Dad, of course, never was very well. He was in the war and he got some kind of sickness, I guess, but he couldn't get a pension. He was always sick for about a month every year, and that meant that he had to look for a new job each time he got well. If he had been husky it might have been easy to get a good job, but he was kinda small and then sick you know.

"But we got along swell before the big trouble came even if there were seven of us kids. I shined shoes in a barber shop. Jim carried papers. And Marie took care of Mrs. Rolph's kids. Mother always did some sewing for the neighbors. We had a Chevvie and a radio and a piano. I even started to high school mornings, the year the big trouble came.

"Dad got sick as usual but we never thought anything of it. When he comes to go back to work he can't get a job, and everybody all of a sudden-like seems to be hard up. I cut the price of shines to a nickel but it didn't help much. I even used to go around and collect shoes and shine them at the houses or take them away, shine and return them, but even then some weeks I couldn't make a dime.

"Mrs. Rolph's husband got a cut and she cans Marie. Jim had to quit the paper route because he lost all his cash customers, and the others never paid. Nobody wanted Mother to sew anything. And there we were, seven of us kids and Dad and Mother, and we couldn't make a cent like we could before the big trouble came."

Texas pushes a piece of birch into the fire. I throw in a pine knot. The embers crackle and hiss. A cone of sparks and white smoke rises straight into the air. The smoke turns darker. There is a pungent smell of resin as the pine knot flames and burns. The night is becoming cold. We nudge closer to the fire, warming our shins. Texas stretches his hands, slender and delicate as a girl's, strong as a pianist's, toward the flame. As in a spectroscope I can see the metatarsal bones and the blue outline of veins and the heavier muscle fibers throbbing in the firelight.

Were his hands, I ask myself, so slender and translucent before the big trouble came - before that monstrous depression, that economic juggernaut that was to crash through his home, cast him out upon the road, and make him perhaps a bum for life?

"But the big trouble came," he continues, caressing his chin with warm palms, "and there we were. Oh, we tried hard enough, and everybody did their best. Marie made the swellest wax flowers. The kids peddled ironing cloths. Mother tried to sell some homemade bakery, and Dad did everything. We did our best, I guess, but it wasn't good enough, for the big trouble had come and nobody had any money.

"Dad gave up pipe smoking in the fall. All last winter we never had a fire except about once a day when Mother used to cook some mush or something. When the kids were cold they went to bed. I quit high school of course, but the kids kept going because it didn't cost anything and it was warm there.

"In February I went to Fort Worth. Mother used to know a man there, and she thought maybe he could help me get a job. But he was as hard up as anybody else. I didn't want to return home and pick bread off the kids' plate so I tried to get work for a farmer for my board. Instead, I got a ride to California. Near Salinas I worked in the lettuce fields, cutting and washing lettuce. I made $32 and I sent $10 home. But that was my first and last pay check. I got chased out of California in June."

The fire flickers and ebbs. We pull a night log into the embers and prepare to join our companions in sleep. I turn my back to the fire and face the eternal stars.

"Since then," concludes Texas and his voice sounds far away and distant as Arcturus blinking unconcernedly down on me, "I just been traveling."

*     *     *

"My old man was crippled in the Lackawanna shops," Jennie, a dumpy Hungarian girl from Pennsylvania, is talking one morning as we tidy up the jungle before flipping a freight. "Dumb and scared to death, he didn't get a cent except a promise of a lifetime job. They kept him four years, until the hard times came. After that he never got a job except for a few months as city watchman. Mother worked nights, cleaning an office building. We kids used to go and help her and keep her company. But she couldn't stand it all the time. They took her to the hospital one morning, and three days later she died. Father said they gave her the Black Bottle because she was poor, but I don't think so, do you? I think she was just all in.

"Dad tried to keep a home for the four of us kids. Cripes! he was as good as any man could be, considering. But what could he do? I was willing to work but nobody hired me and the rest of the kids were too young. So a home took the three kids, my married sister in Allentown took my father, and I just sort of scrammed.

"I never had much chance to go to school or anything, and I wish I could learn a trade, but, hell, I'll get by."

*     *     *

"No, my old man wasn't exactly crippled," Bill from Buffalo says later in the day. We dodge a railroad bull and sneak aboard a westbound accommodation freight just pulling out.

