News & Blogs Handbook for bums-don't slink, be gallant around women

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Handbook for Bums

Don't slink, be gallant to women, avoid intermediaries and pick your jails carefully


MOST people are mistaken about bums.

And this is not strange since they receive their information from literature and an author’s greatest tool is exaggeration. Recently in The Saturday Evening Post, there was an article written by a bum, about bums. Amazingly enough they were depicted as gentle, suffering creatures who could never hope to obtain a job and be accepted by nice ordinary people. And then a few days later in The Atlantic Monthly I read the doleful numbers of another literary bum telling the world that he and his confreres led a life of watery soup, vermin and disease. Both of these articles must have caused many people to shudder in their beds and regretha ving walked past the plea of some ragged specimen.

Now, I have been a bum since 1930 and I know of no day when I did not eat at least three meals, no night without clean covering, no illness untreated by a doctor. If my brethren have not been so fortunate—and frankly I do not believe the horror stories— it is because they have not been bumming in an intelligent fashion. There are the lowly and the unintelligent in every profession.

Let me mention reasons why the average bum does not live too well. Also, let me tell of what hospitality I have found in the American states.

In the first placo the authors of these articles describe their associates as being impossibly dirty. It is obvious that this must be a major fault. Filthy men can’t charm the housewife into giving food, the passerby into relinquishing money, the man of business into giving jobs: the housewife is scared and repelled, the passerby is annoyed and anxious to be away, the business man responds curtly. And there is no need to be unwashed. Every gasoline station and railroad depot has a washroom replete with running water, soap and paper towels; anyone may use these facilities, the bum should wash and shave there. In the handbook for bums the first motto is: A bum should be clean.

Then, let the knight of the road stay away from cities. City people have submerged their humanity. I think the reason for this is their security from the elements, for the family thatissure of food and shelter becomes easily forgetful of other human beings’ needs and thinks vaguely of organized charities. The city dweller’s life lends to impersonality and the relegation of everything to settled categories. The farm family, on the other hand, knows that deficit of sun or rain may touch moro than its comfort, that the house it has built must be a citadel against cold and storms; therefore, their humanity comes more quickly to their mouths and hands. I do not say that city dwellers cannot be “hit” with success but it is more difficult and only among the poor ones have you a fair chance of receiving hospitality.

Avoid intermediaries. Direct appeal is the best; individual should appeal directly to the individual. Once I remember speaking to some soldiers in a town that had only two restaurants. When it was time to eat they insisted on going into one of the restaurants with me and pleading my case with the proprietor. There was much whispering and finally after some minutes the proprietor said, “All right, I’ll give him reduced rates.” Reduced rates—and I didn’t have a cent in my pockets! I thanked my wellmeaning friends, went into the other restaurant alone, and received a bounteous meal. I am sure that had I spoken to that first man myself, I would have had no trouble obtaining food gratuitously. Another time, because of the solicitude of some CCC boys, I found myself without a bed at three o’clock in the morning: they had insisted that I sleep at their camp five miles away and when I had arrived, their superior objected strongly.

Travel by highway and not by rail. Automobiles provide slower travel but the rails have more serious disadvantages, not only the filth and bumpy riding of the freight cars but also the danger. You may be arrested and locked up for vagrancy, you may be beaten up, you may even encounter that certain railroad detective who stands by the tracks with a rille and picks off the bums as the cars roll into the freight yard. I had one experience riding the rails that I will never forget. I was perched on a tender in front of a mail car; I became sleepy because of the rush of wind and I absent-mindedly leaned on the doorhandle of the car carrying mail; the door opened and the next minute a United States marine had a .45 stuck against my navel; it is surprising that he didn’t just shoot for their orders are to ask questions later. “What th’ hell are you doing here?” he roared. .! explained what had happened, and he said good-naturedly, “Well, get th’ hell back on that goddamned tender and see that you stay awake!”

Another reason for working the highway is that through hitches one learns of jobs to be had. Friendly drivers have informed me that one can earn $1.50 a day and board working in a lumber camp, $3.00 a day picking apples, $.00 a barrel picking potatoes (the average worker fills about a hundred barrels a day), et cetera. The field of seasonal labor is tremendous and extends all over the United States. By traveling from state to state one can be employed practically every month of the year; and there is always more demand than supply, the wages are high. Also, people in automobiles sometimes become really interested in you and offer you employment. This does not happen too infrequently, I should say that I average about one offer every three days. I have been a gardener, a waiter, a gravedigger, a fisherman, a lumberman, a farm hand, a cle^k, a newspaper reporter, a ghost writer, a chauffeur, a toy salesman, and a garbageman. I never keep these jobs long because I am over-fond of the road and after a week in one place I long to be on an open truck again watching houses slip by and the land change. There are long periods when I do not wish to work but prefer to ask for handouts and to panhandle, and so I am really a hobo and I know their chances of obtaining food and money.

