I’m just a wanderin’ man,
I go from town to town
Police make it hard where I may go
Ain’t got no home in this world anymore.
–A hobo song
The old black van looks like a misdirected bread truck lurching along Skid Row, stopping sometimes two or three times in a single block. But at every stop uniformed police clamber out, rustle up a drunk or two from the side-walk, shove them onto the hard benches inside, slam the doors, then move on. Twenty-four hours a day the Los Angeles “rag-pickers squad” keeps up its routine along Fifth Street, the paddy wagon veering away only for quick excursions to the city lockup.
Robert Lewis Jackson, whose trash-can-relic suit coat suffered a large tear in the journey, was among those brought in shortly before last Thanksgiving. But the next day he was released and allowed to rejoin Skid Row where a casual camaraderie and a familiar litany waited.
“Where’d you go last night?”
A wry smile. “Guess I got lost. Lucky for me, the police found me and took me home.”
When not in jail, Jackson devoted his mornings to the public libraries of the nation’s big cities. Once a halting reader, he had taught himself proficiency by studying newspapers and magazines. Now he could often be found regaling fellow hobos about the merits of tax subsidies or sexual amorality.
The Los Angeles Public Library on Fifth Street offered Jackson week-old editions of his home-town newspaper, the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Somewhere in Louisiana he had children he hadn’t seen since their mother died two decades ago. Even his friends weren’t sure why he had deserted his family; that was his private sorrow.
Jackson’s library readings while wintering in Los Angeles were usually followed by a stroll down Fifth Street to select the day’s wine, either Franzia Brothers white port or Santa Fe red port, for 60¢ a bottle, the cheapest high around. On the afternoon of November 30th, 1974, two days after Thanksgiving, Jackson purchased an extra bottle, in the mood to play host. His bottles and his opinions were the focus of a gathering that evening along Fifth Street. Decorum was observed; greedy gulps were frowned on. A measure of disagreement, without anger, kept the conversation going.
In the group was a young longhair, a tall man with muscular arms bulging from a sleeveless shirt. Everyone stayed until the port ran dry, then wandered off. Jackson retired to the library grounds, easing himself onto a grassy spot next to a stand of eugenia shrubs. Here he untied his rolled-up copies of the Los Angeles Times, an armload easily worth its weight: The Times is quadruple the size of its rival, the Herald-Examiner, even though both sell for a dime, making the Times an over-whelming favorite on Skid Row. On this night Jackson required two copies as insulation against ground moisture and a biting chill.
Some time later footsteps approached. If Jackson was still awake, he probably felt little apprehension. The intruder most likely was another hobo, perhaps someone who had shared Jackson’s port a few hours before. Men sleeping less than a hundred feet away failed to stir as the intruder bent forward, a glint of metal in his hand.
Jackson was seen one more time by the residents of Skid Row. They were summoned to the library grounds the next morning by throaty exclamations that traveled down Fifth Street. They saw the newspapers scattered about, and they saw Jackson’s rigid face, a savage gash extending across his neck.
Los Angeles wants no duds, loafers and paupers, people who have no means and trust to luck. We need workers! Hustlers! First-class men! —1886, Colonel Harrison Gray Otis, editor, Los Angeles Times
Before the 1870s tramps were numerically negligible. But the crash of 1873 delivered three million men into vagrancy, and the new transcontinental railroad turned them into bindlestiffs, nomads riding the rods. Even then, Los Angeles was a hobo mecca, a relaxed city with a friendly climate, a selection of flophouses and a parcel of Good Samaritans—despite the grumblings of Colonel Otis. The Union Rescue Mission, financed by Bible-carrying businessmen, served hot meals from a wooden cart drawn by a horse along Fifth Street.
Fifth Street is still Skid Row in Los Angeles, a midway of bars with 15¢ beers, eateries with 75¢ dinners and secondhand stores that barter porno comics, war medals, weathered hats, tinsel jewelry and old memories. Scores of men trek here each winter from across the country, meeting friends, exchanging gossip, settling in until spring. Their wine money arrives the first of each month—meager checks from the Veterans Administration, Social Security or the local welfare office. For food, they usually pick through garbage or attend the missions.
The Union Rescue Mission today is two blocks north on Main Street, an address many hobos use for their mail. It is ensconced in a three-story warehouse with a red-and-yellow marquee tattooed on its face: JESUS SAVES. By the reckoning of the eight chaplains who minister food, clothes, razors and Biblical counsel to 400 transients each day, the mission is the largest of its kind in North America. Inside is a chapel, its walls billboarded with quotations from Luke, Paul and John the Beloved; upstairs is a row of dormitory beds, a county-sanctioned delousing unit and a publicity room with boxes of pocket-sized pamphlets that champion Christianity as the only salvation from alcoholism. The odor of overcooked food lingers in the huge dining room where tin bowls and cups, some bearing a swirl of dishwater, are set out three times a day on long plank tables.
The best breakfast on Skid Row is at Gravy Joe’s, a smaller mission that doles out coffee, bread and a tender gravy made from chicken necks donated by a butcher shop. But the best suppers are dished out at the Union Rescue Mission where hobos begin queuing up by midafternoon for portions of a greasy, savory potato stew. In exchange for meals, they are asked to sit through twice-daily services. If they want to dine more than five days in a row, they must help clear tables and wash dishes.