"Indeed, a minimum of life, an unchaining from all coarser desires, an independence in the middle of all kinds of outer nuisance; a bit of Cynicism, perhaps a bit of ‘tub’."
Friedrich Nietzsche

7 Apr 2016

A Philosophy of Tramping—Tom Kromer

The notes of this post provided the background material for Chapter 14 of
Published by Feral House February 2020

Waiting for Nothing

'To Jolene, Who Turned Off the Gas' is the author's dedication to Waiting for Nothing,
and the only reference throughout the text to Kromer's attempted suicide. 

Having written on over a dozen ‘Victorian’ tramp writers, then jumping ahead to write my biography on the contemporary vagabond writer and artist Jim Christy, I now return to the 1930s to discuss the Great Depression experiences of 1930’s hobo writer Tom Kromer. Here I detour from my usual theme of tramping as a lifestyle choice to discuss (even though the first train Kromer beat was motivated by wanderlust) the tramp of circumstances. Tom Kromer (1906–1969) was twenty-nine years old when Waiting for Nothing was published in 1935. Kromer’s series of dark, bleak, and very candid ‘essays’ on hobo life—and death—are primarily an autobiographical account of human endurance during America’s ‘Great Depression’. Waiting for Nothing is also a treatise on the extremes of cruelty that those ‘with’ are prepared to mete out on those ‘without’, and the extremes to which humans are reduced, simply to stave off a death that at times seems a more welcome outcome than continued survival.

Thomas Michael Kromer was born in Huntington, West Virginia, into a harsh, working class existence. His father had arrived in the US from Czechoslovakia aged two and later worked in the local coal mines from the age of eight, later becoming a glass blower, before dying of cancer at the age of forty-four. Kromer’s beginnings were hopeful. He went through three years of college, taught for two more years in mountain schools in West Virginia, before one day jumping into the passing boxcar of a freight train and beating it to Kansas where 23 year old Kromer intended to work in the wheat fields—but the combines had come and gone:

     ‘I got my first taste of going three days without food, and walking up to a back door and dinging a woman for a hand-out. It was a yellow house, but not too yellow, and I made it. Since then I have made a thousand such yellow houses and have never been turned down. Women who live in green houses will not even open the door for me.’ (Preface)

Kromer stayed ‘on the fritz’ (down-and-out) for the following five years, looking for but failing to find work:

     ‘it was about that time that people started laughing at you for asking for work. After a while I stopped asking for work.’ 

He goes on to explain in the Preface of Waiting for Nothing how the book was written and why it was written in the style it was:

     I had no idea of getting Waiting for Nothing published, therefore, I wrote it just as I felt it, and used the language that stiffs use even when it wasn't always the nicest language in the world.
     Parts of the book were scrawled on Bill Durham papers in box cars, margins of religious tracts in a hundred missions, jails, one prison, railroad sand-houses, flop-houses, and on a few memorable occasions actually pecked out with my two index fingers on an honest-to-God typewriter.’

Some commentators have thrown doubt on the autobiographical nature of Waiting for Nothing, describing the voice as an 'unnamed first person narrator'. Although this is technically accurate, Kromer makes it clear that, 'Save for four or five incidents, it is strictly autobiographical.' And, as with other tramp writers featured on this site, even where fictional events are introduced, it is fair to assume that they are based on the author's first hand experience—indeed, the actual lives and experiences of most of the tramp writers (linked down the right hand side of this page), are beyond the imagination and audacity of most modern fiction writers.

Those who criticise the book for its seemingly bleak, cold-hearted nihilism, should consider the reality of the lives those of thousands of dispossessed American’s at the time. Kromer himself was crippled with tuberculosis for most of his life, a condition that put a premature end to his career as a writer. But Kromer is not indifferent either to the collective human misery around him or to individual suffering. Indeed, he often displays a surprising generosity of spirit in the midst of his renunciation. There is also plenty of humour in the book, particularly cynical irony and the ridicule of absurdity, if one bothers to look for it. But Kromer's lack of sentimentality does not negate emotion, or his sense of outrage at the forces that created and sustained the Depression; it does negate, though, the political naivety of the hobo revolutionaries he encounters on his travels. Kromer is a realist when it comes to understanding human nature, and simply frames depravity in the context of the reality it is. Kromer's brand of realism is reflected in two book reviews of the time: 

Roland Mulhauser, in the Saturday Re-view of Literature, noted, ‘There is a static calm in his point of view suggesting compression and numbness beyond pain. There is no sentimentalizing pity. There are no emotional outbursts. Nothing but hunger. Still, it is a shocking book: a picture of unmitigated depravity.’ 

And Fred T. Marsh in Books observed that Waiting for Nothing was a ‘little piece of dynamite … [but one that would] accomplish nothing in its explosion because people will stuff up their ears with cotton and flee to their bomb-proof cellars.’

But enough pontificating, let Kromer speak for himself.

On Hunger 1

Chapter one opens with Kromer contemplating the practicalities of a mugging (stories on mugging and being mugged are a common theme related by many of the other tramp writers on this site) and sets out his uncompromising, staccato style prose:

     ‘It is night. I am walking along this dark street, when my foot hits a stick. I reach down and pick it up. I finger it. It is a good stick, a heavy stick. One sock from it would lay a man out. It wouldn't kill him, but it would lay him out. I plan. Hit him where the crease is in his hat, hard, I tell myself, but not too hard. I do not want his head to hit the concrete. It might kill him. I do not want to kill him. I will catch him as he falls. I can frisk him in a minute. I will pull him over in the shadows and walk off. I will not run. I will walk.’ 

After waiting in the chosen spot for five to ten minutes, a suitably well-dressed victim comes into sight. As Kromer observes, he has his head up and walks in a jaunty manner. A ‘stiff’ (hobo) doesn't walk like that. ‘A stiff shuffles with tired feet, his head huddled in his coat collar. This guy is in the dough.’ Everything goes according to plan until the moment the stick has to be brought down on his victim’s head:

     ‘… but my stick doesn’t come down. Something has happened to me. I am sick in the stomach. I have lost my nerve. … I am shaking all over. Sweat stands out on my forehead. I can feel the calmness of it in the cold, damp night. This will not do. This will not do. I’ve got to get something to eat. I am starved.’ 

This brief, failed encounter, provides a clue to Kromer’s character. As with other such confrontations, such as the botched bank robbery related below, Kromer reveals his limitations as a natural born hustler, highlighting one of the differences between hobos who make out and those who remain humanity's casualties.

