It was the fall of 1932. Like most everybody else around me, I was caught in the dust storm of despair that the history books call the Great Depression. Back then, I don’t know if I had a name for it. It was just life, or whatever life had been replaced with by some fearsome power that I couldn’t see.
Anyway, like I said, it was an autumn day, and I was trying to sell apples at the corner of Spruce and 18th near Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia. I had a sack half full of them, all picked off the ground from one of the farms on the northeast side of town. I don’t know what I was hoping to do with my sad sack of apples. Every face that passed me had the same expression, a mixture of defeat and desperation, searching anxiously for something with the certainty of knowing it will not be found. I knew that look – it was the same face that sometimes stared back at me in the cracked mirror they had in the poorhouse on the other side of Market Street.
Then suddenly, in the middle of that line of shuffling souls, a man appeared. It was impossible to miss him. It was a cloudy, overcast autumn day, but he walked down the street like a ray of sunshine, with his fine hat, his pressed suit, and his shiny shoes. Before I knew it, he was standing in front of me, as though I was just the person he had walked down the street to see.
“You selling these?” he asked. “Yes, sir, I sure am,” I replied, anxious to please. “Fine apples, fresh off the farm. You can have a half-dozen of them for a nickel.” He seemed to know exactly what he wanted. Before I could say anything else, he said, “Think you could sell me the whole sack? I’ll give you three dollars for the lot.”
Three dollars. That was more than a whole day’s wages back when there were wages. It was more than I had earned in any day in the months since I had arrived in Philadelphia on a boxcar from Cincinnati. If it wasn’t for his fine clothes and that strange, serene look in his eyes, I might have taken him for one of those joes that rags on you just to make you feel worse than he is. Like a few of the hobos I had sometimes run into on my boxcar journey across the midwest. But this man was no hobo. I handed him the sack without a word. The clink of the three dollar coins he dropped into my outstretched palm was sheer music. Then he was gone.
That night, on the other side of the railway tracks, we had a grand time, me and my little community of fly-by-night buddies. There was Jake, the farmer from western Pennsylvania, who had skipped town to escape the loan payments he could no longer keep up with. And there was Tooth, an old man with thinning yellow-white hair and several missing front teeth, who was always talking about some woman he was with during the World’s Fair in Chicago. The three of us were the regulars, men who had bummed around together at one time or another during our sojourn in Philadelphia, city of brothers. And then there were a couple of professional hobos whose names I did not know, but whose faces looked as familiar as the next fellow.
We passed around a flask of rye whiskey making sure the three of us got our swigs before it went around to the hobos. Our command of the flask was our way of showing how we, the regulars, were superior to them. The burning liquid warmed our chests, the laughs coming out of our throats, but not able to reach our eyes.
Jake started talking, as he often did, about the letter he wrote to Governor Gifford Pinchot, the letter he always carried in his pocket like an old photograph. Written in pencil on yellow ruled paper, its creased pages had been folded and unfolded many times, recounting his hardships on the farm and asking for relief. In the many boozy readings we had heard from Jake, not once did any of us have the courage to ask why he never mailed it. “Did you know,” he asked, one eye glinting with secret knowledge, “that our great Commonwealth has a Director of the Poor?” The question went unanswered. We had heard this many times before too.
One of the hobos then chimed in, talking about some swell in a felt hat who was handing out apples from a sack to the people in the bread line at the poorhouse on Arch. That caught my attention. “What’s the good of that?” the hobo wanted to know. “Why do you think those folks was standing in the bread line? What’s the good of handing out apples to a hungry man?” This started a lively debate among the regulars, who became concerned with the relative value of apples over bread to the hungry on the street. The argument then became quite heated when everyone realized that the last few drops of whiskey were gone.
My curiosity was aroused, but my questions fell on deaf ears. “What did he look like? Was he wearing a pressed brown suit and shiny shoes?” I wanted to know. But no one showed any interest. My eyes drifted to the night sky, its vast space dotted with little fireflies of light. The rye whiskey was snaking its way through my brain as images of a radiant young man in a felt hat and a brown pressed suit and shiny shoes floated past my eyes. As the fireflies starting fading out, I could see him coming towards me like a ray of sunshine, and I could sense a forgotten feeling start to creep back into me, a feeling I hadn’t had for so long that I didn’t know what to do with it.
My last thought as I drifted off to sleep under the stars on that autumn night in 1932, was one tiny little word: hope.
An earlier version of this story appeared on Ramesh’s blog at writefulblog.wordpress.com.