Bums at Breakfast

Guest post by E.S. Kraay
Author of The Olympian, A Tale of Ancient Hellas

Growing up in the Berkshire Hills in the 1950’s, I had direct experience with hobos and bums.  Only a 200-yard field overgrown with weeds separated our house from the railroad tracks, and a small stand of thick woods, mostly pine trees and some maples sat directly west of our driveway.  The railroad was the hobos’ primary mode of transportation, and the stand of trees gave the wayward some shelter from winter snow and summer rain while they listened for the next approaching train.  We could look out our bathroom window and see the small fires they made.  That’s when we knew hobos were spending the night in the woods.  We didn’t fear them.  My mother would prepare sandwiches, and my brother and I would take the sandwiches and a thermos of fresh, hot coffee to the hobos.  As I kid, I remember that bums and hobos preferred black coffee.  I believe their preferences have changed.  There was no derogatory intent when we called them bums and hobos, and they acknowledged the ‘title’ as an apt description of the lifestyle they had chosen.  No offense given… none taken.


In his OpEd “The Invention of Homelessness” that appeared on September 18, 2010 in the Toronto Star, David Hulchanski, Associate Director, Research, for the Cities Centre and Professor in the Faculty of Social Work, University of Toronto suggests that the term and concept of homeless and homelessness as we know it today did not evolve until the 1980’s…

“Before the 1980s, people in developed countries did not know what it was like to be unhoused. They had housing, even if that housing was in poor condition. Some transient single men in cities were referred to at times as “homeless.” But the term had a different meaning then.

“For example, in 1960, a report by the Social Planning Council of Metro Toronto called Homeless and Transient Men, defined a “homeless man” as one with few or no ties to a family group, who was thus without the economic or social support a family home provides. The men were homeless, not unhoused. They had housing, albeit poor-quality housing — rooming houses or accommodation provided by charities. But they had no home.

“Canada at that time thus had homeless individuals, but no problem called “homelessness.

“The word “homelessness” came into common use in developed countries in the early and mid-1980s to refer to the problem of dehousing — the fact that an increasing number of people who were once housed in these wealthy countries were no longer housed.”

Bums at Breakfast

We took care of bums and hobos when I was a kid.  It was the right thing to do, to share what we had with the men – I don’t recall ever seeing a woman – who spent the night in the trees next to our house.  I thought of them today as I read my morning poem – a daily ritual – this one from Garrison Keillor’s collection Good Poems, American Places.  They were all good men, just a bit out of their luck…

David Wagoner, poet

Bums at Breakfast
by David Wagoner

Daily the bums sat down to eat in our kitchen.
They seemed to be whatever the day was like:
If it was hot or cold, they were hot or cold;
If it was wet, they came in dripping wet.
One left his snowy shoes on the back porch
But his socks stuck to the clean linoleum,
And one, when my mother led him to the sink,
Wrung out his hat instead of washing his hands.

My father said they’d made a mark on the house,
A hobo’s sign on the sidewalk, pointing the way.
I hunted everywhere, but never found it.
It must have said, “It’s only good in the morning –
When the husband’s out.”  My father knew by heart
Lectures on Thrift and Doggedness,
But he was always either working or sleeping.
My mother didn’t know any advice.

They ate their food politely, with old hands,
Not looking around, and spoken short, plain answers.
Sometimes they said what they’d been doing lately
Or told us what was wrong; but listening hard,
I broke their language into secret codes:
Their East and West, their job meant walking and walking,
Their money meant danger, home meant running and hiding,
Their father and mother were different kinds of weather.

Dumbly, I watched him leave by the back door,
Their pockets empty as a ten-year-old’s;
Yet they look twice as rich, being full of breakfast.
I carried mine like a lump all the way to school.
When I was growing hungry, where would they be?
None ever came twice. Never to lunch or dinner.
They were always starting fresh in the fresh morning.
I dreamed of days that stopped at the beginning.

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