After failing to acquire cash by force to relieve his starvation, Kromer later describes staring through a restaurant window at an affluent couple in evening dress—she bedecked in diamonds—in a desperate attempt to attract some sympathy to his plight. It is not so much the image of the plump chicken dripping in gravy that arrests the watcher’s attention so much as the fact that these two diners are more immersed in each other, than the object of Kromer’s craving: 

     ‘They are nibbling at the chicken, and they are not even hungry. I am starved. That chicken was meant for a hungry man. … I will stand here until they come out. When they come out they will maybe slip me a four-bit piece.’ 

But Kromer will never find out, for he is roughly apprehended by a cop and moved on. After being turned away from several other restaurants and beginning to give up hope of getting anything to eat that night, a guy in a suit invites him to join him in at a diner. His benefactor stumps up for a ‘beef-steak dinner and everything that goes with it’, then another diner, after paying his bill and not to be outdone, leaves him change for a ‘flop’ (bed for the night). So it goes on the fritz, one minute your so down on your luck you fear for your very existence, the next minute your strolling along with a full belly and change jingling in your pocket. That’s the serendipity of the hobo’s life, and what most marks it out from the life of those with a home, family and steady work. There can be no knowing what fate will throw at the vagabond from one minute to the next, never mind the next day. Misfortune inevitably far outweighs the kind of good luck that befell Kromer on this particular night. In the event he spent the night in a forty bedded flophouse dormitory surrounded by ‘gas-hounds’ (down-and-outs who extract alcohol from gasoline to get high) at their messy and smelly business.


In Chapter 6, Kromer takes a more light hearted approach to the topic of hunger. He writes of a writer friend he met in the park and in who's room he flops when the need arises. Karl works at carrying garbage out of a restaurant for two dollars a week. One dollar goes on his digs, the other on food. But Karl is always hungry. It is not certain that Karl is not Kromer himself: 'Nobody buys the stuff he writes. ... He writes of starving babies, and men who tramp the streets in search of work.' (p. 95) One night, not wanting to freeze to death outside, Kromer turns the knob of Karl's room quietly. He cannot knock for fear of alerting the landlady to his presence, but he does not come empty handed. On entering the room he observes Karl bending over his writing and knows from experience that Karl has not eaten that day.

     "Toppin's?" he says.
     "Toppin's," I say, "and more than toppin's. This is your lucky night."
     He takes the sack out of my hand and looks in.     
     "Great God," he says, "a coconut pie! A real honest-to-God coconut pie!" 

Kromer and Karl—if one and the same—may not be proficient con-men, but what they lack in cold cunning they make up for in generosity of spirit. They do not keep the feast to themselves but invite an artist friend, Werner, from the same apartment block to share it with them. Werner is another Kromer like character, but unlike Kromer or Karl, instead of writing about deprivation, he paints it. That said, he has no more luck selling his paintings than Kromer or Karl do getting their writing into print. 'They are good pictures' Kromer admits, but they don't sell. 'I think it's because of the hungry look. ... I think if Werner took the hungry look out of of the eyes of the people in his pictures, he could buy more hamburger steaks and take the hungry look out of his own eyes. Karl and Werner say this would be sacrilege to art.' 

Werner has less scruples than Kromer and Karl. When the latter have a bit of money they store up provisions for lean times. But someone is helping themself to their stash of food so they prepare a deterrent. They buy ten cents worth of croton oil (a fierce laxative) from the drug store and mix it into a bowl of beans which they then leave on the table of Karl's room. They go off for ten minutes and on their return the bowl is still there but the beans are not. They double up in silent laughter as some time later Werner dashes for the toilet door with a 'better-not-be-occupied' look of panic in his eyes. They know he will be dashing back to the toilet several times before the effects of the croton oil are exhausted. Kromer wants to go inside and lock the toilet door, but Karl is soft hearted and thinks that Werner has suffered enough. They have pleasure enough from watching Werner dashing back and forth to the toilet through a crack in the door. Kromer rarely resorts to mirth in his predominantly a dark treatise on human suffering and degradation, but on the occasions he does, it adds further to the authenticity of the text. This incident happened before Werner's friends invite him to share their feasts, which as well as the coconut pie includes enough doughnuts for each to have more than one.

     'Tonight his [Werner’s] eyes look even hungrier than ever. His eyes pop when he sees what is on the table. He licks his lips. We should not have put all this stuff on the table at once. A shock like this is not good for him. It might kill him. Werner's masterpiece will never be such a picture as this.'

As for the source of such a banquet, Kromer tells the others that he has befriended a baker's daughter. The other two insists he immediately marries the girl in order that they never need go hungry again. The reality is that there is no beautiful bakers daughter, just a soft hearted baker with a straggly moustache who wheezes when he breathes. The feast now turns into a symposium on the merits of revolution in righting the inequalities and injustices of the times. But Kromer is a true philosopher of the Cynic school. He scoffs at the fanaticism of his friends. One look at Werner's eyes coveting the doughnut crumbs elicits the thought, 'If I was a capitalist, I would steer clear of Werner when the day arrives.' Kromer well understands human beings true nature when he utters the following observations:

     'I am tired of such talk as this. You can stop a revolution of stiffs with a sack of toppin's. I have seen one bull [cop] kick a hundred stiffs of a drag. When a stiff's gut is empty, he hasn't got the guts to start anything. When his gut is full, he doesn't see any use in raising hell. What does a stiff want to raise hell for when his belly is full?

On the Hunger of Women and Children

Chapter 6 describes the dehumanisation of the soup-line:

     'I let my eyes wander over these women that stand in line. In a soup line like this you will always see plenty of women. Their kids are too young to come after this slop, so they have to come themselves. I look at them. I look at their eyes. The eyes of these women you will see in a soup-line are something to look at. They are deep eyes. They are sunk in deep hollows. The hollows are rimmed with black. Their brows are wrinkled and lined from worry. They are stoop-shouldered and flat chested. They have a look on their face. I have seen that look on the faces of dogs when they have been whipped with a stick. They hold babies in their arms, and the babies are crying. They are always crying. There are no pins sticking them. They cry because they are hungry. They clench their tiny fists. They pound against their mother's breasts. They are wasting their time. There is no supper here. Their mother's have no breasts. They are flat-chested. There is only a hollow sound as they pound. A woman cannot make milk out of slop


     Tomorrow they will have the same hollow sound. They are all old, these women in the soup lines. There are no young ones here. You do not stay young in a soup-line. You get crows feet under your eyes. The gnawing pain in the pit of your belly dries you up. There are no smart ones in this line. The smart ones are not in any soup-line. A good-looking girl can make herself a feed and a flop if she works the streets and knows how to play the coppers right. She don't mind sleeping with a copper once in a while for nothing if he will leave her alone the rest of the time.'


