I grew up in a Louisiana village alongside the Kansas City Southern tracks. There were a dozen homes nearer the tracks, but they were built alongside the lake, below a newcomer’s line of sight. The KCS ran two passenger/mail trains through Mooringsport daily, but most of the rail traffic was freight. This was 15 years after the end of The Depression and homeless guys still rode the rails trying to get somewhere else, anywhere else. Our home tended to be the first on our end of town where these tired, dirty, yellow-toothed guys would knock on a door to beg a meal.
Nobody trusted the Gypsies (now known as the Romani.) They always had a sales pitch designed to get into the house, and while the talker kept the homeowner occupied, his kids and wife would scurry around in other rooms looking for things to steal. A family of them came by one day. The talker wanted to repair any damaged cooking pots we might have. Varie (my mother) told him “I’m sorry, mister, but our cookware is in good shape. But there’s lots of houses nearby – good luck with them.” And they all left for the next house on Lake Street. Then I noticed she was literally shaking. “What’s wrong, Ma?” “Those people are gypsies, could a killed us all for nothing more than canned goods and kitchen knives. I better call Effie Dell, Gladys, and Lilly, and Big, now.” No crimes were reported that week, either because they weren’t thieves, or we had nothing of interest, or perhaps the Varie Network’s rapid response.
No one who lived through the Great Depression ever forgot it. Those people always had a hard time letting go of a dollar, and were forever alert for grifters and frauds. Yet those long years of deprivation, worn-out clothes, lard or bean sandwiches, and entire communities full of misery put steel in their spines and warmth in their hearts.
I think that’s why so many people fed hoboes back then. They got off when the freight trains stopped to take on water (KCS ran steam engines until the late 50’s). Hoboes came by more often than Gypsies. If Varie was at work teaching school, grandma Big was taking care of me and baby Ed. She would greet them at the door with a butcher knife behind her back, just in case. They were always polite and sincere, clearly hungry, and never too shy to ask for money. Big always told them “I don’t have money, but I will fix you a big bowl of chicken noodle soup with crackers. Just go around to the back of the house and sit down at the concrete picnic table. I’ll bring it out in five minutes.” She would open a can of Campbell’s, heat it up, pour a bowl of it and pass it out the back door to her guest.
Varie would never have done such a thing, or so I thought. One summer day when school was out, a textbook hobo knocked on our door. He actually carried a bindle, which is a short pole with a scrap of fabric tied to it that contained all his worldly possessions. He asked her for a meal, nothing more, and she told him to go ‘round back and sit at that picnic table. She made him a BLT on toast, with a side of strawberry shortcake, and a glass of tea. He was verbally and visibly grateful, but she relocked the door just in case.
“Mom, I never thought you’d do that?” “Well, as your Dad would say, ‘There but for the grace of God, go I’. Sometimes we just have to take chances to do what’s right.”
Context-appropriate music (Nobody Knows You) comes courtesy of dearly departed blues chanteuse, Ruth Brown.