There's been all this panicked talk recently about an increased visibility of homeless people. The neoliberal media is worried about a return to the city's "bad old days." Mayor de Blasio just sent a swarm of NYPD to guard Tompkins Square Park from the people who sleep in it. Again, there has been no recent spike in the homeless population--the massive increase happened under Bloomberg's stingy policies. They're just not getting hassled, dragged away, and imprisoned like they were under our previous two mayors. The homeless have always been with us.
Which brings me to a 1960 essay by Jack Kerouac, "The Vanishing American Hobo." Wrote Kerouac, "The American Hobo has a hard time hoboing nowadays due to the increase in police surveillance." Prosperous towns "don’t want old bums any more."
Bums, hobos, homeless--they don't vanish because the city takes care of them, giving them psychiatric care and affordable housing. They "vanish" because they are put in jail or swept to the margins. Bloomberg even hatched a scheme to load them onto old cruise ships and push them out to sea.
Anyway, here's a selection from Kerouac's essay in which he focuses on the old Bowery.
from Lionel Rogosin's The Bowery
The Bowery is the haven for hobos who came to the big city to make the big time by getting pushcarts and collecting cardboard. -- Lots of Bowery bums are Scandinavian, lots of them bleed easily because they drink too much. -- When winter comes bums drink a drink called smoke, it consists of wood alcohol and a drop of iodine and a scab of lemon, this they gulp down and wham! they hibernate all winter so as not to catch cold, because they dont live anywhere, and it gets very cold outside in the city in winter. -- Sometimes hobos sleep arm-in-arm to keep warm, right on the sidewalk. Bowery Mission veterans say that the beer-drinking bums are the most belligerent of the lot.
Fred Bunz is the great Howard Johnson's of the bums -- it is located on 277 Bowery in New York. They write the menu in soap on the windows. -- You see the bums reluctantly paying fifteen cents for pig brains, twenty-five cents for goulash, and shuffling out in thin cotton shirts in the cold November night to go and make the lunar Bowery with a smash of broken bottle in an alley where they stand against a wall like naughty boys. -- Some of them wear adventurous rainy hats picked up by the track in Hugo Colorado or blasted shoes kicked off by Indians in the dumps of Juarez, or coats from the lugubrious salon of the seal and fish. --Bum hotels are white and tiled and seem as though they were upright johns. -- Used to be bums told tourists that they once were successful doctors, now they tell tourists they were once guides for movie stars or directors in Africa and that when TV came into being they lost their safari rights.
Fred Bunz, where Whole Foods is today
American hobo Lou Jenkins from Allentown Pennsylvania was interviewed at Fred Bunz's on the Bowery. -- "What you wanta know all this info for, what you want?"
"I understand that you've been a hobo travelin' around the country."
"How about givin' a fella a few bits for some wine before we talk."
"Al, go get the wine."
"Where's this gonna be in, the Daily News?"
"No, in a book."
"What are you young kids doing here, I mean where's the drink?"
"Al's gone to the liquor store -- You wanted Thunderbird, wasn't it?"
Lou Jenkins then grew worse----"How about a few bits for a flop tonight?"
"Okay, we just wanta ask you a few questions like why did you leave Allentown?"
"My wife. -- My wife, -- Never get married. You'll never live it down. You mean to say it's gonna be in a book hey what I'm sayin'?"
"Come on say something about bums or something."
"Well, whattya wanta know about bums? Lot of 'em around, kinda tough these days, no money -- lissen, how about a good meal?"
"See you in the Sagamore." (Respectable bums' cafeteria at Third and Cooper Union.)
"Okay kid, thanks a lot." -- He opens the Thunderbird bottle with one expert flip of the plastic seal. -- Glub, as the moon rises resplendent as a rose he swallows with big ugly lips thirsty to gulp the throat down, Sclup! and down goes the drink and his eyes be-pop themselves and he licks tongue on top lip and says "H-a-h!" And he shouts "Don't forget my name is spelled Jenkins, J-e-n-k-y-n-s. --"
Another character -- "You say that your name is Ephram Freece of Pawling New York?"
"Well, no, my name is James Russell Hubbard."
"You look pretty respectable for a bum."
"My grandfather was a Kentucky colonel."
"Whatever made you come here to Third Avenue?"
"I really cant do it, I don't care, I cant be bothered, I feel nothing, I dont care anymore. I'm sorry but --somebody stole my razor blade last night, if you can lay some money on me I'll buy myself a Schick razor."
"Where will you plug it in? Do you have such facilities?"
"A Schick injector."
"And I always carry this book with me -- The Rules of St. Benedict. A dreary book, but well I got another book in my pack. A dreary book too I guess."
"Why do you read it then?"
"Because I found it -- I found it in Bristol last year."
"What are you interested in? You like interested in something?"
"Well, this other book I got there is er, yee, er, a big strange book -- you shouldn't be interviewing me. Talk to that old nigra fella over there with the harmonica -- I'm no good for nothing, all I want is to be left alone."
"I see you smoke a pipe."
"Yeah -- Granger tobacco. Want some?"
"Will you show me the book?"
"No, I aint got it with me, I only got this with me." -- He points to his pipe and tobacco.
"Can you say something?"