In a separate story in Chapter 6, Kromer relates a story told by Karl about the fate of one particular young woman who he meets on a park bench. He tells her to hit for cover as there is a storm on the way, but she just stares blankly at Karl. “Storm?” she says. Karl repeats, “The baby will get wet … You had better get in out of the rain.” “No place to go” she says. She tells Karl that she does not mind the rain, she is used to it. But the baby is only two weeks old, she tells him. She just sits there staring into the darkness. Karl says that if he knew what these women were thinking when they stare into the dark in that way he would write a book about it. A cop comes by and says to Karl, “Better get your wife and kid home, Jack. Regular hurricane blowing up.” Karl fingers his last twenty cents and says to the girl that she must go to the coffee shop across the street, get a meal, and wait until the storm blows over. 

Karl watches the woman slowly head for the coffee shop and then makes his own way to a pool hall up the street to wait for the storm to blow over. When he returns to the coffee shop the woman is still sitting there. He goes over to the table but she doesn't look at him, she is just staring out off the window across the road. “It is miserable over there now. Miserable and black and wet.” “Well, I see you got out of the wet alright. Karl says. “She turns in her seat quick. She jumps when she sees me. … She keeps staring out of the window. There is a wild look in her eyes.” There follows some trivial conversation about the price of coffee but Karl observes, “I can see that she is talking batty. There is something wrong. … It is the baby. The baby is not there. She has not got the baby.” Karl asks where the baby is but the woman does not answer, she continues to stare out of the window and Karl follows her gaze. 

     “Great Christ! Through the blackness of the park I can see a white splotch on one of the benches. I know what that is. It is the baby. She has gone back after the rain and put it there. She waits here to see if anybody picks it up. We do not say anything more for a while. We just sit there and glue our eyes on this white splotch on the bench in the park.” 

Karl asks if the baby can roll off the bench. The woman says no, she has pinned the bundle down. A tramp passes and looks down and the bundle, then hurries off and comes back with a cop who makes a call from a phone box. The woman gets up, she has seen enough. She thanks Karl for the coffee and hurries off not wanting to be recognised by the cop. Karl sits there finishing his coffee and observing the scene. A car pulls up and the cop hands the baby to a woman in the back seat. The cop looks around. He is hunting for someone. Several stiffs walk by and the cop talks to them before they move on. 

     “Christ Almighty! I happen to think. That cop is hunting for me. He thinks that is my kid. They would not believe me if I told them it was not my kid. They would put me in and throw the key away. I get up from the table and beat it outside. I stick close beneath the awnings and beat it home.”

Kromer concludes that Karl is soft-hearted. He is shocked and upset at the woman leaving her baby in a park because she cannot feed it. It reinforces his despair at a society that drives people to such desperation. But Kromer admits that he is not so soft-hearted. ‘That is nothing. I have seen worse than that. I know that that is nothing.’

On Hunger 3

Kromer is a fast learner, but does not always have the brass to pull off some of the stunts that come naturally to certain other hoboes. In Chapter 5, he learns a scam from another stiff that involves sidling up to a rich looking guy in the company of a girl. The assumption is that although the rich guy would never normally hand over money to a stiff—"Why don't you get a job. I ain't got no money for bums." etc.—he has calculated that he will not want to appear mean and heartless in front of his date. Kromer acknowledges that he doesn't have the guts to hit on a guy with a girl but he does have the guts to 'hit a high-toned restaurant'. He describes walking into such a high-toned restaurant with only tables, no counters. It is not evening but women sit around in evening gowns, gold and silver slippers on their feet, and glittering with jewels. The men are dressed in tails and the tables 'sparkle with the shine of silver dishes'. Kromer stares at the scene in awe, 'I cannot imagine people living like this.'

The diners look up from their tables and stare at Kromer. 'I do not blame them. I am a crummy-looking customer.' The cashier asks Kromer what he wants. He replies he want's to see the manager. The manager comes over from one of the tables and asks Kromer what he wants. "I want something to eat. I am a hungry man" Kromer has calculated that it will not do the manager's business any good to turn down a hungry man in front of his well heeled customers. "Sure I can give a hungry man something to eat. Come on back in the kitchen with me." The customers smile in appreciation, but once in the kitchen and out of earshot, the manager shouts at the chef, "Hey Fritz, give this bum a cup of coffee and send him out the back way." 


In Chapter 7, Kromer juxtaposes the Christmas of the ‘haves’ with his own miserable Christmas. His Christmas present to himself is a threadbare coat he bummed from an undertaker who had to bury a stiff that died in the park of TB; ‘still a smudge of blood on the sleeve from the hemorrhage. I could have had his pants and shoes, too, but they were worse than mine.’ It is in this coat, bracing himself against a freezing wind howling around the corners, feet cold and soggy from the wet, that Kromer passes by the stores all lit up and packed with people buying gifts on Christmas Eve. 

     ‘Everybody is laughing. I wonder how it feels to laugh like that? That fellow and his girl in front of me have been laughing for a block. He has bundles piled clear to his chin. … He is sporting a fur overcoat, and his shoes do not slosh as he walks. It is easier to laugh when you are warm and your shoes do not slosh.’

But Kromer finds some human comfort when least expecting it. He passes a dark doorway. Inside is a girl on the make. “You—you want to go with me?” she says. Kromer notices that her shoes are worse than his own, that she has runs in her stockings, and that she is not the usual type to be selling herself. He challenges her that she is not used to this and that she should go to a mission. She, in turn, admits to Kromer that he is the first man she has approached and acknowledges that she is clumsy at what she is trying to do but will learn. He is determined not to let her. She is on the street because she is starving. Kromer has four bits in his pocket and suggests they go to a restaurant and eat. She tells him that they would be better of buying groceries and going back to her room where she has a hot plate and can cook the stuff up. A plan unfolds to maximise what the two can get out of the four bits that Kromer is carrying. He describes the practice of ‘pennying-up’. This involves going into various stores, pretending they are flat broke but still offering to pay rather than plain begging. 

     ‘We are hitting the red-light district. Her room is here. The red-light district is the only place where you can get a room for a dollar a week. I look at her. She looks at me. We are two people in the world. We are the same. We know the we are the same. Our gnawing bellies and our sleepy eyes have brought us together. We do not say any more. We do not need to. I have these bundles piled up to my chin. She takes my arm, and we walk.’ 

Kromer describes the red-light district. A place where people live because they have no other place to live and where the cops don’t bother anyone on the streets because that is what these streets are for. They arrive at the girls room, ‘It is only a two-by-four hole, but it is clean. … It has a bed and a chair. A hot plate sits on a box.’ But to Kromer it is a mansion. They chat and laugh while the girl cooks. They understand each other and like each other. The girl had not eaten for two days, and had only eaten turnips and beets for three days before that. They talk of hunger and Kromer tells the girl that he got so hungry he tried to mug a guy and also rob a bank. “What did you think of me when I stopped you?” she says, “What do you think of a girl who will go as bad as that?” “I think she was awful hungry for a hamburger.” he replies. They stand beside each other staring out of the window at the bridge all lit up to the right of town. Hundreds of stiffs live under that bridge, but Kromer will not be sleeping there tonight; he is invited to sleep at the girl’s room, “until the landlady kicks us out.”

