Bread Line


FEW readers are likely to have any first-hand knowledge of the people or conditions I am about to describe. My intention is simply to tell about my adventures and mental reactions in a topsy-turvy land, where men took their meals standing up, put on clothes when going to bed, smoked the tobacco you threw away, labored for less than a pittance, and sometimes existed without any income or outgo.

A wet and cold day in December 1931, I was an active member of the bread line on Ritch Street in San Francisco. The line ahead of me was two thousand strong, and I knew by bitter experience that it would be at least two hours before I could dip into a bowl of waterlogged stew. I was ravenously hungry, friendless, homeless, and far removed from the possibilities of obtaining a job.

It was four o’clock in the morning, and still pitch-dark, when our advance guard appeared and took up its position six abreast outside the municipal kitchen. The more thoughtful carried boxes to sit upon, or spread newspapers on the sidewalk for the same purpose, and promptly went to sleep. By six o’clock, when the actual feeding started, the line had reached as far as Folsom Street, and every moment brought its quota of semi-starved, shabby, despairing men. In the meantime a second, smaller line was forming, hugging the kitchen wall. This was the dreadful ‘Lost Battalion.’ To be eligible there a man had to be of extreme age, — that is, obviously senile,—or else blind, badly crippled, partly paralyzed, or feeble-minded.

At last, after hours of nervous shuffling on the sidewalk, it was my turn to enter the kitchen. From the counter I grabbed a bowl of mush without milk or sugar and a tin cup of coffee likewise without any sweetening. One attendant handed out a spoon, while another tossed two slices of bread in the mush, or, if he happened to be a poor marksman, on the floor. Everybody except the badly crippled men, who were furnished benches to sit upon, ate standing up, resting the dishes on narrow boards about five feet from the floor. After a short time the concrete floor became mired with an inch-deep film of spilled mush and coffee. The air was indescribably foul — clammy with vapors from the huge steam cookers, plus the thousand and one stenches of unwashed bodies, dirty clothing, and wet brogans.

I always ended breakfast cursing under my breath, determined never to return, but when it was time for the afternoon handout this twentiethcentury inferno found me waiting outside, tail wagging, heart aflutter, anxious to put up with anything, be it ever so filthy and meagre.

Well, out on the street again, the fresh air and a pipeful of ‘sniped’ tobacco jacked up my spirit. It was eight o’clock and time to go to work. In those days I started out convinced that sometime and somewhere a job was bound to turn up. I was then still on the sunny side of forty, my clothes were in good condition, and my appearance on the whole did not indicate that society and I were not on speaking terms. I used to ‘work’ one street a day. First the even numbers, and later, returning, the odd ones. Factories, warehouses, retail houses, stores, and restaurants — wherever a man was likely to be needed, I was present. With hat in hand and lips twisted into what I hoped resembled an engaging smile, I spoke my little piece, affecting a gruff, cheerful heartiness. ‘We ain’t takin’ on. When we’re doin’ anything at all, we’re layin’ off,’ grumbled elderly shop bosses not unkindly. ‘Sorry, buddy,’ or, ‘Can’t you read signs?’ were other standard signing-off signals.

After a forenoon of such proceedings even the most glorious day was apt to turn dreary. Usually I kept doggedly on, until it was time to join the bread line for the day’s second and last meal, served between two and four in the afternoon. The crowd would be swollen to twice the size of the morning line-up, the men doubly restless and sullen after the day’s disappointments or inactivities. The slightest remark led to endless arguments or fist fights. Several policemen were kept busy averting trouble while herding the men like a flock of sheep. Two hours of snail-pacing the slimy sidewalk brought a bowl of soup, two slices of bread, a mug of coffee, and fourteen long hours to live through before the mush would again be doled out.

The day’s tribulations were not over, however. If one wished to spend the night under a roof, another line-up had to be faced. ‘Sally’ (the Salvation Army) issued bed tickets at its post on Harrison Street at 5 P. M. This time it paid to be well ahead in the line. Half an hour later an officer representing the Army arrived, carrying the bed tickets and the Holy Writ under his arm. He mounted a platform, scanned the ragged multitude, rubbed his pink, well-cared-for hands, and delivered a blustering sermon on our pitiful plight. As a conclusion he admonished us to include proper thanks in our evening prayers for the cozy and comfortable bunks we were to occupy.

The flophouse itself was on Ninth Street, in a two-story building shortly before vacated by the San Francisco News. The ground floor was reasonably well heated, but the second floor, a big, barnlike hall, was a veritable icebox. If a lodger could n’t squeeze into the bottom floor, he might as well spend the night walking the streets. Therefore, as soon as the bed tickets wore given out, a weird Marathon race took place. The distance was five blocks, and the swiftest bums had the pick of the place. The inhabitants of the neighborhood took great interest in the spectacle; small boys rooted and the sporting elements placed bets on long-legged individuals.