Speak forthrightly. Do not slink, speak too humbly, cast your eyes down when you make a request. Address most men as “sir” and speak to them in such a way that they will call you “old man.” Women should bo talked to lightly, gallantly. There are of course many exceptions to these rules but one learns to recognize them by their faces. Do not use hyperbole. To say “I haven’t eaten in two days” just doesn’t convince the average person, or else it scares him. That a man hasn’t eaten for two days is a strange thing to most people and they react unfortunately to the information. Merely to say that you haven’t eaten breakfast that day is enough to provoke the sympathy of the housewife.

Enough of these axioms—for the present. Now I want to protest the insult to American hospitality. Few people refuse me when I ask for food and God knows there is nothing so fascinating about me. And I find that when they do refuse they are invariably polite and (in their confusion) often resort to strange excuses such as: “The plumber is fixing the toilet so I haven’t a thing in the house,” or, “The baby’s ill and we haven’t bought any food.” People become embarrassed when they deny your request; indeed, sometimes so much out of countenance that you feel like saying, “That’s all right, old man.”

Now, when you consider, it’s really strange that people should be so kind to suspicious characters. I’m sure that they don’t relish your sitting on their porches while they prepare the food —and yet they give; they give because of their splendid humanity. Sometimes they are afraid and they hand you a paper bag from behind the door; sometimes they are unafraid and they invite you to a meal at the family table. You meet eccentric people, charming ones, surly ones, but from every type emerges one glorious truism: Most people are really very human. I know this so much more surely than any permanent dweller can and to me it is such a profound source of happiness that I would almost advise every one to take to the road for a month. Particularly would I suggest this for those intellectuals who despise the average man; possibly they may learn that the quality of humanity is more significant than cleverness and brilliance, more important than the raffiné in taste.

The simple average person gives, I have found, whether he personally is happy or unhappy—and the simple average person is made happy by simple lovely things. I remember one noon in Gloucester, the sea bright blue and the air crisp, and a woman answering my knock said cheerily, “Good

morning. It’s a lovely morning, isn’t it? . . . Certainly I’ll give you something to eat. . . . Isn’t the sea blue? It’s a lovely morning!” A few minutes later, she brought me three chicken sandwiches, a bottle of milk, two tomatoes, and some cake, but it was her remark, “It’s a lovely morning,” that made me stride along the pavement feeling so incredibly happy. I’m quite sure Heaven is full of average people!

Different parts of the country have different handout customs.

When you enter a Maine village in the evening you ask someone for the house of the selectman, because from that gentleman you receive supper, lodging, and breakfast. The town authorizes him to spend one dollar on each transient and I assure you that you see nothing of bean sandwiches on moldy bread (as are sometimes provided by that objective medium, the city soupkitchen). In some towns you merely accost a policeman and ask for a meal ticket; this ticket entitles you to twenty-five cents worth of food. Out West they still observe the old American custom of splitting wood in exchange for food. Down South the housewife is only too glad to provide you with a meal if you’ll help her with her housework (Let the unindust rious bum beware of Monday with its wash !). In some parts of Massachusetts, should a bum want fruit, all he has to do is pick up some from a fruit stall and wave a thanks to the man inside the store. In most of Alberta, Canada, there are few

houses and whenever you come to one and are hungry, you have a perfect right to enter and cook yourself a meal. After you have eaten, you go to the woodshed and split enough kindling to make up for the wood which you have used. Of course, if there is anyone at home, he or she will cook the food for you, but it’s very rarely that you find anybody in the house.

How about other necessaries: tobacco, clothing, beer? Well, people never refuse you when you ask for a cigarette : very often they give you three or five. And sometimes included in your handout bag is a package of cigarettes. As far as beer is concerned, any number of people you talk to on the street invite you to a bar, particularly if your tales are interesting. Also, bartenders at closing time are apt to be friendly. Clothes are more difficult to obtain. It is best to enter a small haberdashery and explain that you’ve just arrived in town and that you’re looking for a job—obviously you can’t get work when your shirt is so torn, et cetera.

Don’t sleep in dubious jails and flophouses. Try to find a farm house before dusk so that you can ask the farmer to let you sleep in his barn. Hay makes a very warm and satisfactory bed, it molds exactly to the body. In fact, 1 have grown so fond of the grain that I should like to carry with me a knapsack filled with it, unpack it every night and repack it in the morning; 1 have a feeling that should my hay and l visit an apartment friend, he would not be too glad to have us stay overnight. But if the farmer

refuses to let you use his barn for a bedroom, ask him to give you some newspapers. Then go into a pasture, build a fire, wait for it to die out, spread the ashes, cover them lightly with dirt, and you have prepared a bed that will stay warm all night. For covering, use the newspapers and a poncho (you should always carry a poncho with you, they make excellent raincoats, tents, and blankets). Or you can go to a garage, garagemen will often let you sleep in cars; furnacemen allow you to sleep next to the furnace, et cetera. Inspect your jails before you sleep in them, for some jails are pleasant and some unpleasant. Soiiie boast of vermin-proof Simmons mattresses and some have suspicious looking ticks; some have no mattresses, these are safe but uncomfortable. Personally, I am rather fond of a good jail. The registrar pays much more attention to you than any hotel clerk, and I relish attention. I like having the color of my eyes observed and my height commented on. One New Jersey jail, I remember, was particularly jolly, it was definitely an honor roll jail. Not only was the bedding of the best, the walls and floor spotless, the plumbing excellent, but there were also showers and during the day all cells were left open in order to encourage social intercourse among the prisoners. And I'll never forget the sheriff’s comments. I said to him, “You’ve a nice bunch of prisoners here,” and lie answered proudly, “My charges are invariably nice.” He was so proud about everything connected with his jail. When I complimented him on the evening meal he insisted

it was nothing compared to the midday repast and that I must stay to prove this assertion—“We are justly pleased with our chef.” he said.

