Chapter XVIII: San Francisco
I had finally reached my destination! I filled my lungs. It was a relief not to see the skyscrapers and elevator train structures I had left behind back East. I had completed a 3,000-mile plus trek on a shoestring. I was leaving one part of my life behind and was about to start anew.
The Embarcadero YMCA offered me a week's lodging. In that week I scouted all possible work areas. Shipping proved to be impossible for a drifter from another port. A centralized bureau which the seamen dubbed Fink Hall was crowded. Men stood around in groups, talking of the days gone by, hoping against hope that today would be their lucky day. This bureau was run by employer-picked personnel to ensure that no militant seamen were hired. I saw right away how impossible it would be, especially without any connections, to compete with the hundreds of men in that hall. I'd have to try boarding ships in the hope of finding a friendly officer to hire me.
Scrounging food was another problem. In a soup kitchen off Market between Third and Fourth, about 200 men were served a noon meal of mostly bread and soup. We stood at a counter to eat. On the waterfront, in the late afternoons, a woman known as the "White Angel" appeared with trays of food she collected from restaurants. Her chauffeured limousine would stop among 75 or 100 hungry, waiting men. A few of us opened the car doors and assisted her as she brought out the big baking pans of leftover food. She was an elegant woman who loved to dress in flowing white veils. Some said she had stock in several restaurants, enabling her to solicit leftover food easily. I stood in line almost every afternoon alongside the railroad tracks near Pier 23.
My week of free lodging at the YMCA ended. Along the waterfront and on some of the side streets off the Embarcadero stood all kinds of cheap hotels. Some of their rooms went for 30 cents a night. But even 30 cents was hard to come by. However, someone always figures out how to beat the system. Three men would get together, each kicking in a dime. One would go to the hotel and ask for a room facing the street. Half an hour later the window would open quietly and the key would be tossed down to the two men waiting outside. If one of the men had put up more dough than the others, he would get the right to sleep in the bed. The others stretched out on the floor.
One cold, foggy night, the hotel manager counted five men heading in one direction. His books showed he was only supposed to have three rooms occupied. He raided our room, and five of us were bounced out onto the street, minus our rent we had paid. But that incident was an exception. From then on, we picked our hotels more carefully. We made sure the manager's desk was not right in front of the door.
My lack of money was becoming a problem. At seven o'clock in the evening I would start from Market and Kearney Streets and slowly make my way toward North Beach, panhandling any guy who looked prosperous. Some nights I netted fifty cents; other times I'd have to settle for ten. Along Grant Avenue, almost every block had at least two bakeries. The fragrance of French bread baking permeated the air during the late evening hours until morning. If you timed it right, you could depend on at least half a loaf from any baker you spoke to when he left the oven area for some fresh air or a smoke in the street.
I had no luck getting a ship. In fact, even getting aboard to talk to the officers was difficult, if not impossible, because of the large numbers of guards on the piers.
One day, as I was slowly working my way to the soup kitchen door, I noticed a young man standing on top of a chair about 50 feet from the doorway. He was about 20, dressed in blue dungarees and a blue shirt. He started to harangue the hundred or so men in line. "Fellow unfortunates," he said, "we ask the leaders of the richest country in the world for work to support ourselves and our families. Their answer is to make us line up in the street like whipped dogs to receive a bowl of watered-down soup. This is the concern of the ruling class for the unemployed. Soup kitchens instead of jobs. Cheap, cockroach-ridden flophouses instead of decent places to live. Indignities and humiliations instead of human dignity. That's the answer of the bourgeoisie. Well, my fellow workers, the Communist Party has the weapon to correct this situation"
The cops moved quickly toward him, knocking him off the chair. A motorcycle cop rode in, halting his front wheel just inches from the neck of the helpless young man. One cop kicked him in the chest. Another yanked him up by the shoulders and tried to stand him on his feet. This man had not been a threat to anyone; he had used no violence. I found out later that he had been soapboxing on and off for the past three weeks in this spot.