The first to arrive found brokendown, rusty iron cots. The problem of furnishing bedclothes to so many guests was solved in a surprisingly ingenious way. A rubber mat did the combined duties of mattress, sheets, blankets, and pillow. Undressing was, of course, out of the question. The fashion plates put on all the sweaters and overcoats they had taken off during the race, the remaining poorly dressed majority produced newspapers, which they tied with strings around their chests. If I ventured to take off my shoes, I had to stay awake guarding them, or some poor devil, prowling around after the lights had gone out, his own footgear worn to shreds, would be certain to confiscate them. After a while I used them as a pillow, securing them by tying the laces around my neck.

In less than fifteen minutes the shelter was filled to capacity. Hundreds of men were turned away and forced to sleep in boxcars, doorways, empty packing cases, or else to pound the pavement. At nine o’clock the lights went out, and the stage for the nightly bedlam was set. I am sure that no menagerie could match the queer, startling noises that emanated from that hellhole. We all had chronic colds, many of us had tuberculosis, and coughed and sneezed accordingly. When we did n’t cough and sneeze, we spat and cursed. When we did n’t spit and curse, we groaned and tossed. When we did n’t groan and toss, we dozed and snored. When we did n’t doze and snore, it was morning and time to get up. The young boys often cried and sobbed in their sleep. And a flophouse without nightmares would be a tame flophouse indeed. We could usually count on somebody to throw an epileptic fit as a topping off of the cacophony. Then the neighbors had to kneel on the howling victim’s chest to prevent him from rolling off the bunk, and poke a fist wrapped in a dirty handkerchief in his mouth, so he would n’t bite his tongue in half. There were cases when old men emitted extraordinarily startling, unearthly sounds. As a kind of silent respect, nobody slept in the dead man’s bed the next night.

At three o’clock in the morning the snipe-hunters (collectors of cigarette and cigar butts) left for the daily nicotine tallyho. Shortly afterward almost everybody started stirring about. A new day had begun, but yesterday’s unsolved, excruciating problems could be felt hovering about, like fleas waiting for a newly washed pup to dry.


Christmas was only a week off when my freshman days in the bread line came to an abrupt end. Escape came in the form of a notice posted in the municipal kitchen, calling for men willing to work in a road gang. Wages were to consist of board and lodging, overalls, shoes, and tobacco. Swallowing my tarnished pride, unaccountably bobbing up for a moment, I put down my name.

It was a motley crew, one hundred and twenty-five all told, that embarked on a Western Pacific ferryboat on December 20, 1931. The rain soaked us to the skin during the long hike to the ferry building. Most of us brought our belongings tied up in parcels. A few aristocrats sported cardboard suitcases fortified with strings, and one sad-eyed gent dressed in tuxedo and beaded moccasins clung to a gilded cage containing a wet, thoroughly disgusted cockatoo. The regular commuters gave us a wide berth, no doubt wondering what made the slums erupt this particular morning. We paid scant attention to the slights. Two hundred miles inland, Utopia, complete with bunkhouses and chuck, awaited us. What more could hungry, homeless wanderers desire? The journey was uneventful. At dusk, after passing Oroville, the rain turned into snow, and late in the evening we reached our goal, an abandoned convict camp in the wilds of Plumas County, close to Feather River.

We were hard cases, not at all given to ohing and ahing over mere scenery, but I honestly believe that most of us at that moment felt something vague and undefinable trying to play havoc with emotions bruised by misfortune and soiled in the gutter. The stillness of the night and the tinkling, metallic sounds from the swift-running river, the mountainsides covered with unsullied snow, rising from under our very feet, the inviting lights and the smoke from the camp in the distance, took our breath away, and made us suspect that beauty and peace were still intact in this obscure haven.

We arrived at the camp after crossing a crazily swinging suspension bridge that held but a couple of us at a time, and were counted off, eighteen men to a bunkhouse. Shivering with anticipation, we opened the door to our new home. The weary pilgrims had found their Mecca at last. On a gleaming, white-scrubbed floor rested cots covered with mattresses made of gunnysacks, indecently pot-bellied with straw. Two luxurious horse blankets, a pillow, and a large flour sack neatly cut in half, to be used as a face or bath towel, completed the individual, positively sybaritic sleeping outfit. Empty boxes doing duty as easy-chairs, and a packing case transformed into a lounge table, gave the bunkhouse a clublike atmosphere. Stunned with pleasant surprise, we gathered around the crackling, red-hot stove in silence.

The exhilarating sound coming from a ladle brought into contact with a dishpan restored us to the realities of life. Reverently we steered our course to the cookhouse. The supper was served table d’hôte and consisted of huge slabs of fried meat and potatoes browned in delicious grease, country gravy in boats loaded to the gunwales, margarine, white bread, dark bread, and sour-dough biscuits, string beans swimming in a rare green liquid, steaming black coffee, and apple pie with a heavenly white, immensely filling crust. Flunkies in questionable undershirts, and girdled with dish towels but slightly used, stood poised, ready to replenish emptied dishes. Seemingly a fellow was allowed to eat for hours with nobody to grumble about it.

