Once in awhile, I detected in their conversation and actions a want of confidence and freedom that is felt among friends. They talked to each other as though they were perfect strangers, yet at times they seemed to have met before. All had that haunted look in their eyes, and one of them acted as though he might be a hunted and wanted man.From Chapter 3 of Waiting for the Train by John MacDonald.
Every time any one of them started to speak, all the rest were alert to every word that was said, as though weighing every syllable. I took special notice that there wasn’t a subject that was brought up but that it wasn’t contradicted, and therefore I listened to some of the silliest arguments that didn’t have an ounce of sense in them. From that I judged [that] none of them had more than a fourth grade education to their credit, and that, I thought, answered the riddle of why they didn’t have any pride in themselves as regards their appearance and uncleanliness. I couldn’t make myself believe that the conditions which then prevailed would be any excuse for not keeping clean and somewhere near tidiness.
They all appeared suspicious of each other and from their general want I’d judge them as being rightly so in that respect. I must admit that I wouldn’t care to leave anything of value around loose and have any one of them know about it or, for that matter, bring to light or show anything that I would care to keep.
I was somewhat disappointed in the fact that I couldn’t see any resemblance [in them to] what I had always pictured in my mind of these so-called Hobos or ‘Gentry of the Road’. The one thing that disappointed me the most was the total absence of that romantic atmosphere that is supposed to go with living a life in the ‘Jungles’.
This description follows John’s first encounter with a true group of rail-riding hobos; the kind of people he’ll be spending a lot of time with throughout his coming journey. The first thing he notes is that these bedraggled, contradictory men are far different from the romanticized image of a “hobo” in his mind. The difference is so profound that he even tries to rationalize the men’s condition as being from lack of education rather than their circumstances.
Bands of hobos just like these are a common feature in John MacDonald’s rail-riding career. Their hallmarks include that uneasy camaraderie that can be seen in his description of their actions and speech. The hobos of the depression distrust each other as a given, but are still willing to band together and help their fellows in any situation. To see more of this unique relationship among peers, watch out for Waiting for the Train, a Depression-era journal by John MacDonald to be published by Warner House Press later this year.