The engine snorts and wheezes. We feel the tie-bar buckle and strain beneath our feet as the train gets under way. Then in a corner nearest the power we squat. Bill continues: "He could walk as straight as anybody most of the time, but in the mornings he used to be all stiff like. He couldn't do any hard work and he couldn't get anything else, and not even that after the big trouble came."

*     *     *

Happy Joe is a New York Italian with an infectious smile and black shoebutton eyes. He wears a fedora with the sweat band turned down over his ears, when I next see him, and an overcoat several sizes too large which he has tucked up with safety pins in front but which trails along the ground behind like the train of a great lady.

"My kid sister has T. B.," he says suddenly as we watch a scrawny fifteen-year-old turn purple with ineffectual efforts to strangle a cough in a mission on one of the first cold mornings of fall, "and that kid ought to be careful or he might get it too.

"She was never very strong," he continues unprompted, "but that didn't make much difference until Dad lost his job, nobody could get work, and everybody was hard up. Sis wasn't well, and then last summer she worked for five months in a mill. Eleven hours a day. Three dollars a week. She couldn't stand it. All summer she was so white and so thin-like. In September she began coughing. The company doctor made her quit. I gave her my room. I slept in the kitchen. We had to get milk and fruit and eggs and things for her. Then I lost my job making crates. There was no chance of getting another one at home. So when I read they were hiring a lot of new help in Detroit I went there. And you know what Detroit is like. I stayed there for a while. Then I just traveled. But if I had any money I'd send some of it home. Sis is a swell kid."

*     *     *

Practically all the families were hit by the economic whirlwind. "Else," as Texas explained, "why on the road?"

Yet even in the days of the boom before the big trouble came, many homes of the boy tramps were extremely tenuous. Death had taken the father, divorce the mother; separation divided the family and many never had had a home at all.

*     *     *

"Tell you the truth about it, Shorty," replies an olive-skinned Southerner to my question, "I honestly do not know my real parents. I was born near Nashville, but I ain't ever seen my father, although he is supposed to be living in Memphis. He has a wife and three kids of his own and he isn't any good much. My mother never kept me. She went away and I was raised by her sister but never adopted or anything like that. My mother is married. She lives on a farm up in the mountains. I haven't seen her for almost ten years. I just sorta drifted from place to place."

*     *     *

"They say my father is somewhere in Chicago." Peg-leg Al, who lost his leg between two cars in Texas, is talking. "But I don't know. As a matter of fact, I don't know very much about my real father. I lived near Chi all my life, but that was with my grandparents, and they died two years ago. My mother never came to visit us after she left for Pittsburgh when I was a little baby during the war. Some say my father was a soldier, others just a man traveling through the country, but I don't know. I never could find out, and I got so I didn't care. I stayed at different places near Hammond for about the last two years. Then at Christmas I scrammed for California. On the way I had some hard luck in Texas."

Hard luck in Texas! And Al is crippled for life. His right leg is docked above the knee. He stumps very efficiently on a self-made peg-leg. The leg apparently pains him not at all, and in a way it is an asset for it helps him beg.

"I can hit the stem," he says with pardonable pride, "for a dime anytime anywhere if the cops ain't glimming."

*     *     *

"I didn't mind living with my mother's sister when my new father wouldn't keep me," Hank, a child of divorce and the depression, is talking as we sit in a mission peeling potatoes as small as marbles and only slightly more edible. "She tried to be nice. But I didn't like my uncle. You know he was always throwing hints - saying how it was hard enough for a man to support his own kids and asking me every day how old I was and then acting surprised when I'd say `Sixteen' and shaking his head and saying 'Sixteen! God, I was earning my own living when I was twelve!

*     *     *

"And that isn't all, Shorty," asserts Vera, a pink-cheeked girl from New Jersey, reaching over and putting her small hand on my coat as we stand in an alley waiting for a cop to pass. "Listen, my mother has had eleven husbands in all. I saw only eight of them. My old man was married nine times. Three of his wives died, but my mother divorced all of her husbands. And if you don't believe me, I hope I die on the spot. I was raised mostly by my grandparents - my mother's folks, that is. Her husbands didn't like me. And she didn't care to have me around either, I guess. Well, there was a younger sister of my mother's at home. And for a fact I know she was married and divorced four times before she was twenty-three. And that isn't all. Wait till you hear this. She had two kids before she was married at all. One when she was fifteen and one when she was sixteen. And I heard her old man ask her how many kids she was going to have before she got married, and the next day she gets married."