Later, stretched out on the rustling, barnyard-scented straw, inhaling the bracing mountain air that crept in through the inch-wide cracks in the walls and listening to the contented snores reverberating from seventeen wide-open mouths, I felt almost happy.

The day’s road work ended at four o’clock in the afternoon. After an hour-long hike back to the camp, we cleaned up a bit and assembled outside the cookhouse waiting for the main event, dinner. Ahead of us were the best hours of the day. Squatting on the ground, enjoying a pleasantly tingling, tired feeling, hard outdoor manual labor’s only reward, we were tempted to reconsider the old cloud and silver-lining fraud. The hot, substantial dinner added to our well-being, and shunted troubles and cares into the background for a while. Later in the bunkhouse, as we sat around the roaring, cheerful stove, nursing our clay and corncob pipes, the nightly chin-wagging took place.

Men of contrasting ages and types made up the crowd in my bunkhouse. The youngest was a boy from Nevada, eighteen years of age on paper, fourteen when pressed; the oldest, the ‘bull cook’ (caretaker of the bunkhouse), was an Irishman born in the old country eighty-one years ago. The average age must have been around forty. The majority were common itinerant workingmen, but in the group were included a sea captain, a couple of salesmen, and a chiromancer. The latter was treated with much consideration and respectfully referred to as ‘the bogeyman.’ All the topics we could think of, from the Monroe Doctrine to the proper treatment of chilblains, were open to discussion. Opinions about the political situation were unanimous — rotten. Religion never was brought up — not because we were lacking in opinions, but because the bull cook and another old fellow were seemingly sincere believers, and nobody wished to be impolite. Consideration for the next man’s feeling was an unwritten law among us.

Most popular were the simple folk tales, gathered in grading camps, jungles, side-door Pullmans, forecastles, and squad rooms. Many were of the Boccaccio type, plus the coarser tidbits of James Joyce’s vocabulary, but lewdness for lewdness’ sake was practically absent. Literature we had none, until somebody, while cleaning out the firstaid shack, found a box crammed with the complete works of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Louisa Alcott, volumes a few adventurous souls delved into with uneasy minds. When we tired of swapping stories, sticky decks of cards and homemade chess and checker sets appeared. Poker prevailed, matches taking the place of money, but the bogeyman and the two salesmen were bridge fiends constantly on the lookout for a fourth. In due time I became quite an expert at contract bridge.

Once, when a snowstorm gave us an unexpected holiday, we began playing at six o’clock in the morning and kept on, with intermissions only for meals, until past midnight. The slakes were a sack of Bull Durham tobacco a thousand points, which made us reckless plungers, considering the fact that our weekly individual tobacco allowance was only two sacks. Ending up sole winner with eleven sacks to the good, I was put in a class apart, not only as a bridge player, but as a man of considerable means as well.

Our contact with the outside world was limited. Although the railroad station across the river did not pretend to be more than a flag stop, it figured in our restricted lives as ‘the town.’ Sometimes in the evening we strolled down the main street and wistfully took in the sights. The hamlet was made up of hardly more than a dozen cabins and shacks, but as a contrast to the bunkhouses it seemed an enchanted cosmopolis full of lurid entertainments and exciting vices, which only our chronic poverty barred us from indulging in. The windows of the Emporium (post office and general store) displayed tailor-made cigarettes, fancy woolen underwear and exquisitely checkered Hollywood suits, pocketknives, dollar watches, Deadwood Dick thrillers, the Police Gazette, Copenhagen snuff, and canned pineapple — in fact, anything a normal, healthy man could fancy, but belonging to another world that refused to have any truck with him.

Everybody knew our financial predicament. The town bootlegger never edged up to us and murmured about the real stuff. If we visited ‘Monte Carlo ’ (two poker tables, a rickety pool table, and a number of slot machines in various stages of crookedness) depressed silence greeted us instead of the customary shouts of ‘Have a seat, gents. Jacks or better opens! ’ Worried mothers snatched their offspring from our path in a manner suggesting that the hordes of Attila himself were on a rampage. The ragged and incredible old prospectors living on beans and bacon grease, and the Mexican section hands earning twenty cents an hour, had nothing but contempt for us and made no strenuous efforts to conceal it. In the grimy little community we were mud hens not worth aiming at.

We trudged back to our stronghold in silence, turning over in tormented minds the impressions of the evening and the slights, real or imaginary, we had received. The majority of us had no illusions left. We were forced to eat crow to-day, but nobody could make us like it. Some day we would make the very people then lording it over us sit up and take notice.

Back in camp we soon calmed down. After all, a fellow could n’t feel hateful while darning socks with a playful pup in his lap. And besides, to-morrow was Saturday, and Saturday was hot-cake day; and the day after was Sunday, and on Sundays we could sleep till seven o’clock.

