May 8, 2017

By Arthur H. Gunther III

My grandmother was used to seeing road-worn men in old but once-pressed suit jackets at her back porch in Spring Valley, N.Y. They were there during the 1930s Great Depression, hobos off the Erie line looking for a bit of work and the sandwich to follow.
Nana never had a job for them — my father and grandfather took care of 14 Ternure Ave., but she never turned away eyes in hunger. She had little enough food though my grandfather managed to keep his job as foreman for Briarcraft, a smoking pipe factory.
Some of the men would tell my grandmother about themselves, though most were shy and reticent, and as she said, well-mannered, perhaps recalling their own mothers or wives left behind. These men were not shiftless, but down-on-their-luck fellows who lost jobs, some good ones, in that catayclismic time when unemployment in 1933 meant 11 million jobless, almost 25 percent. Businessmen, farmers, even ex-industrialists road the freight rails, alone or in the comradeship that always gathers in calamity.
The Erie had a freight yard in Spring Valley where coal, lumber and feed were unloaded for the area. The hobos got off there, with some spending nights in the woods off Lawrence Street just as the homeless do today.
So many decades later, a few streets closer to the Erie rails, now the MTA Pascack Valley Line, a non-government program offers sandwiches to go, too, after a sit-down breakfast. Lots of volunteer grandmas there, a few grandpas, and no one asks questions. But they do listen to humanity, just as Nana did.

The writer is a retired newspaperman.