Will there be any freight trains in Heaven,
Any boxcars in which we might hide?
Will there be any tough cops and brakemen?
Will they tell us that we cannot ride?
It’s called “The Hobo’s Meditation,” and was written by Jimmie Rodgers in 1932, in the depth of the Great Depression, and just a year before he died of tuberculosis. The railroad was still a large part of the American consciousness then, and tens of thousands of out-of-work men — and some women — took to the rails, both to look for work and to escape situations at home. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs were still years away. The storms of the Dust Bowl were burying Midwestern farms in dunes of fine sand, banks were foreclosing on mortgages, and California had put cops on its border to stem the flow of migrants headed for work in the orchards and fields of “the Old Peach Bowl.” It’s difficult, if not impossible, for us today to appreciate the desperation of those folks, especially those with families. Woody Guthrie describes the predicament: “We got out to the West Coast broke, so dad-gummed hungry I thought I’d croak. But I bummed up a spud or two, and m’wife cooked up a tater stew. We poured the kids full of it. Mighty thin stew, though! You could read a magazine right through it.”
Woody closes with the observation that if the stew had been a little bit thinner,”mebbe some of these here politicians coulda seen through it.” That line bubbled up in my head when a reporter asked Majority Leader McConnell if he thought Congress would come up with its next package of disaster relief before it went home on a break. McConnell just laughed. In that curt, dismissive laugh, he expressed the great and growing gap between the rich and poor, the gainfully employed and the jobless, the comfortable and the desperate.
There are ominous signs that the coming months will be tougher than in these lines from the old song “Beans, Bacon and Gravy:” “The worst I seen was 1931.” Crunch time has come for perhaps millions of our fellow Americans. The virus that’s felling and killing so many of us has closed thousands of businesses forever, so that, even if and when a recovery comes, jobs that some people lost no longer exist. The supplementary payments the government was disbursing to the unemployed have stopped. Moratoriums on rent and mortgage payments have expired, or are about to. It’s as if the people in charge, if, indeed, there are such folks, have no clue how to operate — or in this case, save — an economy.
The message implied in “The Hobo’s Meditation” is, we’re all in this together. The hobo, just like so many of our contemporaries, has lost whatever job he had and has to rely on the generosity of his fellows and strangers in order to survive. I was very little when there were still hobos around — my folks were adamant about the differences between them and tramps and bums — but I can remember them knocking on the back door of my grandfather’s pharmacy and asking if there was anything they could do to earn a dime or quarter. Grandma didn’t want them in the store — even in the back room — so she refused the offer of help, but said, “Wait here. I’ll be right back.” Which she was, with a snack or a dime, or both. She felt it was her religious obligation to help the poor, even if she never could do it very graciously. Still, there was a symbol somewhere on the building — we never could find it — that signaled these folks were OK.
Grampa Lange ran a so-called Settlement House (you can google the charity) down near the Port of Albany. The price of a hearty meal and maybe some used shoes or clothes was listening to Grampa’s Bible reading, a sermon and prayers. Not to make light of that, but his sermons made hunger feel not so bad.
The theme that came through both these people was that the poor folks looking for handouts, and willing to work for them, didn’t necessarily deserve their predicament. Times were hard everywhere, and those of us who had two coats, Biblically speaking, were enjoined to share with those who had none.
The hobo’s most feared antagonist in his wanderings was not so much hunger, heat and cold, as it was the guardians of railway property, the mean cops and brakemen. Often, if you had a nickel, one would let you ride in an empty car; but if you were broke, you might get your head cracked with a club and your bindle “confiscated.” The meanness and lack of empathy I feel emanating from official Washington during these days of a crisis for which it is largely culpable, sounds all too familiar: Pull up your socks, reinvent yourself, and find a job! How much more like an ideal society we could be if we learned the last lines of the poor hobo’s lament: Will the hobo chum with the rich man; will there always be money to spare? Will there be respect for the hobo, in the land that lies hidden up there?
Willem Lange is a regular contributor to Weekend Magazine. He lives in East Montpelier.