The convicts who had formerly occupied our camp were now stationed five or six miles up the river. Working only a few hundred yards from us on the same road, they had many opportunities to speak to us. Although it was against prison rules to fraternize with outsiders, their guards, easygoing and lazy, seldom stopped our social chatter. The convicts were ‘short-timers’ with good prison records. Dressed in neat and clean working clothes and shoes, freshly shaved and with hair recently cut, they made a very favorable impression compared with us tatterdemalions. They were paid a small daily wage, and when their term ended could start anew with a little money saved, a new suit of clothes, and the obligatory ten-dollar-bill in the bargain. We did exactly the same kind of labor, but so far as we knew no pecuniary reward whatsoever was in sight. They also enjoyed the radio and the daily newspapers, things that were wholly lacking in our drab lives. No wonder we felt inferior! The convicts tried to do us a good turn as often as they could. They went slumming and handed out tobacco, razor blades, and candy, which they were permitted to purchase if they had any private means. Seemingly many of them had plenty of money salted away somewhere.

The first of May, at three o’clock in the morning, foremen went through the bunkhouses shouting, ‘Roll up and roll out! The Skidroad Special is due at seven.’ Although we were an outspoken lot, with a surplus of nasty epithets itching to be put to use at the slightest provocation, we felt instinctively the futility of verbal arguments. Hobnailed boots, empty powder boxes, and blocks of firewood gave the intruders black eyes, bleeding noses, and a general rough idea of our hurt feelings. After this Pyrrhic victory, we hurried to the cookhouse for the last decent meal for months to come. We stuffed ourselves to the bursting point and put everything left on the dishes in our pockets. Hot cakes, by now clammy and cold, hard-boiled eggs and fried bacon, bread and margarine, sugar and canned milk, became invaluable. One enterprising fellow with a sweet tooth emptied all the syrup pitchers in a gallon jug, which he slung around his shoulder. The superintendent, ill at ease while trying to do the bouncing in a gracious way, murmured a few pacifying nothings — honest, faithful labor under difficult conditions, good luck and best wishes for the future, many heartfelt thanks, and five dollars as a sadly insufficient, wellmeant reward.

The county officials, anxious to get rid of us, had made arrangements for transportation back to the city. No cushions this time. A freight train had orders to slow down and catch us on the fly. Only a few old men missed it, among them the ancient bull cook from my bunkhouse. Rolling down the steep embankment, face bashed in, snow-white hair streaked with blood, and clutching a tiny parcel, the sole result of so many years’ toil and privation, he disappeared out of my life forever.


In Sacramento the gang broke up. Some of the men went East; quite a number stopped in the Sacramento Valley to look for work. The hardearned five dollars burning in their pockets, others went in pursuit of pleasures long denied. San Francisco was my goal, and I reached it late the next day. Covered with soot and dust, tattered, bewhiskered, and hungry, I went to the cheapest hotel I knew, a small disreputable place on the Embarcadero, frequented by sailors in the penniless condition of most seafaring men just before signing up for a voyage. I had decided not to go near the Skidroad until absolutely forced to. In a pinch the five dollars could be stretched to last two weeks. The budget was not complicated: three dollars for room rent and two dollars for food. A dollarand-a-half room looks pretty good to a labor-camp alumnus. Slightly mussed sheets (guaranteed by the landlady to have been used but once, ‘and by such a nice, sober chap, at that’) on a spring bed with a vacillating stern position, running water always dripping, a chair, a dresser with the drawers missing, and part of a mirror glued to the wallpaper were included in the price. I took my meals in the room twice a day. For breakfast I had kippered herring, tap water, and stale bread. At dinner I simply reversed the bill of fare and enjoyed stale bread, tap water, and kippered herring.

During the daylight hours I roamed all over the city looking for work. Hatless, clad in overalls and heavy, hobnailed boots, peaked and hungrylooking, badly in need of a haircut, I must have been a sight. People did n’t waste promises or interviews when I turned up. With a few exceptions they gave me the cold shoulder or muttered, ‘Nothing doing.’

When the kippered-herring interlude ended I returned to the Skidroad and its charity institutions. Before I could eat and sleep as a guest of the city I had to go through a mild third degree in a recently opened registration bureau for unemployed men. The qualifications were a year’s residence in San Francisco and a solemn declaration that I had no money in the bank and owned no stocks, bonds, or real estate. I received a meal ticket and a bed card good for seven days, after which period they could be renewed. I took my meals in the municipal kitchen on Ritch Street and slept in a flophouse sponsored by the Volunteers of America, 1261 Howard Street, an organization divorced from the Salvation Army and successfully engaged in the secondhand-clothes business with the saving of souls as a side line. Double-decked bunks were installed to accommodate the ever-increasing number of applicants. The bunks were placed so close together that if an occupant moved his arms a bit carelessly he was bound to hit his neighbors, one on each side, in the face. Naturally the place was swarming with vermin of all descriptions.