Bank Robber

Following the earlier tale from Chapter 5, Kromer is thrown out the back door of the restaurant kitchen after begging for a meal, he takes off without even waiting for the coffee. Another lesson learned, a more desperate plan in the making. Kromer has acquired a gun which he now fingers in his pocket. He is lowly starving to death for the umpteenth time and hatches a make or break plan. He figures that things have got so bad that has nothing to lose by risking his life to rob a bank. If his plan works he will have solved his problems once and for all, if not, he is ready to put an end to his suffering:

     'They have starved me to death long enough. I am tired of walking the streets all day long asking for work. ... I will stop asking for work. I will quit standing in the soup-lines for hours for a bowl of slop. I have made up my mind to take a chance. You can only die once.' 

And so Kromer heads for the small branch bank he has chosen for his heist. He looks across the street. Through the window he sees the cashiers in white shirts with sleeves rolled up, passing cash to customers from piles of bills in draws:

     'There are plenty of these piles. One or two of them will keep me for life. I will not have anything to worry about. I will be fixed for life. What have I got to lose? Nothing. What have I got to live for? Soup and stale bread...

We learn the carefully thought through details of Kromer's plan: the small alley near the bank that leads to several short streets; the picture show playing a short distance up one of these streets that Kromer will dive into until the hunt is over; into the toilet for a shave and change of appearance; then back to the mission—'the last place ... they will look for a guy with plenty of jack'. Then off to the train station to buy a ticket out of there.

As he stands at a table in the bank pretending to write a cheque, deciding which cash desk to approach, that 'sickish feeling' returns to the pit of his stomach, his hands start to shake, but he is committed: 

     'I have made up my mind, shaky hands or not, I will sleep in no more lousy mission flops, I have whined for my last meal. I have the gat [gun] and I'm going to use it if I have to. No one cares whether I live or die. They would let me starve to death on the streets without lifting a hand to help me. Why should I care about these guys that hand out theses piles of bills from their wire cages? What are they to me? ... To hell with everybody I'm going to get mine.' 

And so Kromer gets in line knowing that the cashiers have guns too and will not hesitate to use them even though it's not their dough they are protecting. He is sixth in his queue and describes the wrinkles on the back of the neck of the woman in front of him. She's fat and makes a good screen to hide the hand covering the bulge in his coat. Now there are only two people in front of him. The fat woman moves up to the window still shielding the bulge in Kromer's inside coat pocket. He observes that the guy in the adjacent cage locks up and retires to a back room. 'That is a break for me. I will not have this guy taking pot shots at me'.

Kromer presses his fingers around the handle of the gun, feeling it's roughness, and hoping he will not have to shoot it. His hands are still shaking, and his knees too. The fat woman steps away from the window and Kromer and the cashier eye each other:

   ' "Yes, sir." He says.
     I do not sat anything. I have nothing to say. I give this gat a yank, but it does not come out of my pocket. Only the handle comes out. Only the handle and part of the lining of my coat. ... It it stuck in the torn lining of my coat. I yank hard again, but it does not come out. This guy back of the wire cage thinks there is something wrong. He steps closer to the window and peers out. He sees that my hand is in my pocket. ... His face goes from pale to sickish green. I know what that guy is feeling. I have the same feeling in the pit of my own belly. It is a sickish feeling, a vomity feeling. He takes a step back away from the window. ... This guy is scared. He is plenty scared, but he has nothing on me. 

[an absurd and embarrassed conversation takes place between the two even though the cashier is becoming aware that an increasingly botched stick-up is taking place]

     His eyes are glued to my hand that is in my pocket. I cannot fool this guy with asking questions. He knows that there is something up. He does not take his eyes of my hand that is in my pocket. I cannot pull at the gat while he is looking. He will yell or set off the alarm. I can feel the cold sweat that stands out on my forehead. Christ, but I am scared. I have to get out of here, but how am I going to get out of here?

Kromer turns and starts walking fast towards the door, feeling the eyes of the cashier boring into the back of his head, and the eyes of everyone else in the bank staring at the bulge in his pocket still covered by his hand. When Kromer does turn around, he sees the cashier backing out of his cage to call one of the security guards:

     'They must not catch me with this bulge in my pocket that is the gat. I start to run. I shove this woman out of the way who is coming through the door. I swing round the doorway and hit up the street. ... I must reach the alley before this cop gets to the street with his gat. I cannot have this cop filling me full of holes from behind. I run as fast as my shaking legs will carry me.' 

As Kromer dives into the alley and head first into a coal shoot, so ends his failed career as a bank robber—but not, on this occasion, his life. His landing place reassures him of his safety. The place has not been used in a long time. Cobwebs stretch from ceiling to floor. As he lies still across the rafters of his basement hideaway, still clutching his gat, Kromer strains his ears for sounds of a commotion outside, but the only sound he hears is his own breathing. In his panic and paranoia he determines to shoot it out if he is hunted down:

     'I will show the bastards it does not pay to hunt for me. ... They have not lived for years in lousy mission flops. They have not eaten swill from the restaurant garbage cans. They have good jobs. They do not know what is right from wrong.' 

Kromer crouches in his cellar hiding place for hours, aching in every joint, cramps shooting up his legs and back. He calculates that if he hides his gun he cannot be charged with attempted armed robbery. No one saw a gun, only a bulge. 'You cannot send a guy up because you think he was packing a gat. You have to see the gat.' Only when it's night does he dare emerge back into the open. He hides the gun under a pile of garbage after careful long rubbing off any fingerprints and walks down the street where he runs into a guy in a tweed suit: "Buddy," I say, "I am down on my luck with no place to flop. Could you spare me a few dimes to get me a flop?

Death on the Fritz

What follows are four very different descriptions by Kromer of hobo deaths: a suicide, starvation and old age, and the violent death of a teenager.

In Chapter 3, Kromer describes being in a mission flop and noticing a middle-aged man in a suit, pacing nervously up and down. ‘He has not been on the fritz long. I can tell.’ The man goes into the toilet and blows his brains out.

     “What’s he wanna bump hisself of fer?” says this stiff with build on his face. “their ain’t nothin’ to bump yerself off fer.”
     “He bumped hisself off because he’s got the guts to bump hisself off.” says this other stiff. “We are afraid to bump ourselves off, so we live in mission flops and guzzle lousy mission slop.” 

