Delroy hadn’t seen the Barkers in several weeks and that was fine with him. He was determined not to have anything more to do with killing and robbing. This was his twelfth day of beating his gunboats on the pavement, going door to door, looking for work. It was only mid-morning but it was warm for October, and he’d been out since six. He was tired. Today his walk had taken him over to Harrison and Canal, almost to the train yards. He picked up a discarded Tribune and was scanning the ads as he walked, so he didn’t notice the limping man until he was almost on top of him. Even then, he might not have looked up from his paper except for the smell. The man’s body odor took hold of Delroy’s nose and snapped his head up.
Shuffling toward him, shifting his weight from his good leg to his crutch and back again, was a man who appeared to be made from scraps of material. His coat and pants were patched with rags, some sewn on, but most knotted together and hanging loose. Delroy could see that they had once been all different shapes and colors, but several layers of dirt made it impossible to tell where one rag ended and another picked up. He couldn’t tell whether the man was fat or thin under the rags as the whole mess billowed out around him. As soon as he had Delroy’s attention he stuck out his free hand and smiled. His half a dozen teeth shone out white from the grimy pallor of his face. Without thinking, Delroy shook the man’s hand.
“How ’bout stakin’ me to some breakfast, brother,” the raggedy man said. “I just rode the Illinois Central in last night, and I ain’t et nothin’ since Effingham.”
“I can’t do it,” Delroy said. “I’m about busted, myself. I’m out lookin’ for work right now.” Delroy tried to take his hand back, but the man had a strong grip and wasn’t interested in letting go.
“Lookin’ for work, huh? I hope that’s not contagious. Listen, what say you and me head over to the jungle. Like as not someone’ll have some coffee on, and there’s a fella what comes by every day, lookin’ for workers. Some kinda jobber, I guess.” The man finally let go of Delroy’s hand and, putting his free hand on Delroy’s shoulder, spun on his crutch and limped off, dragging Delroy along with him. Delroy pulled away and stopped on the sidewalk. He took out his handkerchief and wiped his eyes. The man’s smell was making them water. “What jungle?” he asked.
“Hobo jungle,” the man said, as he pointed around the corner. “There.”
Delroy stepped forward and looked. Across Canal Street was an open field filled with tents and packing crates and a few slapped together huts. Smoke drifted up from a dozen fires. Hundreds of men sat or stood around the fires, talking, eating, shaving, and drinking. Delroy could make out a few dogs, roaming the camp, begging for scraps. “This is where you live?” he asked.
“When I’m in town. They call me Birmingham, but I ain’t been south in a couple years.” He headed off across the street and Delroy went with him.
The jungle was crowded and, as they passed among the men, Delroy noticed that they all seemed to have a “hey” or a nod for his guide. Someone shouted, “Who’s the new blanket stiff, Birmingham?”
“No stiff,” the man called back. “Just a citizen.” Delroy saw few women in the ranks of men, and all but a couple were off by themselves. A woman wearing men’s trousers and a plaid shirt sat in front of a fire, holding her knees and rocking back and forth, mumbling. Birmingham saw Delroy staring at her. “That’s Nell,” he said. “She lost her boy last week. Poor kid slipped when they were climbing into an open boxcar and went under the wheels. Now she don’t eat or nothin’. Just sits there.”
The odor of unwashed bodies and rotting food mingled with the smoke from the cook fires. Delroy started to put his hands over his nose, then stopped and shoved them in his pockets. He didn’t want to rub anyone the wrong way. He was nervous but fascinated. He’d read about the shack towns of wandering men that had sprung up around the country. He imagined his brothers must have seen a few of them when they went out west, looking for work. He’d thought hoboing would be kind of fun, an adventure on the open road. These men didn’t look like they were having fun. One silent group was decked out with brown-stained bandages. One of them, a man with silver-white hair, held his obviously broken arm in his lap, the forearm above the wrist bulging out at an unnatural angle. Birmingham gestured toward them with his crutch. “Railroad bulls caught ’em. Most just got knocked around a little, but they threw Grady out of a moving boxcar.” He paused in front of the group. “How’s the arm, Grady?” he asked. The man tried to pick up his arm to show but, as he did, all the color drained out of his face. He sucked air through his gritted teeth, then lay down on his side. As they moved on through the rows of men Delroy could hear him whimper.
