When I was young in a small town in northern Minnesota, hobos stayed in the stockyard by the railway tracks not far from our house. We—a small group of 6-and-7-year-old urchins, would throw rocks on the tin roofs of the stockyard sheds, and, seeing or not seeing a face peer around a corner, we would run, with just enough titillating fear to bring us back another day.

Sometimes the hobos knocked on the door at our house, and asked my mom if she had any work for them. I don’t remember them doing any work, but remember her handing out sandwiches. I would hide in the other room and listen, sometimes peering to get a look at the hobos we thought it fun to scare with rocks on the roof.

It’s not hobo shacks now, or riding the rails, but walking, and sometimes biking or even driving a junk car or a van that works as transportation and bedroom. Sometimes the broken vehicle is just a bedroom. It’s tents and tarps flung over branches and wires from utility poles. It’s at or under freeway bridges which provide some shelter from the weather—but not the roar of traffic.

There was something noble about those hobos of the 1940s. They had knowledge of freights and getting on and off trains on the run, knew places to stay, like the stockyard in Fosston, Minnesota. And they cleaned up enough to ask a housewife for work and a bit of food.

They were the leftovers—or left-outs—of clumps of people, mostly men, who roamed the nation looking for work and sustenance in the years of the Great Depression, the ones who didn’t catch on with a CCC crew or couldn’t live that much discipline. Maybe they’d been dusted out of Kansas and bounced around until the dust settled and they’d just grown used to the roving life. Some took to the life purposefully, chasing adventure. There were romances written about hobos and hopping freights, about life and freedom on that road.

Today’s tent cities, and its homeless—unhoused—seem a more desperate and less intentional lot. Many have given up on something: work that pays enough to live in a house; family that finds its way through tough times; a health care system that takes care of bad teeth and bad eyes; the American Dream. Some hang onto hope with menial jobs that don’t pay the rent.

Is it romantic nostalgia that makes me think that the old hobos that I tried to tease and feared were somehow still part of the country, while the homeless tent and tarp encampments of Seattle and Portland are part of each other but not part of the country that whizzes by them in busses and trucks and cars and commuter trains on its way to million-dollar houses?

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  1. I don’t think it’s “romantic nostalgia.” Perhaps because the Great Depression hit countrywide, we were less judgemental, more willing to give out sandwiches, to still see the homeless as human beings.

  2. Yes– divisions were there, but people at all levels in all parts of the country got hit, and did reach out to each other. . The color issue was not so good though. E.g. FDR made calculated choices that left domestic and ag labor outside of social security. The South did us in again!

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