Kromer notes that a clean sheet is brought to lay the man out on, observing: ‘This is the first time this stiff has had a clean sheet for a long time.’ Kramer then returns to his bed where he contemplates bumping himself off: ‘Why not? It don’t hurt. I bet that guy never knew what hit him. Just a jagged hole, and a pool of blood mixed with black, and it is all over. He had the guts, and now everything is all right with him.’ He looks out of the third floor window at the hard concrete pavement below and considers how simple it would be to jump head first out of the window. In a few seconds it would all be over. But after considering the mess he has just witnessed on the toilet floor and contemplating the mess his own head might make, he pulls off his clothes and crawls into bed. 


New York soup line 1934
Chapter 8 opens with another description of the indignities of one of the many soup lines that Kromer has witnessed during his time on the fritz:

     ‘I wait, and, Christ but the hour goes slow. I stand in this soup-line. Back of and before me stretch men. Hundreds of men. I huddle in the middle of the line. For two hours I have stood here. It is night, and ten minutes before they start to feed. The wind whistles round the corners and cuts me like a knife. I have only been here for two hours. Some of these stiffs have been here for four. … A soup-line two blocks long is something to watch.’ 

A commotion up ahead in the line causes a distraction. An old stiff is stretched out on the pavement, eyes wide open and not moving: 

     ‘He is tired of waiting for this line to start moving. He is stretched out on the concrete, and as dead as four o’clock. I can see that this stiff is lucky. There will be no more waiting for him. […] There is no fuss when a stiff kicks off in a soup -line. There is no bother. They throw a sheet over him and haul him away. ’ 


In Chapter 12, we are given a description of a stiff dying in another mission flop, as Kromer lies in bed listening to the dying man. Another stiff is complaining because he is kept awake by the rattle from the old man’s hollow chest. Kromer is angered, showing his humanity when he says: 

     ‘This stiff has not always been a stiff. Somewhere, some time, this stiff has had a home. Maybe he had a family. Where are they now? I do not know. … The fritz has made him alone. He will die cooped up in a mission with a thousand stiffs that snore through the night, but he will die alone. The electric light outside will go on and off in the dark, “Jesus Saves,” but that will not help this stiff. He will die alone.’

Kromer yells to the mission orderly to call for an ambulance, “Are you going to let this poor bastard suffer all night?” “What do you think I’m goin’ to do with him?” is the reply. “Your a God-damn mission stiff, and mission stiffs are sons of bitches.” The argument continues and Kromer is told that he will be thrown out, but continues anyway. “You call an ambulance for this stiff or I will call it myself, and beat the hell out of you besides.” Eventually a doctor and two guys in white coats with a stretcher arrive. The pathetic attempts by the doctor to get the dying man to tell him where he lives prompts the following diatribe from Kromer:

     ‘This stiff does not answer him. He does not tell him, but I can tell him. He lives wherever he can find a hole to get in out of the rain. He lives wherever he can find a couple of burlap sacks to cover up his bones. He cannot tell him this, because he is dying. I have seen a lot of old stiffs die. I can tell. His bloodless lips pull back over his yellow teeth. It looks as though this stiff is grinning at this croaker who asks him where he lives. I shiver in my blankets. This stiff is a ghost. A ghost of skin and bones. A bloodless ghost. I try not to look at him. A dead man’s grin is a terrible thing. A mocking, shivery thing.’ 


In contrast to Kromer’s witnessing of this dying old man, in Chapter 11, we are given a much more violent description of death as it relates to the dangers of beating fast moving trains (see also ‘On Beating Trains’ below). Similar such incidents are described elsewhere on this site by other tramp writers, but here Kromer describes the scene as he and some other stiffs are waiting to move out from a hobo jungle. They have already gauged from placing their ears to the railway tracks that unless this train stops to take on water, it will be too fast to make it. ‘We are old-timers. We know by the sing in the rails when a drag is too hot.’ So they go back to their bindles and sit down to wait. If they can’t make this one, another one will be along tomorrow. ‘What is a day to us … We are not going any place.’ And when the train comes they know they won’t make it, but they see a kid standing by the rails preparing to run:

     ‘He is only a shadow on the tracks. The cars whiz by. He runs along beside her. He makes a dive for this step, the rear step. What is this damn fool diving for the rear step for? Don’t he know enough to nail the front end of a car? She swings him high, and in between the cars. He loses his grip. He smashes against the couplings. He screams. He is under. Oh, Jesus Christ, he is under! He is under those wheels. We run over. He lies there beside the tracks. He is cut to ribbons. Where his right arm and leg were, there are only two red gashes. The blood spurts out of the stumps. It oozes to the ground and makes a pool in the cinders.’

They drag him away from the tracks and the kid has a sheepish grin on his face. ‘It hurts his pride to have a drag throw him.’ Kromer offers the kid a cigarette, leaning over so that the boy doesn't see that his limbs are missing. He just tells Kromer that his arm feels numb and tingly. ‘That old drag was balling the jack. I must have bumped it pretty hard.’ 

     ‘I watch him. I am sick all over. I am watching a kid die. It is hard enough to watch anybody die. I even hate to watch an old stiff die, even when I know he is better off dead. But a kid is different. You kind of expect a kid to live instead of die. 
     There is no color in his face now. All the color is on the ground mixed with the cinders. He closes his eyes. The cigarette drops out of his mouth. He quivers. Just a quiver like he is cold. That is all. He is gone. I unfold a newspaper and cover up his face.
     We sit there in the dark and look at each other.’ 

On Hunger 4—and Homosexuality

Although it was of course natural that homosexuality would form as natural a part of tramp life as it does any non-celibate culture, the only previous reference I have encountered to homosexuality among tramps is an obscure essay by Josiah Flynt in Havelock Ellis's Studies in the Psychology of Sex (Vol 2), titled 'Homosexuality among Tramps' (1927); and even then, the essay had a negative focus on the habit of certain older tramps to prey on young runaways or 'road kids'. Tom Kromer's auto-biographical references to homosexuality among tramps is an essay on the mutually exploitative relationship between certain gay men with money and straight guys 'on the fritz' desperate for money. 

Considering the taboos and retributions around homosexuality that existed at the time, the notable feature of Chapter 4 of Waiting for Nothing is the remarkable manner in which the author candidly places himself at the centre of a narrative that he must have calculated would scandalise the reading public of the time (see note on censorship below). Either that, or Tom Kromer had no expectations of his writing ever being published, in which case, equal tribute is due the press for having the courage to publish Kromer's raw and uncompromising work. The following passage sets the scene and the modus operandi—incorporating slang terms for homosexuals that I had assumed had a much more recent provenance:

     'He lays his hand across my leg. I must not jerk my leg away. He is feeling me out. If I jerk my leg away, he will see that he is not going to make me. This queer will not put out for a meal until he sees that I am a good risk. I leave my knee where it is. These pansies give me the willies, but I have got to get myself a feed. I have not had decent feed for a week.' 