They walked deep into the hobo jungle, all the way back to the Chicago River. Finally, Birmingham found the group he was looking for. Half a dozen men, both black and white, sat around a small pile of glowing coals with a coffee pot suspended from a bent piece of iron rod. He let his crutch drop and followed it down to the ground, his ragged clothes settling around him like a pile of leaves. He gestured to an open patch of ground. Delroy sat.
“Hey, Hubert,” Birmingham said, “how ’bout fixin’ us up with some coffee?”
One of the black men poured a steaming, ochre liquid from the pot into two empty cans and handed them across to the newcomers. “Careful,” he said. “They hot.”
Delroy sniffed the contents of the can. It smelled like motor oil more than coffee. He didn’t want to drink it but he was aware of the men watching him. He took a sip. “Thanks.”
“This here citizen is lookin’ for work,” Birmingham said. “I told him ’bout that fella with the jobs. He been by here yet?”
“Y’all just missed him,” Hubert said. “He had a good job today, too. Gonna take men over to where they’s tearin’ down a building. Give you a hammer and let you chip the old mortar off the bricks. Pay ten cents for ever’ hunnerd bricks you clean.”
Birmingham winked at Delroy, then turned back to Hubert. “How come you ain’t out there workin’ right now? Didn’t you want no job?”
“Same as yesterday. Cain’t use no colored workers.”
One of the other black men spit a gob of tobacco juice onto the coals. He watched it sizzle for a second. “I used to be a bricklayer back home,” he said. “I’d like to take one of those hammers and smack that white sonuva bitch in the head.”
A white man sitting next to him put his hand on the man’s shoulder. “Now, Dill,” he said, “you don’t mean that.” Dill shrugged the other man’s hand off, stood up, and stalked away.
“That’s Dill,” Birmingham said. “We call him Dill Pickle. He and these other boys traveled clear from Detroit down to Virden, Illinois ’cause they heard they could get work in the coal mines.”
“Yeah,” said Hubert, “but when we got there it turned out the miners was on strike. The mining company was hiring scabs. We tried to go down in the mine, but the strikers attacked us.” He leaned forward to show Delroy a wound on his forehead. “I got hit with a pipe. Then the Pinkertons opened fire.”
“We hightailed it outta there,” said Dill as he made his way back to the circle. “Those Pinks was supposed to protect us from the miners, but they couldn’t tell who was who. They shot at everybody. We were lucky to get out with our skins.”
“Yeah, lucky,” Hubert said. “Only we still ain’t got no jobs. We got no money, and that means no dinner.”
“Well, I’m goin’ back to Michigan,” said Dill. “I got a wife and a little boy. They stayin’ at my daddy’s place. Soon’s it gets dark, I’m headin’ over to the rail yard.”
Delroy took a slow look around the fire at the men’s faces. He had never seen a more wretched bunch in his life. He had just about determined to go home, clean out the kitchen cupboard, and bring all the food back for them when Hubert reached across and tugged on his sleeve. “That jobber fella said there was some work at the bus station, loading freight. You might as well go on down there and see. I’m goin’ back to Detroit, too. I think we’ve all had ’bout enough of Illinois.”
Delroy shook the man’s hand. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a crumpled dollar bill, his lunch money. “This is for you fellas. Maybe you can have yourselves a little meal before you go.”
Birmingham grabbed the money. It disappeared beneath his rags. “I’ll take this. I know where I can get us some ears of corn and some beans.”
“Not them pinto beans,” Hubert said. “I’m sicka them pintos.”
“These are green beans,” Birmingham said. “Fresh green beans, right off the farm.”
Delroy sprang to his feet. “Thanks again,” he called as he ran off, weaving through the tents and the groups of men. He could hear Birmingham describing the delights of fresh green beans all the way to Canal Street.
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