*     *     *

Lady Lou, a very young boy of thirteen and a confessed thief, small, with delicate and refined features, related a most complicated domestic situation, one noon in the kitchen of a mission, as he wiped with a small dish towel the heavy crockery I was washing in water sterilized with creosote. His real father was married four times; his real mother, six. The boy liked best - better than his natural parents - his father's third wife and his mother's fourth husband. Unfortunately for the lad, both these individuals had formed new attachments of their own. His mother's fourth husband, beginning to take multiple matrimony seriously, had married and divorced twice since leaving the boy's mother. His mother's sixth husband refused to support the boy. He had the choice of living with his father's fourth wife who hated and spat at him, of living with his mother's fifth husband, a drunkard in jail half the time, or of taking to the road. He took to the road.

*     *     *

"I don't remember my real father very much," Dressy remarks to me, one glorious April morning as we sun ourselves on the side of a hill. He wears a pearl-gray hat which he keeps miraculously clean by wearing a cover made of two red bandanna handkerchiefs when he travels. His coat and pants match. He wears a black slip-over sweater out at both elbows and torn in the back, but with a white shirt laundered every day at a mission or in a jungle, a black bow tie and a pair of black shoes polished daily with crankcase drainings: he is, indeed, Dressy. "He was a soldier. I saw him once in his uniform before he went to France. He did not return. My mother married again about two years after the war. My stepfather had been a soldier, too, but he was a Home Guard and after my father's insurance. I was the only child until the second marriage. Then my mother had three children, two boys and a girl.

"My stepfather never worked very steady. The pension kept us. He was always getting a job and losing it or getting fired or something. He used to get drunk, too. I hated him but I didn't say anything until one day he hit me.

"I was sitting on the porch, studying my geography lesson. When he came staggering up the steps, I pretended I didn't see him. He went around to the back door. I could hear him stumbling in the kitchen. Nobody was at home. All of a sudden he sneaked out on the porch and lammed me. I didn't hear or suspect a thing. Just sock! without warning and my geography flew out of my hand, the chair tipped over, and I was sent spinning across the porch.

"He came at me then. I thought he was going to kill me. I crawled under the swing, and he crouched down to follow. Too drunk to keep his balance, he stepped on the geography and fell. I jumped over him and dashed out of the house. That night I slept in a packing box behind a paper factory. The police took me home. After a big scrap between my mother and my stepfather, everything was all right again, but I never forgot how he looked when he came for me that time.

"Every year he kept drinking more and working less. He used to fight with my mother, but I never saw him sock her until three years ago. It was about nine o'clock. I came in the back door from a movie. When I entered the kitchen there was my mother fighting with him. She was pulling his hair. He slapped her. I saw him slap her. I jumped on him. He shook me loose and grabbed a butcher knife. My mother knocked it out of his hand. I hit him with a heavy iron frying pan right across the face. You could see the blood running from his nose across the soot and grease to the floor. I wanted to have him pinched, but Mother wouldn't stand for it. After a while even, when he didn't come to, she began bawling me out, saying I had no right to hit him so hard. We picks him up and puts him on the bed. My mother was running around crying and washing his face with hot water and blaming me. She always was like that. One day she hated him, next day she was crazy for him."

*     *     *

"After mother died we were all sorry for a long time." Bust, one of the toughest child tramps I have ever encountered, is talking as we sit in the door of a box car and let our legs hang out in the sun. Less than two hours previously I had seen him pound an older transient's face into a red ruin for a fancied insult. Small but tough, his body had the lithe springiness of a panther when he moved. Of medium height, broad of chest and abnormally narrow through the hips, he had the appearance of a triangle standing on its apex, and when he struck, his arms seemed to shoot in and out of the defenseless man's body with the rapidity and power of a locomotive drive shaft. The big transient's knees had buckled at the first of these relentless blows. His head snapped back at the second. His hands dropped and his eyes glazed at the third. Then one knee bent, and he began toppling like a smokestack with a side of the base removed. Over he went sideways and face down, the remorseless fists jabbing as he fell.

"And then," Bust is continuing his story, clinching and unclinching his hands to work the soreness out of them in the sun, "we got a housekeeper. Father began going out to dances. We got a lot of different housekeepers. Finally we got Mamie. She was swell. She used to play on the floor with the kids and cook us the swellest turnovers I ever tasted. All of us hoped Dad would marry Mamie. And Mamie hoped so too, I guess, because I came home from school and found her talking very solemn with Dad. That night when I went to the bathroom I heard her crying.