By the summer of 1932, I looked at least ten years older. My weight under normal conditions is about one hundred and seventy pounds. After four months in the bread line I tipped the scales at one hundred and twenty-five. My ribs protruded like laths, and my lustreless eyes had retreated way back into dark-ringed sockets.

I did n’t beg or ransack the garbage cans; nor did I rob or steal. Instead, I walked about for hours, eyes glued to the sidewalk, looking for lost coins and cigar and cigarette butts. Money I never found; tobacco enough to fill my pipe.

The thought of committing suicide, or deliberately crawling into a hole like a sick animal to die from exposure or starvation, at first entered my mind. Later I saw men die of starvation; I also saw men die of shame and despair. The sights were so ghastly and discouraging that I decided to leave the ways and means of my demise to be handled by Mother Nature exclusively without any amateurish interference from my side. Time showed that my decision was sound. A rugged constitution helped my body to go through the ordeal without any serious consequences. A perverted sense of humor kept the bats away from the swaying, badly undermined belfry.

Most of the attractive things of this world were outside my reach, but I had sense enough left to surmise that a few, still intact and practically unused, could be had for the mere wishing. I lost interest in people and their grubby actions. As a compensation I discovered light and shadows, color nuances, and the noises, smells, and moods of the city, sensed and heard at different hours of the day and under varied conditions. Admiring the spooky contours of an alley cat seen through the swirling West Coast fog, hanging around bookstore windows to absorb the alluring titles and shameless blurbs on the jackets of newly published books, trying to catalogue the stinks of uncovered scavenger trucks, were some of my pastimes.

When very hungry I suffered from hallucinations. Sometimes I found myself in an enormous theatre, seated in the second balcony as a non-paying spectator, ignoring the audience and the strutting hams, and feasting my eyes on colossal coulisses and gilded, smirking cherubs, my nostrils inhaling the aroma of wet galoshes and dusty red plush. My most nerve-racking delusion always took place in a leaking, sinking boat. I bailed for dear life and shouted for help. The shore was jammed with people and rescue material. Indifferently they threw a sieve in my general direction and returned to the stacking of life buoys.

Having no future and an insufferable present, I took refuge in the past. Down the corridor of time I returned to Fort Santiago in Manila, ‘to walk my post in military manner, keeping always on the alert and observing everything within sight and hearing,’ rolled steel in South San Francisco, ‘gandydanced’ in Nevada. I watched the S. S. Thorleif slowly keel over in the lead-colored North Sea, while jovial Germans, pointing in the direction of West Hartlepool two hundred miles away, shouted insinuating Auf Wiedersehens to us frozen devils in the lifeboats. I high-climbed in the woods of Oregon and news-butchered on the Northwestern Pacific. The drudgery and trivial chores of yesteryear were worth recalling.

Many a forenoon I sat on a bench in the ‘Slave Market’ (the State Free Employment Bureau), one of the few places left where we were tolerated, staring glumly at the almost empty, cobwebbed blackboard.

‘Hustlers wanted. Must have cars. Splendid opportunities for live wires. Small investment necessary,’ was a standard item.

What chance had an itching bag of bones like myself, when only men possessing cars and money to invest were wanted? Besides, even if the miracle era returned, I was too feeble and emaciated to do an honest day’s work.

Disgusted, I took an old copy of the New Yorker out of my pocket and started on a trip to the Land of MakeBelieve. Sometimes I dropped in at the Crillon and had guinea hen done on wild rice with a handsome dash of sour-cream sauce gratinée. Turning over a page or two, I spotted an immaculate, tile-lined kitchen and immediately fell to making tipsy angelfood cake and cream puffs by the hundreds. In a humbler mood, three helpings of corned beef and greasy cabbage at Hamburger Joe’s across the street would suffice until my sidekick, who had been swaying dizzily, woke up with a terrific jolt, shivered, scratched himself, and suggested that it must be time ‘to make the White Angel.’

On the waterfront, in a vacant lot among thistles, rubbish, and piles of discarded anchor chains, the White Angel, or ‘Call me Mother Jordan,’ had established an extraordinary colony. Nobody seemed to know where she came from originally. Her dissatisfied customers circulated malicious rumors about her earlier life and personal habits, all without any foundation whatsoever. Personally I found her to be a white-clad woman of great corpulence and charm, fiftyish, a bewildering mixture of Barnum and Jeanne d’Arc, and, especially when angered, endowed with a voice and vocabulary more likely to be encountered among longshoremen than in the spheres her nom de plume brought to mind.