We went inside and dined on potato soup and bread, no one referring to what we had just witnessed. I walked the few blocks back toward the waterfront. Try as I might to forget the beating, it stuck with me. "For what?" I kept asking myself. Just because he said we all should have jobs or a better place to live? Well, shouldn't we? Wasn't it so? Should blood really be splattered on pavements because a man speaks a raw truth? I felt no respect for the three cops who had beaten someone offering no resistance. Suddenly I took an intense dislike to the soup line in that alley. I decided never to return there again--or at least to make it only a last resort.
There had to be a better way of getting by than racing from one soup kitchen to another, winding up at night seeking another person in order to split the cost of a night's flop. The more I thought about it, the more desperate I became and the more my mind churned. The next morning I got on the ferry bound for Oakland. Ashore, I walked until I came to a well-to-do neighborhood with beautiful homes and spacious lawns. I approached one home and knocked. A middle-aged woman came to the door. "Yes?"
"Lady," I began nervously, "I'm out of work, hungry and destitute. I'm anxious to do any job you have, no matter what it is."
She hesitated. Then, "Well, we can't let you starve, now can we? Go around the back and I'll see what I can find for you."
For the next three months, five days a week, I boarded that Oakland ferry each morning and returned late in the afternoon slightly richer. The procedure was always the same: pick a well-kept house, knock on the door and make my pitch. Most people I talked to found something for me to do. The jobs lasted two or three hours and the average pay was thirty or thirty-five cents an hour. There were also fringe benefits. Invariably I was served some sort of lunch, at least a sandwich and a glass of milk. Sometimes I was given shirts, trousers and shoes. Once I was given a fairly new suit; the woman who gave it to me thought I would have better use for it than her son who was in college.
Word got around the neighbors. Each benefactor tried to outdo the previous ones. "And what did Mrs. Russell serve you for lunch the other day?" I would be asked. If I said that I had been served one sandwich and a glass of milk, I could be assured that I would now get two sandwiches and two glasses of milk.
This kind of success allowed me to find a better place to live, away from the waterfront. No longer did I have to throw keys out windows to a sharing partner. I had $20 in the bank. I owned two suits of clothes, shirts, socks, and two pairs of shoes. But the thing I wanted most--a ship--was not available.
One day I ran across my old partner, Eddie, who had stowed away on the Iroquois with me. He had come down from Seattle--no work up there, either, he assured me. I shared my success with him. I gave him some of my clothes. Inside a week, my bank account had shrunk to five dollars. "Whatta you say we haul ass out of here and head back East? Winter is over back there," he suggested to me after some time.
The next day I gave away what we could not wear or carry. What we carried was double everything: two pairs of socks, two shirts, two pairs of pants, a jacket under a topcoat. We wore our wealth. I felt like an Eskimo, but it was easier to discard than to obtain clothing. We had no trouble getting a train. However, instead of taking the southerly route by which I had arrived, our train made for Sacramento and across the Sierra Nevada, toward Utah and the great Salt Lake.
While Eddie was a much more experienced traveler than I, he lacked some of the aggressiveness needed on the road. When the time came to bum a handout, Eddie would pass up dozens of restaurants, pretending they didn't look good to him or that they looked "over-bummed." The practical effect of Eddie's hesitation was that the lion's share of providing food fell on me. That started to irritate me after a while, and we got into arguments about it. I knew that, sooner or later, he and I would have to part.
After crossing the Great Continental Divide, we stopped at Cheyenne. The word was out that road gangs were needed. The sheriff and his men were rounding up everyone who could not prove he had a job or other means of livelihood. But I was hungry and felt I had to take a chance. If the sheriff did catch me, at least he'd have to feed me, perhaps for 30 days, on the road gang. Eddie was strongly opposed to moving out of the jungle's safety toward the homes on the city's outskirts. My hunger won out, the thought of a warm meal pushing me toward the city. Since I knew the police would be patrolling the beaten route into town, I found a less conspicuous way in. The first house I noticed was a wooden affair one story high. On my way to the rear door, I came across a woman painting the side of the house. A few words with her left me with the paintbrush while she disappeared into the house to fix something for me to eat. This woman knew the sheriff's posse was rounding up men for the road gang. She wheeled out her Model T Ford and drove me through Cheyenne, letting me out on the far end of town where I could catch an eastbound train. Whatever became of Eddie, I have no idea. I was on my own.