The game continues not only with the guy testing Kromer out, but Kromer trying to improve his own chances of a score by playing the virgin; well as far as making it with another guy is concerned. Kromer's pursuer is a well heeled and well known local queen; plucked eyebrows, rouge, lipstick, the works. She invites Kromer to come back to her place later with the additional lures of a hot bath and some fresh clothes. Another stiff is curious to know if Kromer got a result:

     "Mrs Carter," he says. "I see you out talkin' to her in the park."
     "So her name is Mrs Carter?" I say. "Sure, I made her for four bits. I got a date for tonight."
     "You better fill it. She's in the dough. Lousy with it."
     "Any strings on her?"
     "Not know. She was livin' with a stiff she picked up off the street, but Geraldine, that big red-headed guy with the scarred face, took him away from her." 


     "You are a lucky stiff making Mrs Carter. There are plenty of stiffs in this town would give their eye teeth to make Mrs Carter."
     "Where does she hang out?"
     "She lives up on the Avenue with the swells. The joint she lives in is lousy with queers, and what is more, they are lousy with jack. Mrs Carter rooms with a cashier of a bank.".
     "He queer, too? I say."
     "Sure, she's queer," he says, "but you will not have a chance with her. Mrs. Carter would cut your throat if you tried to pull the wool over her eyes. She is a tough customer. She says she will scratch Geraldine's eyes out does she get the chance. My advice is stick to Mrs. Carter."

When his date meets up with him in the park that evening, Kromer has to submit to the jealous scowls of the other stiffs in the park: 'We walk down the street. We are going to this fairy's room. It is misery for me on walk down street with this queer. People stop in their tracks and watch her wiggle.' (p. 66) On entering Mrs. Carter's apartment, Kromer is confronted by a spectacle that could not be of greater contrast to his life on the fritz. He describes a room like that of a palace. Black satin drapes hanging in folds from ceiling to floor, a glass chandelier hanging from bronze chains with links 'as big around as my wrist’. His soleless, shabby shoes sink into a thick pile rug, and on a sky-blue lounge is sprawled Gloria, Mrs Carter's room mate, in a peach negligee edged in gold, legs shaved and sporting a single silver ankle bracelet with a pink cameo the size of an egg: ' "Have a good date, deary?" He says without looking up from his book.' 

The chapter concludes with the inevitable invitation to the bedroom and the following observations from Kromer:

     'I will have to go to bed sometime. This queer will stay awake until I do go to bed. What the hell? A guy has got to eat, and what is more he has to flop.
     "Sure," I say' "I am ready for the hay."
     You can always depend on a stiff having to pay for what he gets. I pull off my clothes and crawl into bed.' 

From this interlude Kromer takes the following simple wisdom: 'This is a funny world, and there are a lot of funny people in it. That is one thing I have learned since I've been on the road.' 

Note on censorship

An interesting anecdote concerning Chapter 4 of Waiting for Nothing concerns the first English edition by Constable & Company (1935). The publisher was clearly under some pressure to remove the chapter from the book immediately prior to publication. But because the book had already been typeset and printed, but not bound, the publisher decided to replace the gap between chapters 3 and 5 with eight blue pages which included an unusual confession (avoiding any direct reference to homosexuality) titled, ‘Why Chapter IV is missing from Waiting for Nothing’ (the chapter was reintroduced in a later edition). Part of the publishers embarrassing apology for removing the chapter, hinting that he made the edit under duress, ends as follows:

Naturally our adviser had taken note that this chapter, which described a particularly terrible experience of Kromer's, was unusually outspoken for an English book. We read the chapter carefully and felt that an obvious narrative of fact like Waiting for Nothing was on a totally different basis from a novel; that this thing had happened to the man who said it had happened; and that only if the truth be told about the horrors to which helpless vagrants are exposed, is there any hope of such things being remedied. Now, however, an experienced member of the book trade had sent us a warning; and we must decide whether, under existing conditions in this country, a true incident which could be publicly described in America was one which might not be publicly described in England.
     A Publisher faced with this decision has no one to whom he can apply for help, no standard by which he can judge what is fit and proper to print or what, being deemed unfit and improper, will cause him to be prosecuted. He "knows the law/' as every citizen is supposed to do. But he has no idea how the law may be interpreted, and no means of finding out. . . .
     … We have cut out Chapter IV entirely—cut it out with reluctance and with shame, merely consoling ourselves with the thought that fortunately the continuity of the book is in no way affected. Were we wrong to cut it out? No one can possibly say. Would we have been guilty of corrupting youth had we left it in? Once again, no one—in advance—has the smallest idea. That is how things are in England these days; and that is why Waiting for Nothing appears in England in an emasculated form.

                                                                                                     CONSTABLE & CO LTD.

The Doughnut Scam

One of the lighter aspects of Waiting for Nothing, are Kromer’s descriptions of the many scams employed by hoboes either to acquire food or the price of a meal, or to hang on to what they’ve got. In the following story Kromer asks a stiff why he walks around with a role of chicken wire under his arm. “The coppers,” the stiff tells him. “What do coppers have to do with chicken wire?” Kromer asks. The stiff asks Kromer how he walks to avoid getting stopped by the cops and frisked for any change he might be carrying. Kromer replies that it’s obvious, you go as fast as you can, if you don’t go fast the cops will stop and frisk you. But the chicken wire stiff offers an alternative logic:

     “But I don’t walk fast on the main stem or anywhere else, and the coppers don’t bother me.”
     “They don't bother you?” I say.
     “They do not,” he says. “They don't think I'm a stiff. What would a stiff be doin’ with a roll of chicken wire under his arm?”
     “You’re a smart stiff,” I say. “I have never tried that.
     “It’s just as easy to be a smart stiff as a dumb stiff,” he says. “All coppers are dumb. A smart stiff will fool a copper every time.”

Earlier the stiff had asked Kromer what he would do if he had a ten cent piece, and Kromer replied that he would buy himself coffee and sinkers (a doughnut to dunk in the coffee). That is why you continue eating slop, the stiff replies. Impressed by the chicken wire stunt, Kromer now asks the stiff how he would use the ten cent piece. His scam is predicated on his knowledge that while most men are hard-hearted, women ‘do not like to see a hungry stiff starve to death.’ The stiff buys two doughnuts and walks down the street to where a group of women are waiting for a street-car. He lets the first street-car go by, then carefully plants the doughnut on the ground in site of where the women would have been. The he backs off and waits for another group of women to assemble for the next street-car. When his intended victims are in place, the stiff makes his move:

     ‘He stops across the street and let’s his eye fall on this doughnut on the curb. It is a picture sitting there. I expect to see him make a dive for it but he does not. … He just stands there and watches it. These women see him looking. I can see they are thinking why will a guy stand on the street and watch a doughnut? He walks on by and stops a little ways up the street. Pretty soon he comes back. He walks far over to the curb and snatches it up on the fly. He hits it over behind a telephone pole. By the way he acts, you would think this was the first doughnut this stiff had ever snatched of the curb. You would not think this guy has been pulling this gag for years. He downs this doughnut almost whole. It looks as though this stiff is plenty starved. You would think he has not eaten for a month of Sundays. That is what these woman think. That is what he wants them to think.’ 