Mrs. Jordan had begun cooking in a washboiler over an open fire for a dozen beachcombers. The smoke from the fresh-air kitchen, mingled with the odors of her culinary art, soon wafted in the direction of the Skidroad, with the net result of a couple of thousand dinner guests. During the summer of 1932 her mulligan salon was crowded to the utmost. She had recruited a staff of jobless cooks, carpenters, painters, and other various handy men. The cooks did the cooking on a large scale, the carpenters knocked together a kitchen and a small village of hovels and shacks for the camp followers. This done, they constructed a boat in the centre of the lot, somewhat resembling Noah’s Ark stranded on Mount Ararat, complete with deckhouses and masts and rigging. On the quarterdeck the White Angel did the preaching and received callers and contributions.

The painters daubed everything on which paint would stick with Biblical scenes, wholesome mottoes, and signs asking well-to-do visitors to ‘Give, give until it hurts.’ A fishpond was dug and stocked with donated goldfish. Bedraggled ducks waddled about, losing their tail feathers in a hopeless flight from dirt, vermin, and hobos. The latter squatted on the ground, boiling lice-infected clothing in gasoline cans, shaving and cutting hair, and generally doing a wholesale beautifying job on each other. A public library, consisting chiefly of Harper’s Bazaar, Delineator, and Vague, provided food for thought. Dealers from the wholesale district dumped crates of decaying vegetables and potatoes outside the kitchen. The White Angel’s scouts went about the city in dilapidated model-T Fords collecting unsalable meat, tripe, and mouldy bread from slaughterhouses and bakeries. The vegetables and meat, together with worm-eaten beans, were dumped into big pots, stirred vigorously, heated sparsely, and served at the daily gala spectacle. Shortly before noon, hundreds of curious spectators arrived for the ‘show.’

As a prologue, Mother Jordan went out among the lazzaroni, and in triumph brought back the most repulsivelooking specimen she could snare. Leading the unhappy, struggling victim by the hand, she boarded the mercy ark. Here Mother knelt and removed the crimson-faced one’s shoes and tenderly bathed his knobby, dusky underpinnings. Thus having proved her desire to sacrifice and serve the lowly, the White Angel read a few lines out of the Scripture, and briskly left the quarterdeck for the more prosaic stewpans. Stepping lively, we paraded by her in two lines, holding out tin cans or rusty, discarded pie plates in which to receive the food. Automatically swinging a ladle in each hand, wisecracking and nodding to some particular friend in the audience, she paid scant attention to us or our makeshift dishes, merely hurling the stew through the air, leaving the problem of catching it up to us. Knife, fork, or spoon was not furnished. We either whittled a little tool like a spade or else dug in with our fingers. Only occasionally could I stomach the eviltasting food. It was good for trading purposes, however, one full tin can equaling two slices of mouldy bread or a pipeful of tobacco.


The San Francisco Recreation Commission operated a summer camp in the high Sierras at Mather, about one hundred miles from the city. Money appropriated for necessary improvements had unexpectedly run short, and additional funds for the job were not included in the next year’s budget. Some financial genius, remembering the previous winter’s successful labor camps and knowing that we were once more living gratis on the fat of the land, suggested the use of unpaid labor. A call went out asking for forty-five huskies able to pass a strict medical examination and willing to work for board and lodging, tobacco, and working clothes. Aching for a chance to get away from the Skidroad and its unspeakable hunger and filth, I applied. ‘What’s left is still in running condition,’ mumbled the doctor, scrutinizing my flea-bitten remains on September 19, 1932.

In Camp Mather the labor was hard and of the dangerous kind. Heavy falls of snow shortly before Christmas made all work impossible. Once more we returned to San Francisco. The truck driver who brought us back handed each of us one dollar and fifty cents, with the compliments of the Recreation Commission of the City of San Francisco.

That night I went completely out of my senses and squandered three months’ earnings. A sophomore of C. U. T. A. S. F. (California University of Tonsorial Art, branch of San Francisco) did some extended work on my full beard and matted locks. Wing Lee’s roast-duck dinner, with soup, dessert, and coffee included, for fifteen cents, I pronounced exceedingly tasty. Tom Mix loved and lassoed on a milky steed until an usher, touching my shoulder discreetly, hinted that a tencent ticket was good for only two straight performances. And I wound up the riotous night between clean sheets in a thirty-five-cent bed smoking a two-for-a-nickel Havana and reading a fresh copy of the New Republic. More than likely I went too far. Shortly afterward the Director of Relief in a widely acclaimed speech denounced the economic irresponsibility and easygoing attitude of the unemployed. To this very day I suspect that he had me in mind.

Next morning, dead broke and wiser, I shipped out to Labor Camp No. 3. The next four months I dug irrigation ditches in Camp Gilman, ten miles from Modesto. My life here proceeded on the same lines as in the Plumas County Camp. The first of May, 1933, we were paid off with five dollars and given a ride to San Francisco.

