There was no shortage of hobos in New York City during The Depression. Along the Hudson River, there were were hobo jungles almost the full length of Manhattan. These were some of the nation’s most dangerous camps, though not just because of hobos. The waterfront harbored any number of criminal enterprises, of which hobos were the least menacing. In Herbert Asbury’s Gangs of New York, the template for the Scorsese film, but far better and more historically accurate, he describes gangs, hobos and off-the-boat Irish, being conscripted to the Union Army before their legs had even adjusted to dry land. The resentment of the Irish at being sent to war to “ostensibly” free the slaves, iginited a racial hatred so virulent it gave way to the “Draft Riots,” where drunken Irish idiots lynched Blacks all over New York City. It is a shameful chapter in the Irish-American story.
The first hobos were byproduct of The Civil War. At the war’s bloody end, an estimated 300,000 men were without work and took to the rails and boats to find jobs to feed themselves. We often think of “migrant workers” as Mexican or Latin Americans when, in fact, most of our ancestors were migrant workers, coming by boat or train, and even on foot, to find more opportunity.
A movie I saw recently (and was in) kind of summed this up. In Steven Conrad’s wonderful, The Promotion, an eager-beaver assistant store manager, played by Sean William Scott, and a Canadian goofball, played by John C. Reilly, are competeing for the same job as manager of a new grocery store. They undercut and connive in order to best one another for the postion. At one point, they are sitting together, somewhat contrite over the lengths they went to in order to get this job, and Reilly looks at his co-worker and says, “We’re all just out here, trying to get some food.” It’s that simple. . .and it’s that complicated. What we will do in order to keep eating isn not always our better selves. It is a lesson so old, it feels new. In this economy, we hear the echoes of hungry people from The Civil War, The Great Depression and The Dust Bowl. Of course, we are not enduring anything like these events, but we are seeing hungry people in our cities and towns. And in America, this is shameful.