First one woman approaches the tramp taking some change out of her purse. He shakes his head in refusal but holds out his hand for the money anyway; adding to the theatre by giving the impression that his pride is hurt. Kromer is intrigued and notes, ‘this guy will never need to swill slop in a mission.’ 

     ‘Four or five of these women fish around in their pocketbooks and walk over to this stiff who hides behind the post. This is real money. This is not chicken-feed that this guy is taking in. One of these women shells out a buck. I can see the green of it from across the street. If I had the guts. … You just dive down on a doughnut, and these women do the rest.’ 

Kromer catches up with the other stiff later and complements him on his performance. The profit from this one doughnut alone was two dollars sixty cents. Sitting down later enjoying a meal with his new found friend on the proceeds, Kromer is chastised for his own lack of resourcefulness: ‘Any stiff that eats mission slop ought to have his fanny kicked. There is too many doughnuts in this world for a stiff to eat mission slop.’ (p. 133) But Kromer has to admit to himself that although he has the brains and imagination to work such a scam, as with his other failed enterprises, he simply cannot do it. He just simply cannot summon up ‘the guts’.

On Beating Trains and Rats

I have acknowledged that Kromer was more a tramp of circumstances than he was a tramp of desire, but in two chapters of the book he describes the same terror detailed elsewhere on this site by those Victorian tramp philosophers who engaged in freight-hopping as a means to satisfy their wanderlust and craving for adventure—although in their case the terror was often mixed with a sense of exhilaration. Read for instance Bart Kennedy’s demoniacal ride perched on the cow-catcher at the front of an engine, and Jack London outsmarting the bulls on a Canadian-Pacific cross-country epic in the chapter 'Holding Her Down' from The Road

Chapter 9 opens with Kromer crouched in the doorway of the blind baggage car of a passenger train. We are not told how, where or why he boarded the train. He perches there for 5 hours, legs dangling beneath the car, blown this way and that by the freezing wind. But he cannot feel his swinging legs because they are numb with cold. He wonders how he will even get off the train if it slows down, as his legs would be unable to support him. He curses getting on the train in the first place.

Like others who have travelled in this manner before him, sparks from the engine burn his back and neck. He tries every means to prevent falling asleep, as this would result in certain death, jerking himself awake when he feels himself doze:

     “You damn fool … you can’t go to sleep here. You will fall under those wheels that sing beneath you. Those wheels would make quick work of you, all right. Those wheels would make mincemeat of you. You would not be cold any more.” 

Kromer starts to sing. Yelling at the top of his voice to hear himself above the roar of the wind and the wheels. He can feel himself falling asleep and wonders if this is what it’s like to freeze to death; ‘I know that a stiff is better of dead, but I don't want to fall under those wheels.’ He knows that he is drifting off to sleep, he sticks his head sideways for the wind to blast his face, tear away his tears, and keep him awake. All of a sudden he feels the brakes of the train hit and grabs at the sides of his perch with fingers that have lost all feeling. They slip but then hold. The train slackens speed and then he sees the lights of a town and knows that he must find a way to leave the train; ‘I laugh like a crazy man when I see that this drag is going to stop.’ 

When the train starts pulling to a stop to take on water, Kromer knows that the jerk of the stop could still throw him under the wheels. He has to get off before the train starts on its way again but is fearful that his frozen legs will not support him. 

     ‘I try to move them. I can move them. I can see them move. But I feel nothing when they move. I pull myself to my feet. I am standing, but I cannot feel the car beneath my feet. I reach out over the side of this car and grab the ladder. I climb down. I hold with one hand and guide my legs with the other, but I climb down. I stop at this last step. It is a long way to the ground for my frozen feet. I jump. I fall face-down in the cinders at the side of the track. This drag whistles the high ball. She pulls out. I lie there in the cinders with my bleeding face and watch the coaches go by. I lie here in the cinders with my frozen legs that have no feeling in them. I shiver as I think of that blind baggage with the roar of the wheels and the sound of the wind underneath. I push my fists into the ground and get to my feet. I grimace at the pain that shoots through my legs, but I grit my teeth and walk.’ 

On entering a nearby cafe, the guy behind the counter backs away in fear at the spectacle of Kromer, one eye on the till. So Kromer glances at a wall mirror: ‘I do not blame this guy for being scared. What I see scares me, too. My face is black as the ace of spades. It is smeared with blood from the cuts of the cinders as they scraped my face.’ But, even though he begs nicely, he he is thrown out without the much needed cup of coffee. He goes in search of the town bull and begs to be locked up in jail for the night. But he is even denied that privilege and is chased out of town with threats of harm if he comes back. 

On the way out of town Kromer spies the lights of a shack in a pecan grove. He knocks on the door to beg for food and shelter but is greeted by an evangelistic psycho, “Son, do you believe in Christ?” Kromer is given no food but is led to a barn and buried up to his neck in pecans and given a burlap sack to put over his head to fend of the rats. Whereas on the train he could not keep his eyes open, now he is unable to keep them closed. He contemplates his lot in tragi-comic style:

     ‘Here I am covered with pecans. Before I went on the fritz, I was lying nights in a feather bed. I thought I was hard up then. I had a decent front. I had three hots [meal] and a flop [bed]. Can you imagine a guy thinking he is hard up when he has his three hots and a flop? That was two years ago, but two years are ten years when you are on the fritz. I look ten years older now. I looked like a young punk then. I was a young punk. I had some colour in my cheeks. I have hit the skids since then. This is as low down as a guy can get, being down in a hole with pecans on top of him for covers.’ 

Kromer has had a fear of rats since waking up one day in a hobo jungle with two on his face. He has nightmares of rats as big as cats sitting on his face and gnawing at his nose and eyes. Another rat anecdote is related in Chapter 11 where Kromer protects himself from the creatures in a hobo jungle:

     ‘These are no ordinary rats. They are big rats. But I am too smart for these rats. I have me a big piece of canvas. This is not to keep me warm. It is to keep these rats from biting a chunk out of my nose when I sleep. But it does not keep out the sound and the feel of them as they sprawl all over you. A good-sized rat tramps hard. You can feel their weight as they press on top of you. You can hear them sniffing as they try to get in. But when I pull my canvas up around my head, they cannot get into me.’ 