The caring for the jobless had taken a slight turn in the right direction during the winter months. Responsible, thoughtful citizens and the police department had tired of seeing hordes of indigents swarm over the city, poke into the garbage cans, and panhandle on the principal streets. To prevent this, a day shelter was established on Folsom Street. Here we could rest our weary legs, read the day before yesterday’s newspapers and dogeared pulps, and play cards and chess or checkers. The shelter, a large onetime warehouse, was a decided success. New flophouses sprouted like mushrooms and thrived under somewhat similar conditions, as far as dampness and darkness were concerned. St. Patrick’s Shelter (the only clean flophouse I ever slept in) introduced nightshirts of the 1880 flannel vintage. It was a truly astonishing sight to watch a baffled Celt, fully clad in overcoat, boots, and hat, trying to squirm into that to him outlandish garment.

I ate and slept in the San Francisco bread line and flophouses from the first of May to the first of December, 1933. The five dollars I had earned in the last labor camp came in handy during this period. My previously mentioned excesses had taught me a bitter lesson and turned me into a skinflint who let bread and tobacco take the place of canned sea food and roast duck. My total monthly expenses amounted to seventy cents. Thirty cents went for the purchase of a daily loaf of stale bread, at a penny a loaf, the remaining forty cents kept me in tobacco — or, to be more exact, cigar clippings swept off the floor in a tobacco factory. The bread helped to eke out the bread-line fare, and the cigar clippings saved me from the gutter safari.

On the whole I did n’t suffer so much that summer. By then I was housebroken to the grimy dens of poverty, and fully aware of the insurmountable obstructions towering between the discarded and the active elements of the social structure. Occasionally I went through the motions of looking for work. But my beaverlike attitude toward labor and its scant rewards was undergoing a transformation process. Still willing, in fact eager, to work, I felt a steadily mounting aversion against doing decent work on a charity basis. I did not mind applying for work, but I hated to play the cringing rôle of a supplicant. There was no difference between begging for alms and begging for work, I thought. If labor was needed, let it be known, and I would present myself and state my qualifications and my willingness in a straightforward manner. Eleven months of hard manual labor in three different camps maintained by state and city departments had netted me exactly eleven dollars and fifty cents in cash, or slightly more than a dollar a month.

During the fall of 1933, whiffs from a delicious alphabet soup penetrated to the Pacific Coast. By Thanksgiving Day it was dished out to right and left. Originally only the registered unemployed and actually needy were entitled to work in the Civil Works Administration. Ward heelers and cheap politicians soon muscled in and had the situation well in hand. Any loafer with political pull and influence was able to land a soft job as foreman or superintendent. Cops on the beat were provided with work tickets, which they handed out to friends, in some cases poolroom hangers-on and tinhorn gamblers. Work tickets to the jobless were distributed in hit-or-miss fashion.

The first of December, I was sitting on a bench in the day shelter, when a puny little chap arrived with an armful of work tickets. We were told to line up and pass by him in single file. Only one thousand tickets were available for about three thousand men hanging around the shelter at the time. Naturally everybody wished to be among the lucky first thousand. The fellows in the rear started pushing and crowding, with the result of a free-for-all fight. The badly scared little clerk tried to escape, but was dragged out into an alley, where the valuable pasteboards were snatched away from him. I emerged from the conflict one jump ahead of the riot wagon with torn overalls and three fourths of a work ticket. The head office put O. K. on the remnant, after some wrangling, and gave me streetcar fare to the empty lot that was going to be transformed into a children’s playground. Here, together with several hundred other toilers, I spent six hours playing cards, until at last a foreman arrived announcing that we had earned three dollars and sixty cents. The following morning we assembled, itching with ambition and ‘rarin’ to go,’ only to find that the necessary tools were lacking. The next couple of days we carried dirt in wooden boxes, dug holes in the ground with axes, and generally did the best we knew how to do under the circumstances. Later we were well provided with shovels and wheelbarrows, but many of our efforts were wasted and most of the projects were never completed, or else, if considered completed, were found to be unsatisfactory.

I was discharged from CWA in March 1934 (reason: economic retrenchment), having earned about two hundred dollars in three months. When I started working, all my earthly belongings consisted of a pair of torn overalls, a shirt, a pair of broken-down boots, a singularly evil-smelling pipe, and a counterfeit nickel which all the shopkeepers in the city had turned down at some time or other. Underwear, socks, hat, and toilet articles, or other necessities usually considered indispensable, had been totally absent during my past two years of brutish existence.

I received my first pay check with somewhat mixed emotions. Hunger, filth, and despair were retreating — for the time being, at least. Ready to cross over to the land of comparative comfort and ease, I realized what sufferings and hardships I had gone through. Now, when actually possessing money, I became dimly aware of the perplexities that follow in its wake. The nice, simple things I had hoped for and dreamed about turned dull and commonplace. Baffled, I went shopping and returned with only a box of matches.

