Alice sez: Over the holidays I noticed what seemed to be more homeless people in the downtown area than usual, presumably because the shelters are there, although it may be that they tend to be less noticeable when the weather is warm. Then I noticed in the morning paper a suggestion in a letter to the editor that SLC should consider using various abandoned grocery stores around the city to house the homeless, noting several lying empty for the past several years. I have no idea if the writer meant that each building be heated, but he noted that even if they had to use sleeping bags rather than beds, they would be out of the awful cold and have a roof over their heads. I know some people who live near one of those empty stores and I can just imagine how happy they’d be as morning came and those people left their shelters to seek food for the day. I don’t think today’s society would be ready to accommodate door to door begging. Are we less compassionate? It’s not for me to say.
Growing up in the country as I did, I remember seeing an occasional solitary figure walking along the country roads in the late 1940s. We called them “hobos.” He–it was always a man–would come to the front door and knock and ask if we had a little food to spare. Mama always made up a plate of leftovers, such as she had, and he always seemed to be willing to eat whatever was there, and did. Then he’d thank us profusely for our good graces and walk on alone. I remember being very afraid of them, yet feeling sorry for them too, and glad that it was not my decision how to handle these rare occasions.
Here’s how my late uncle remembered the homeless from the depression years:
It is difficult to look back fifty or so years, and not think how simple and trusting life was in rural northern Florida at that time.
I remember during the depression when unfortunate people, who were unemployed and had nothing, rambled the countryside looking for odd jobs and/or handouts of food, clothing and a place for a night’s rest. Some of those unfortunates, which we referred to as bums and hobos, had scheduled routes they followed. They were not necessarily one-time beggars.
They made their rounds two or three times a year, and each time around Mama and Papa would take them in, feed them, bed them down (sometimes for two or three days), and send them on their way to their next stop. Life was so simple and trusting that our doors were seldom locked. Neither was anyone turned away hungry. I remember one named Tommy T, who was probably about 35 years old, but we kids thought of him as an old man.
Tommy T showed up at our door at least three times a year with his 8-foot plaited cow whip. Tommy always had his cow whip rolled together and hanging from his shoulder. He could crack his whip and could hit acorns or small pebbles with amazing accuracy. When he showed up at our house he almost always stayed at least three days. We kids were glad to see him come by for he would always take his cow whip and help us pen the cows. After the cows were penned, he would show off his whip cracking and hitting accuracy.
Then there were the regular family, Rufus and Mandy. They seemed to make it to our house at least four times a year, but we didn’t look forward to their visits the way we did Tommy T’s. Rufus and Mandy had two small girls, one about two-years-old, and the other a small baby. The first time Mama and Papa fed them and gave them a place to sleep for a few days. Mama even tore up some old sheets and gave to Mandy to use as baby diapers.
The main reason we didn’t look forward to Rufus and Mandy’s visit was that they didn’t know what a bath was. If either of them ever had a bath, it was not evident when they visited us. Rufus was lazy, and never offered to help with the chores, but he and Mandy were always at the table when it was time to eat, both so rank from the lack of bathing that there was always a swarm of flies accompanying them. They wouldn’t even take a hint to bathe, even when we kids would hold our noses when they came near.
There was one who came by our house once or twice a year, I can’t remember his name, but we called him Onion Tops. Mama used to cut the green leaves from onions and cook them as greens. Believe it or not they aren’t bad when you’re hungry. And this old guy was obviously hungry and really liked cooked onion tops for he always requested that Mama cook onion tops when he was there.
I remember one time when he ate almost a whole bowl of onion tops. Believe me, Mama’s bowls weren’t small. He ate until everything was gone, then rubbed his stomach and declared that he wished he had a belly as big as a tar barrel so he could hold more onion tops. Old Onion Tops would help with the chores, and he was relatively clean.
As the depression began to ease, and with Franklin Roosevelt’s WPA, all the bums just kind of faded away, and we never knew what happened to them. We have, over the years, often thought of those unfortunate people, and wondered about their fate. We have also thought of how, with the passing of the depression and the outbreak of World War II, the simple trusting life just kind of faded away too, and no one noticed it was slipping away.
Postscript: I certainly don’t mean to romanticize either the homeless or their situations, nor do I wish to judge why they’re in that state at all, but I have to say that the homeless in Uncle’s generation were very colorful people. No wonder so many southerners became writers with such wonderful–note–“colorful and memorable” characters.