I'm so excited to be performing at the Hobo Convention in Valley Falls, NY next weekend. Before my dad died, I asked him lots of questions about his childhood. One thing I was especially interested in was his experiences during the Great Depression. He was born in 1926, so I knew he would remember some things. I asked if they were poverty stricken, like so many others. It turns out that they were not. My grandfather was a pharmacist and worked in a drug store/soda shop. They never went hungry and didn't worry much about him losing his job.
Then, he went on to tell me about the hobos that came by and worked for food. There was even a mark on their fence post, alerting other hobos that they could work for food and shelter there. Hobos traveling through could stay in the barn overnight and get a meal or two for simple home repairs, garden or yard work. I would never have guessed this about my grandmother, who was very stern and often not very nice. But, she was the one who was home and managed it all.
When I was 21 years old, I hitchhiked across the country with my future husband, Paul. My mother was beside herself with worry, and anger at my audacity. My dad never really said much at the time. Years later, when he came out to visit me in Zig Zag, Oregon, he told me how proud he was of my courage at the time. He told me stories about hitchhiking when he was in the Navy. He also told me that, although he disliked Paul, he knew he was savvy about being on the road and would keep me safe.
I learned so much from my travels. I mostly saw the generous, helpful side of people and occasionally saw the seedy side. I enjoyed being a vagabond, though it got extremely tiring after a while. It was constant work to find a safe place to sleep, cheap places to eat and to get the rides that would take us a good distance.
I remember arriving in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania one evening, after a harrowing experience that afternoon involving a gas station and angry men with tire irons who didn't like hippies and chased us down the road. Luckily, the ride we'd hitched waited for us. Pittsburgh was Paul's hometown. It should be easy to find a place to stay, right? Wrong! His sister turned us down flat. His dad was not even a consideration. After searching for his old buddies, we finally connected with one old friend, Elaine, who said we could stay one night, if we showed up before 11 pm. It was early January, snowing and cold. We started walking, and walking and walking. I was dead tired when we approached a three or four level steep and very long staircase. I got about halfway up and crashed. I sat down on the landing and just started crying. I'd never been so tired in my life. Paul carried my backpack and his up the rest of the stairs then came back for me and our guitar. We arrived at Elaine's apartment at 11:10 pm. She was furious but let us in. It was not the last time I was exhausted, but I learned to cope.
I know how hard it is living on the road, going from town to town, looking for work, food and shelter, finding kindness and finding hate. I have a lot of compassion for the homeless. Even when we're homeless by choice, there are underlying reasons that we choose that life. Often, we're running away from terrible and unmanageable situations, looking for a better way. Often, there is mental illness involved. Regardless of the reasons, it's not an easy life being dependent on the kindness of others. Thankfully, there are many kind people in the world.