Luckily a fast fruit manifest had stopped for bunkers in the Cheyenne yard. It was slowly moving out when I climbed aboard. It was an orange reefer, so there was no ice in the reefer compartments. I secured the hatch above me, making sure I could not be locked in accidentally. We pulled to a stop in Council Bluffs. This city, overlooking the Missouri River, is associated with famous names like Lewis and Clark. This, too, was the place from which Brigham Young led his followers to Salt Lake City. With such history, surely it would be good for a meal.
The weather was frosty. Despite all the clothes I was wearing, the cramped quarters of the reefer compartment made it hard for my blood to circulate. I was chilled to the bone as I walked down the main street, seeking a restaurant friendly enough for me to bum a meal. I passed a few hole-in-the-wall joints and decided they were all too poor to try. Finally I found a more likely place. I gave the guy my usual pitch, "I'm willing to work for a meal." That landed me behind the counter, cleaning a huge stove which evidently had not been cleaned in years. After that, a day's accumulation of dirty dishes had to be washed; the floor had to be swept and mopped, too. Three hours later I was told to sit down and enjoy the meal. The cook set a large steak in front of me. As I was putting the last morsel of it into my mouth, the cook came and stood beside me. "You know," he began, "we get a lot of the whore trade in here. When the town goes to sleep, the whores come in to have their last meal before going home."
I wondered what this information had to do with me. I listened.
"Well," the cook went on, "last night, this whore and her pimp stop by. The gal orders the best steak in the house. I cook it up and set it in front of her. She's smoking a cigarette, all the time arguing with her pimp. I could see she's working up a full head of steam."
I was still wondering what he was getting at.
"Would you believe it? She cuts off a piece of the steak and chews it a bit. Then she spits it right in his face, takes her cigarette and mashes it right out in the center of the rest of the steak, gets up and walks out. Well, what are you gonna do? Here it was a good steak with a cigarette butt standing up on it. I took it, removed the butt, washed it up a bit and put it back in the icebox. That's the one you're eatin'. Better than throwin' it away, huh?"
It was late by the time I left the restaurant. The weather had turned colder. I buttoned my topcoat and headed for the police station, the safest place I knew for a night's flop. One big holding cell had 25 men sprawled out on its floor. I found a few feet of space, and amidst the odor of stinking feet and the sounds of snores and the hissing steam radiator, I fell asleep. The sadistic policemen forced us penniless men to rise at five the next morning. Without even the benefit of a face wash we were ushered from the steam-heated cell into the cold morning air. The sun was still struggling to overcome the remnants of night; the streetlights were still on.
In the distance a horse-drawn cart clobbered over the rough pavement. Under the streetlight a darting figure of a man was making its way somewhere. I pulled my coat more tightly around my body, cursing the police. Eyes still bleary with sleep, I tried to figure out where I was. I kept searching for an open restaurant. My former fellow cellmates were probably all in the same boat, so I'd have to beat them to the punch. I hurried toward the business section of the city. I was anxious to get what I could quickly enough to beat it out of town before the police hit the streets. Goddamn! It was cold! I cursed the weather. Then I asked myself what the hell I was doing here in the first place. Before I had an answer, I noticed a small restaurant that catered to taxi drivers and other all-night clientele.
Condensation on the window obscured the interior of the place. When I went in I saw a counter with about twenty seats, only three of which were occupied. With his first glance the counterman could tell that I was a non-revenue customer. Before I could even make my pitch, though, he had the coffee cup filled and placed on the counter. He looked me in the eye, then beckoned to me to drink. I was afraid to touch the cup. "Gee, fella," "I confessed, "I ain't got a cent. But I'll hustle some work if you got it."
"There's only enough work for one, so enjoy it on me," he said. He put a hot buttered snail in front of me. Through the moisture-covered windows I could make out some activity on the streets. Some of my fellow lodgers from the previous evening were looking in. The moment they recognized me, they moved on. It's always a losing proposition to gang up on one restaurant.
Fortified with a good breakfast, I went to the yards, eager to get out of the cold and into a warm boxcar.
Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.
The Kid from Hoboken: Book One