But to return to the shed where we left our hero up to his neck in rat feed; in spite of not wanting to offend the religious freak who offered him his pecan bed for the night, Kromer now extricates himself from the hole and high-tails it down the road. He heads for the railroad yard and finds himself an empty wagon in which to spend the rest of the night, but shortly after turning-in he is awakened by a sickly feeling that makes the hairs on the back of his neck stand out. The last six pages of this chapter describe the nightmare that follows with Kromer, in spite of his severely weakened condition, having to defend his life against a crazy guy with a knife determined to murder him.


In Chapter 10 we learn more of the hazards of jumping trains. Kromer is one of several hoboes in a rail siding waiting to board the next train through. But the next drag is an express and the more seasoned hoboes slink back to the jungle knowing that this one is too hot to risk. The younger, more reckless hoboes hang on to wait for the train to pass through. ‘I can see that a guy can’t make this one. … The roar she makes as she crashes over the rails, and the sparks that shoot from her stacks, tell me she is just too fast. A stiff is foolish to even think about nailing this one.’ 

But first one, and then another, do try to make the train. The first one dives for the steps at the front of the carriage, it jerks his arm, spins and slams him against the car, but he hangs on and makes it. The second guy, less confident than the first, is likewise slammed against the car but then thrown head first into the cinders of the ditch at the side of the track; ‘Christ, but there’s a stiff that’s dead or skinned alive.’ Kromer does not have much time to make up his mind. ‘I’ve waited all night in the cold to make this drag, and I am going to make it. That first stiff made it. … I’ve nailed as many drags as the next stiff.’ Kromer makes sure he nails the step at the from end of the car. If he goes for the rear end and misses, he could be thrown between the carriages.

     ‘I judge my distance. I start running along this track. I hold my hands up to the sides of these cars. They brush my fingers as they fly by. I feel this step hit my fingers, and dive. Christ, but I am lucky. My fingers get a hold of it. I grab it as tight as I can. I know what is coming. I slam against the side of the car. I think my arms will be jerked out of their sockets. My ribs feel like they are smashed, they ache so much. I hang on. I made it. I am bruised and sore, but I made it. I climb to the tops. The wind rushes by and cools the sweat on my face. I cannot believe I made this drag, she is high-balling it down the tracks so fast.’ 

Kromer spends two hours lying atop the car before he can disembark, stiff as a board from pressing down onto the frost covered roof to protect himself from the relentless and freezing wind. He then he finds a car already occupied by ten other stiffs and jumps in before the train sets off again. There is a comical scene where the hoboes set fire to a heap of tar paper on the floor of the carriage which they feed with wood the stiffs manage to carve from the beams of the car with their knives, all the while huddling round the fire to keep warm. Black smoke fills the car but they keep the door shut to avoid attracting the shacks (rail police), putting up with the smoke to keep warm. Kromer describes pulling off first one sock and then the other to try and warm his feet on the fire before retiring exhausted to a corner of the car. In this case, smoke inhalation was the only outcome of the fire. Read Jim Tully’s account of a similar fire in a box car that burns through the floor of the carriage and has flames licking up the sides before the occupants are able to escape. 

When the train pulls up to take on water, the door slides open. It is not the shacks. Two mean looking stiffs climb into the car carrying flashlights and proceed to hold up the rest of the car’s occupants at gunpoint. 

     ‘We know what this is. We know what we are in for. These stiffs are a couple of hi-jackers. This is a hold-up. I have got my opinion of any stiff who will hold up another stiff and take his chicken feed away from him. Any guy who will do that is a low-livered bastard. I do not say that out loud, though—not with those gats pointed at us like that.’ 

One by one, hands held high in the air, the stiffs are called up from the back of the carriage to hand over their meagre possessions. ‘These are two of the toughest-looking mugs I have seen in a long time. One of them frisks this red-headed guy while the other one keeps us covered with the gat and flashes the light on us.’ These guys are pros, not only do they go through the stiff’s pockets but they go through the sweatbands on their hats and the linings of their coats. The first guy says he only has chicken-feed and he’s right, but pinned to the lining of the next stiffs coat is five dollars, and, as Kromer observes, ‘he has been bumming smoking of the rest of these stiffs. A tight stiff like that deserves to lose his dough.’ He gets smashed in the face with the butt of a pistol for trying to hold out on the hi-jackers. 

Eventually it’s Kromer’s turn to step forward. He owns up to having four bits in his pocket and they find nothing more in his clothes. “Where are you hidin’ your dough? Come clean or you will get what that other stiff got.” … “Four bits is all I'm holding. You’ve already got all the dough I’m holding.” Kromer is sent back to the group feeling smug. He has hidden two dollars under a bandage on his arm smeared over with iodine. ‘It looks like I got a plenty sore arm. But there is nothing the matter with my arm.’ 

On Hunger 5

Chapter 11 opens in a hobo jungle strewn with tin cans and broken bottles. Between the piles of garbage are fires with folk huddled round for warmth; on this occasion including women and children:

     ‘A man and a woman huddle by the fire to our right. A baby gasp’s in the woman’s arms. It has the croup. It coughs until it is black in the face. The woman is scared. She pounds it on its back. It catches its breath for a little while, but that is all. You cannot cure a baby of the croup by pounding its back with your hand.’ 

The child’s father, shoulders hunched, paces up and down between the piles of garbage:

     ‘You can tell what a stiff is thinking when you see that look on his face. He is thinking he wishes to Jesus Christ that he could get his hands on a gat. But he will not get his hands on a gat. A gat costs money. He has no money. He is a lousy stiff. He will never have any money.’ 

Kromer deduces the following from the hobo tableau confronting him:

     ‘Where are they going? I do not know. They do not know. He hunts for work, and he is a damn fool. There is no work. He cannot leave his wife and kids to starve to death alone, so he brings them with him. Now he can watch them starve to death


     When I look at these stiffs by the fire, I am looking at a graveyard. There is hardly room to move between the tombstones. There are no epitaphs carved in marble here. The tombstones are men. The epitaphs are chiselled in sunken shadows on their cheeks. These are dead men. They are ghosts that walk the streets by day. They are ghosts sleeping with yesterday’s newspapers thrown around them for cover at night.’ 

Afterword—thoughts from the bunk of a mission flop

     ‘I try to think back over the years that I have lived. But I cannot think of years anymore. I can only think of the drags I have rode, of the bulls that have sapped up on me, and the mission slop I have swilled. People I have known, I remember no more. They are gone. They are out of my life.I  cannot remember them at all. Even my family, my mother, is dimmed by the strings of drags with their strings of cars that are always with me in my mind through the long, cold nights. Whatever is gone before is gone. I lie here and I think, and I know whatever is before is the same as that which is gone. My life is spent before it is started.’

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