“It seemed a queer thing. In these men who were not even very well educated, most likely the product of a very poor environment, and who seemed to have been in dire want a long time, I had found one of those rare qualities that go to ease the burdens and vicissitudes of life: A helping hand and seeing you through. In comparing it with past experiences during all this Depression so far, I thought it put to shame some of the people whom I knew and their attitude, the hard things they had said, and their absolute disinterest in regards to having any sympathy or even giving a helping hand. When I compare it further, especially in respect to the conditions those same people were living under and the many comforts and conveniences they had at their command, these men certainly struck me as being like a ray of sunshine in a darkened sky.
These men were hard, they were dirty and close to being filthy. They perhaps wouldn’t let a chance go by to take something that didn’t belong to them, and they were seemingly always ready for a fight at the drop of a hat. But damn it all, they were considerate when you were stuck or in trouble. They encouraged you by word and backed it up by action. Yes, they even went fifty-fifty with you whether you were friend or foe or stranger, if you were hungry or not. Glory be, could it be possible [that] I had found the kind of men I like, and must it be amidst such as these? Does one have to live amidst squalor and want and ignorance to enjoy real brotherhood?”From Chapter 4 of Waiting for the Train, by John MacDonald
In the previous chapter, John MacDonald was shocked by his first encounter with rail-riding hobos; the contrast between their reality and his romantic expectations was a jarring one. Here, he experiences another startling revelation. Those same hobos, hard, dirty and filthy as they are, exhibit more camaraderie amongst themselves than anyone else he has yet encountered during the Great Depression.
“Does one have to live amidst squalor and want and ignorance to experience real brotherhood?”
With this powerful sentiment, John sums up the absurdity of the situation. Far from the comforts and cleanliness of city life, he has found in his fellow hobos a human bond that was starkly lacking in his previous life. Though relations with his fellow riders will not always be so civil, this “brotherhood” is a theme that persists throughout MacDonald’s travels across America.
To find out more, look out for further excerpts like this, as well as Waiting for the Train, a collection of John MacDonald’s journal entries to be published later this year by Warner House Press.