I managed with some difficulty to save fifty dollars out of my CWA earnings. This money lasted until the first of July, when, almost penniless and dangerously close to the flophouse, I got a job of the semi-charitable type as a forest fire fighter. I was to be paid ten dollars a month, with board and lodging. No wonder I felt happy joining the fire patrol in the Santa Clara foothills! This was the kind of work I appreciated and understood. The constant danger and fight against flames and smoke, the pack mules, rattlesnakes, and poison oak, the sizzling flapjacks and scalding coffee after a dreamless sleep on the bare ground, the good-natured horseplay with unsuspecting rangers and slow-witted truck drivers, made life worth living. Hard, interesting work, simple habits, and a few honest pleasures were the only things I craved. But Providence nipped my ambitions in the bud, and the October rains, ending my job, sent me back to the city.

However, the States Emergency Relief Administration sucked me in without the slightest hesitation. I got $5.63 in exchange for a day and a half of weekly labor on a project discontinued by CWA. I rented a housekeeping room for two dollars a week, paid twenty cents for carfare to and from the job, and had $3.43 left to spend on food, clothes, and incidentals. Fortynine cents a day bought sufficient food, but very little else. I could hoard a dollar or so in a month’s time if I was careful, and, doing my own cobbling, laundry, and tailoring, invest it in shoe leather, soap, and thread. I could almost imagine myself as an ordinary, self-supporting citizen. But the weekly pay check made out by the SERA, adorned with the legend ‘Relief Funds’ in conspicuous letters, and the rounds of the visitor from District Relief Headquarters inspecting my room for unwonted signs of luxury, always dispelled my highfaluting ideas of independence and put me back in the rôle of Uriah Heep, which I acted to perfection.

Men on relief are supposed to spend their days wearing out park benches, while reading the tabloids, but I did n’t indulge in this pastime. I spent ten hours daily reading in the Public Library. In normal times I had taken little interest in books. I had read a few works of Cooper, Marryat, Dickens, and Kipling, always preferring violent action, bruised decent feelings, and honest love, terminating in holy matrimony and large families. Then, presto, at an age when habits and taste ought to have been settled in concrete, I dived into a maelstrom of minds like D. H. Lawrence, Proust, Dorothy Thompson, Robert Graves, Hans Fallada, Havelock Ellis, Jules Romains, Sinclair Lewis, and Edna St. Vincent Millay, to mention a few.

I am hard put to it to explain my sudden, unquenchable thirst for modern literature. One explanation is that stunted beings in abnormal times crave strange things. I do know for sure that chronically idle men become victims of peculiar manias and obsessions. My own derangement, while harmless enough, had a decided aftermath. As I noticed men and women rinsing their dirty linen in public, I was stricken with the desire to exhibit my own wounds and defects. Ignorance of composition, spelling, and punctuation did n’t detain me a single moment.

In August 1935, SERA discontinued its works programme and put me on the straight, unblushing dole. I received $4.54 on the dole — $1.09 less than while doing a day and a half of labor per week. It is not easy to keep body and soul together on $18.16 a month. I lived primarily on beans. WPA was the goal I had in mind. At last, in November 1935, I took my place among the country’s boondogglers, a position I am still holding in May 1936, when this is written. A boondoggler is, as we all know, a 1935-1936 enigma who does nothing, and that wrong. I have helped at the building of grades which, if they slanted at all, slanted in the wrong direction; laid pipe lines in which no water is apt to flow; solved the problem of perpetual motion by leveling sand dunes which the nightly winds grimly releveled; planted grass, flowers, and shrubs bound never to grow; constructed outdoor terraces and stairs too feeble for angels to tread upon, and assisted in many other similar tasks. The boondoggler is hardly to blame. He does what he is told, slowly and inexpertly, perhaps, in many cases not being trained in the duties allotted to him, sensing that artificial labor and efforts are fundamentally wrong. It reduces him to a sly clowm trying to smear a minimum of zestless labor over certain prescribed hours, puts him in an incongruous light, lowers his self-respect, and makes him feel as all square pegs in round holes must feel when they realize their impotency to withdraw.

I do not wish, however, to bite the hand that feeds me. Millions — myself included, of course — would be destitute and starving without the aid of WPA. Its qualities as life saver and safety valve alone are obvious.

You have followed my trail during four years and five months, or from December 1931 to May 1936. To give you a concise idea of what my upkeep has cost the taxpayers, here is a brief, concentrated recapitulation showing the financial and occupational highlights of my depression career.

Occupation Time in Months Received in Cash Approximate Total Cost of Upkeep
Bread line 13 $ $130.00
Labor camps 11 11.50 176.50
CWA 3 200.00 200.00
Lived on savings 4
Fire patrol. 3 30.00 75.00
SERA 14 302.50 302.50
WPA 5 300.00 300.00
53 $844.00 $1184.00

I value my hard, constructive labor in the camps and in the fire patrol at $120 a month during fourteen months, totaling $1680. Of this amount. I have received the equivalent of $251.50.

I figure the taxpayers’ debt to me at $1428.50.