Now, I have found a strange thing to be true. I have found that people are more respectful to me when I ask for food than when I pay for it. Before I went on the road I never received so much sirring and consideration. There was one outstanding example which I should like to narrate; it was at a farmhouse in Vermont. 1 asked for food, saying that I was very hungry and that I must make the lumper belt by evening. The woman replied, “Why, I’ll be glad to give you something to eat, sir,” and she went into the kitchen. A minute later she brought out a newspaper, saying, “It’ll take me some time to make the food. If you read it won't seem so long.” I began to wonder if my pleas had not been straightforward enough, if she thought it was my intention to pay for the meal. But then in a few seconds she returned with a package of cigarettes: “Thought maybe you’d like to smoke. Keep the pack.” Finally there came the meal served on the back porch because it was shadier there—and it consisted of veal, hashed brown potatoes, string beans, elderberry cake, and coffee. While 1 ate, she sat on the porch steps talking to me as though I were not a bum but a gentleman caller. She didn’t expect a life story and she didn’t sermonize, everything that I told her

about myself was volunteered and was not the result of pumping. Before 1 left she made me some sandwiches to carry with me and this is how I. a bum, was treated! Indeed, the road has been so kind to me that sometimes I am a bit too uppity for a bum. Whenever I find that my diet has not been balanced or that my stomach is upset, I ask in restaurants for the particular food which I feel is needed. I may sav, for example: “Pardon me. Could you spare me some greens?” or “Could you make me some tea and toast?”

When I am ill (which is not often since I live so well), I head for the nearest large city and go to a clinic, or else I consult a country doctor. Usually they are all friendly and obliging. When a prescription is needed, I go to the pharmacist and receive a handout on acetanilide, or something.

Continned in center of page 162

Continued from page 81

If there is ever an immediate need for money, speak to a drunk, go to a Legion convention or a fair, visit a minister of your belief. Explain the situation without resorting to the trite lines of movie bums, without affecting a more colloquial speech than is natural to you. Triteness and colloquialisms (“I’m up against my luck, bud”) do not affect the average person.

Now, I am making these suggestions not mainly to improve the life of bums but to stop bumming. If bums look sleeker, cleaner, better dressed, they are more likely to contact peoplo and obtain employment than if they look like “bums.” And 1 think that most transients are quite anxious to receive employment, I think they can easily bo assimilated into society. Most of them are men who have had jobs and lost them, men whom the depression thrust from the cities—but they have not become warped by their experiences. They are, as a rule, not too intelligent and not too unhappy. Most of them if they would heed the maxims I have mentioned here would sooner or later be drawn into the respectable world. I even believe they would make good family men, for they suffer from a slight chronic indigestion caused by a lack of care in what they eat; also, they are sexstarved—yes, they would be appreciative of domestic and marital attentions. Of course there are those who are mentally and physically diseased, and these should be put in institutions. Also, many are old and should be placed in old men’s homes.

As for myself, I have no wish to be returned to society. I did not leave homo because of an impossible wife or because I could not get employment—I had no wife and I had a well paying job with a millinery house, a job into which I had been recruited because I had never become excited about a future and planned it. But I was not happy in the city and more than others I looked forward to vacations ; at those times I wrould travel constantly trying to absorb as much as possible. I found it increasingly difficult to return after each vacation. Finally the inevitable happened—I just didn’t return, I kept right on going. It really made no difference, I had no dependents and milliners could show bad taste without my aid. Now I am completely happy. All the infinite phases of nature I can observe at leisure, all the different types of country I can live with in their optimums. The spring I spend in the West, the summer in the far North, the fall in New England, the winter in the South. In a few years I shall probably want to go to Europe, and I shall go. And since I have been on the road I have in many ways improved myself: my sensitivities have been sharpened (I even write poetry now, and it’s not too bad), my education extended, and my health become superb. I don’t know whether I shall ever settle down again, and I don’t much care. I’m a parasite but people don’t seem to mind, they seem to enjoy giving, and I try to repay the debt by spinning tales that please them.

And now the lady in the office of the notary public, the young lady who has given me this handout on a typewriter, approaches and she says, “If you haven’t any plans for the evening, come up to my house and have dinner with me.”

The young lady is tall and rather lovely. She smiles as I respond, “Never was a suspicious character met with such charm and kindness.”

This is the ultimate in handouts —a handout in women!

Handbook for bums

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