Am I the only boy who secretly dreamed of becoming a hobo? Riding the rails, traveling across the country, and carrying everything you own on your back has a romance that appeals to every man’s desire to wander.
In a 1937 issue of Esquire magazine, an anonymous writer penned an article called “The Bum Handbook.” Unlike most bums, he had chosen his vagabond lifestyle. And he was tired of seeing the sub-par job most other bums were doing. This was during the Great Depression, and many men found themselves homeless, lost, and ignorant of the art of bumliness. The author had being a hobo down to a science and claimed to enjoy 3 meals a day and a comfortable place to sleep each night. While he didn’t desire to return to regular society, he knew that most fellow hobos did, and so he offered these tips in hopes they could maintain confidence and a respectable look and thus find their way back to steady work.
Although much has changed since the 1930’s, if you by chance find yourself a hobo during this Great Recession or desire to become a bum by choice, perhaps you can learn some tips from hobos of old. Enjoy these excerpts from the article and this fun peek into the past:
Keep yourself clean. 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.
Stay away from the cities. City people have submerged their humanity. I think the reason for this is their security from the elements, for the family that is sure of food and shelter becomes easily forgetful of other human beings’ needs and thinks vaguely of organized charities…The farm family, on the other hand, knows that deficit of sun or rain may touch more 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 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 well-meaning 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. 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 be rail. Automobiles provide slower travel but the rails have more serious disadvantages, not only the filthy and bumpy riding of the freight cars but also in 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 rifle and picks off the bums as the cars roll into the freight yard…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 in a lumber camp, $3.00 a day picking apples, $.06 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 clerk, a newspaper reporter, a ghost-writer, a chauffeur, a toy salesman, and 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.
Speak forthrightly. Do not slink, speak too humbly, or 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 be 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 in 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.
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. 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…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 will let you sleep next to the furnace, et cetera.
I did not leave home 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 would 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 just kept 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.
Last updated: September 19, 2016