"Next Sunday, Dad brings home a new woman. She was a school-teacher, I didn't like her from the moment I saw her. The first thing she asked me what grade I was in. When I told her, she said, 'Oh!'

"I tried to get along with her though, but I couldn't." Remembered pain stares from his eyes. Remembered wrongs make his voice bitter. "She was always bossing, and always telling me how good her brother was . . ."

*     *     *

"My older brother was always picking on me," explains Boris, a square-jawed Russian lad of seventeen. Small but thick through the trunk, he had the Slav's chronic melancholy and feeling of self-pity. He wore a seaman's white cap and trousers now almost coal-black with soot and dirt, and a short sheepskin, the collar of which he turned up around his ears although it was not cold as we walked along in the night. "He had a job. I didn't. He was always throwing that at me! When we were little he used to beat me. One night about two years ago he came home drunk, sneaked into my room where I was asleep and socked me right in the face. We wrecked the room.

"Always telling me what to do and then peeking to see if I did, that was mother," he says later, as we sit on a car jerking and rattling forward. "And my sister, always telling something or trying to get something on me. I couldn't ever please them."

*     *     *

"Mother never liked me." Spit, a hard-boiled little girl, is talking as we prepare coffee before dawn in order to board a train now making up in the yards. A small fiery-tempered girl with a chronic scowl on her face, in the excitement of telling me of her home, she let the coffee bag burst. Now she skims the grounds with the only utensil available, my pocketknife. "She just hated me, I guess. She used to beat me, and call me names, and chase me out of the house.

"And my kid sister" - even in the semi-darkness I can see the bitterness in her face and feel the sense of wrong in her voice - "got everything from the time she first came. I got nothing, and everything I got I had to share with her. Daddy gave her things, Mother always gave her a bigger piece of pie. Even at Christmas she got more."

The coffee is skimmed. Spit pours my share into a small tomato can and adds a pinch of sugar. Her own she drinks straight. I toss her a hunk of bread which she eats without comment, dunking the cold crust in the warm drink. Down in the yards a whistle blows. It is time we were leaving.

"Did I ever get a licking at home?" Nick, a Dane, repeats my question. "That's all I ever got. The old man would lick me if I did something. The old lady if I didn't. My older brother would take a poke at me just because I was little. The worst one in the bunch was my sister. She is two years older than I am. She never really hurt me, like the rest, but she was always slapping me in the face because she knew I didn't dare strike her back. If I did she'd tell on me, and then the old man would almost kill me.

"The old lady used to beat me up and all us kids." We sit on a rock on the Tippecanoe. My socks, undershirt and shirt are drying on a nearby willow; Nick's overalls and shirt hang alongside. The shade of a grove protects us from the sun. The cool stream washes the dirt and ashes out of our feet. A binder cutting late grain, clatters over the hill. Three Guernseys cool their flanks downstream. In a treetop a crow caws. I listen.

"And Dad, too," he continues, "she was stronger than he, and he was afraid of her from the time when she broke the ironing board on his ribs and he had to go to the hospital. After that he didn't want to come home for a while. Ma went every day to beg him to come home. Then she sent us kids. We used to get a dime just for asking him when he was going to come home. And after a while he came home."

*     *     *

Dot stretches her catlike body in the sun on the side of a hill overlooking a switching yards.

"This is the life," she says. "No old lady bossing me now. One day I was scrubbing the floor and my old lady didn't like the way I was doing it, so she slaps me right in the face with a mop. It didn't hurt, but I got mad and sassed her. She didn't say anything, just waited for a while until I went into my room. Then she followed me. She had a broom handle. I couldn't duck. She beat me until the broom handle broke. Then she lammed me with her hands until she was tired out."

*     *     *

"Pa and Ma were always fighting," another girl told me. "One day Pa came home half drunk and Ma socks him and he socks her back and she got up and kissed him and they both laugh. Then Ma give me fifty cents for ice cream and Susan a dollar for beer and a quarter for steak and we had a celebration. It was the day they were married on."

*     *     *

"Oh! sure we used to have some scraps at home," Hank says as we play checkers in a bumping box car. His face screws up in a vinegary expression as he attempts to check my queen. "But things weren't so bad until the big trouble came. Although," he adds, not unfairly, taking a pawn, "there were always little troubles too."


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