Romantic ideas of life on the road vanished when a young hobo felt the first pangs of hunger. Pride and shame led many to go without eating for days, raiding garbage cans, picking up crusts of bread in the street, pilfering food. Finally they gave in and begged for a handout or a “lump, ” which they typically received in a sack. Sometimes they enjoyed a “knee-shaker, ” eating a meal on a back porch, and occasionally, a “sit-down, ” where they were invited inside the homes of sympathetic folks. In the lingo of old-timers, novice hoboes were also taught how best to “bum” a house or “put the arm on” passersby in the street.
The majority of homeowners and storekeepers helped the hard-luck kids. Sixty years later, the simplest acts of kindness were remembered by those who'd been half-starved and utterly dejected when they knocked at a stranger's door. Other kids, too, recalled seeing mothers and fathers help hoboes who came to ask for food. It was a lesson in giving that was never forgotten.
There were mean streets where young nomads were driven away without a crumb and towns where they were subjected to frontier-style justice. As young as sixteen, they were sentenced to work on chain gangs or labor on the “pea farms, ” and other fields where corrupt law officials supplied local growers with cost-free workers.
Destitute youths drifted from one shelter to another, paying for a bed at the YMCA when they had money, staying at the Salvation Army or other missions when they were broke. Some landed on “Skid Row, ” or in the newer “Hoovervilles” that proliferated in