"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

A re-edited version of the original post is now published in 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.’


Full story now available in 

                              The Lives and Extraordinary Adventures of Fifteen

On Hunger 

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.’ 

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.’ 

On Beating Trains

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

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.’

Full story now available in The Lives and Extraordinary Adventures of Fifteen Tramp Writers from the Golden Age of Vagabondage

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