When I was a kid an occasional “tramp,” as Mom called them, although they were also called “hobos” and “bums” while today they’re known as “homeless people,” would show up at the kitchen door of our western Pennsylvania farmhouse asking for a bite to eat. As with most farm families during the 1930s and ’40s, we didn’t have much money, but we always had food from the garden and the critters we raised so these itinerate “knights of the road” usually got a morsel or two of food from my mother or grandmother.
In the October 1927 issue of The American Thresherman magazine “Aunt Malinda,” a column that was written by M. Belle Clarke, the wife of the publisher Bascome B. Clarke, wrote of an encounter she and “Uncle Silas” had with one of these itinerate gentlemen.
The two had just sat down to a supper of fried eggs, bacon, bread and butter and a pot of tea, and “Silas had just told the Lord that we were grateful for the helpin’” when a tramp knocked on the door with his hat in hand.
Aunt Malinda goes on, “He was a polite old German and grey-headed, a man of more than fifty years. I told this old man that we could certainly fix him up, takin’ the bacon and eggs for our supper, when Silas began to mutter about the crop of tramps that were gatherin’ in flocks these days. I never feed tramps at my table like I used to do and when I saw Silas reach for the teapot, I told him I’d do the honors. To drink tea properly one must sit down and that meant at the table.
“I scraped the platter, takin’ both his bacon and mine and I started to do likewise with the eggs but Silas ’lowed he’d just finish that egg seein’ that he’d started on it. After I handed the old man the lunch—five or six strips of Swift’s bacon and a few eggs and other things thrown in—and he’d hoped that God would bless me for my kindness to the homeless and made his getaway, Silas grabbed a skillet and started in fryin’ more bacon and eggs.
“‘Malinda,’ he says, ‘you’re getting’ chicken-hearted lately. The idea of feedin’ a tramp Swift’s bacon taken from a box that costs fifty cents a pound, and slippin’ him all the eggs and cake and all that, and then refusin’ him a cup of tea. Shortin’ him on the cheapest part of the meal proves you ain’t as generous as you let on’
“‘Yes,’ I says, ‘and with all your mutterin’ about bein’ disturbed durin’ a meal you wanted to sluice that tramp with hot tea. I’ll not feed any tramps at my table,’ I says, ‘not unless they’ve been fumigated, but as long as we’ve got bread and meat I’ll share it with any old grey-headed man who’s destitute.’
“‘Oh, maybe he was wearin’ a wig,’ says Silas. ‘They do lots of things these up-to-date tramps who put the sign somewhere for other tramps to read, thus encouragin’ more of them to apply for bacon and eggs. His hair wasn’t any greyer than mine,’ says he, ‘and not half as near thread-bare.’
“‘You should be ashamed to begrudge a tramp a bite to eat,’ I says.
“‘I don’t mind feedin’ one once in a while,’ says he, ‘but darn ’em, let ’em come before or after, for it spoils a meal to have a hungry-lookin’ tramp poke his prow in at the back door and cause me to stop feedin’ until I fill his hopper.’”
Aunt Malinda ends her story, “I’m sure that Silas is becomin’ penurious as he reaches the sundown of life ’n Old Gabriel is due to blow his horn most any time. When I told Silas this, he said, ‘Let Old Gabriel blow his horn whenever he’s ready, but don’t cause me to cater to a tramp right in the middle of a good meal of bacon and eggs, Gabriel or no Gabriel.’”
– Sam Moore
A cartoon drawing of the stereotypical tramp. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)