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School for Bums
by Mary Heaton Vorse, An Article in The New Republic (April 29, 1931)
Editor’s Note: Mary Heaton Vorse O’Brien (1874–1966) was an American journalist, labor activist and novelist. During her long career Mary Heaton Vorse wrote 16 books, two plays and scores of articles for newspapers, magazines and periodicals. Vorse was outspoken and active in peace and other social justice issues such as woman suffrage
They took a census of the floating unemployed on the East Side, which covered the homeless men. In the Municipal Lodging House, in the missions and shelters, in flop-houses and speakeasies where a man can stay all night, sleeping on sawdust, if he buys a drink, they took a census.
The regular salaried census takers had a force of between two and three hundred volunteers, divided up into teams. Each captain had working under him a team of six or more people, flung across the Bowery, down Doyers Street, through Christie Street, on to the waterfront.
They are rounding up the misery of the East Side. Doing it “intensively” as one census taker puts it. This is a queer census. It is a census of misery. It is the count of despair. In New York City for future reference they will tabulate the hopeless and put between covers of books how many men are wandering around shelterless, no prospect of jobs, no place to stay in the daytime, no place to sleep at night. How many are there—the wanderers from Municipal Lodging House to Salvation Army shelter, to flop-house, to speakeasy? How many are there sleeping in the subway or under the bridge at One Hundred and Eighty-fourth Street?
Well, at this writing the figures are being compiled. They are not yet accurate, but it looks as if there are about fifteen thousand homeless men in New York—which would include a couple of hundred homeless women.
The unemployed homeless do not take so kindly to the count. Social workers reported that in the flop-houses and twenty-five-cent-a-bed hotels they were hard to talk to—different from what they had been two years before when a similar count had been taken. Some men did not answer at all. Nor did the social workers wonder at this.
Everyone said the missions were the easiest places in which to take the unemployed census. Take the mission in Doyers Street. It is where the Chinese Theatre used to be. You come into a large irregular room. They hold the mission service where the Chinese actors used to play their interminable plays. Go down a flight of stairs. Here is an underground place. Toward one end, a counter, men in aprons behind it. This is where the men get their food. After that, after they have praised God with hymns, after the prayers, the beds stacked up high against bricked-in arches will be spread down in his space, which holds perhaps three hundred.
The line, before the men are fed, shuffles patiently in front of the census takers. One is a young girl in a raccoon coat, with a clear-cut profile. Her eyes are open with surprise. She has never seen anything like this before. She is embarrassed asking questions—name, age, where born, what trade? They file along, the men in the mission, a long shuffling line. A patient line. Weary feet, broken shoes, worn clothes, unshaven faces.
Very few young men in the missions now. The young men don’t go in so much for religion. Many of them over forty, comparatively few under thirty. They crawl along, glad enough to answer the questions and get on. They shuffle along like men already accustomed to waiting, easing themselves on one foot, then on the other. After a couple of hours they get their handout.
A queer census. What happened to John Bentley, 29, house painter, born in Kansas of American parents, union member? Well, there was this depression in the building trades, and he heard of a job farther east. He had a job for a short time. Now here he is in the line. His face is clear-cut, English, with a long upper lip. The type of man who should be upstanding and brisk. His shoulders sag, his shoes are broken. Defeat and bitterness are in his expression. The slight defiance in his answers is of the man who dares you to ask him how he happened to come on a breadline. There are hundreds more with his story.
The beds are being spread out. The girl in the raccoon coat cries out, “My God, they’re lying on the floor!” There are not beds enough for everyone. Enough handouts, enough free food of a kind “that don’t stand by you,” all the drifters will tell you. But not enough flops.
A group of some twenty well dressed people suddenly appears on the stairs. “Ladies and gentlemen,” chants a guide, “this was one of the underground resorts of old Chinatown. This used to be the place where Chinatown came to hit the pipe. You would find white people and Chinese together sodden in opium dreams. Behind those bricked-in arches was where the plutocrats and the society people used to come to smoke their pipes in privacy….”
“My Lord!” says the girl in the raccoon coat. “Tourists!”
The people from the sightseeing bus peer at the men rolling themselves in blankets. They peer at the bricked-in archways behind which in the old days “plutocrats and society women” supposedly came for an opium debauch. Then they go on.
The census is over. No one else will be allowed in tonight. They are taking care of all they can.
The groups of census takers go on from the mission to the speakeasies. In some of these there is a free lunch. Here, if you buy a drink, they let you stay and sleep on the sawdust or on a chair. In some of them there is a drink of free whiskey all around at midnight.
It is not hard to understand why a man would rather sleep in the filthy sawdust than at a mission or in that place of massed misery, the Municipal Lodging House—where there is a somewhat ghastly moment after a man has given up his clothes to be sterilized. After his shower, he stands naked, with all his other naked and miserable comrades, waiting for a nightshirt: The speakeasy, after all, has a touch of home about it, a place where a man can keep his personality, what there is of it.
A group of volunteer census takers meet, men and women. They have together accumulated a series of nightmare pictures of our civilization. They have seen where the men sleep and how inadequate the beds of New York are for the homeless. One social worker sums it up as he exclaims:
“It’s a school for bums.”
It is a school for bums—crawling breadlines—81,000 free meals daily. No certain place to sleep, no organized shelter.
If you want to know how to make a bum out of a workingman who has had trade, home, security and ambition taken from him, talk to any of the
young fellows on the breadline who have been in town long enough to have become experienced in misery. Say a man in this town goes to the Municipal Lodging House for his first night. Until lately, he would have been routed out at five in the morning. Now he can stay until six. He is given breakfast, then he must leave, blizzard or rain. He can go next to a Salvation Army shelter for a handout, and get down to the City Free Employment Bureau before it opens. Or he can find shelter in subways and mark the Want Ads in a morning paper.
If he decides on the Employment Bureau, he is wise to arrive there before the doors open. He will find himself in the midst of a huge company which augments all the time until the opening of the doors. He may have spent two hours there—from nine to eleven. After that, he will not have eaten since his handout at seven at the Salvation Army, and he will have walked quite a lot. The next thing to do will be to put himself on some other breadline. It will take him one and a half or two hours to get his noonday meal.
In the afternoon there isn’t very much use hunting jobs; yet there may be a chance at something; at some of the agencies, or perhaps by looking through the scanty Want Ads in the afternoon papers. There is a question then as to how and where to spend the rest of the time. If he has good enough clothes he can kill some time in the library. With discretion, hours can be spent in the terminals of stations. He can go to a museum. If he has a nickel, he can “ride the subways.” But if he can panhandle some money, he can at least stay indoors in a speakeasy or Bowery hotel.
It will take him an hour and a half or two hours for his evening meal, and if he is going to the Municipal Lodging House again, he had best be early on the line.
Until recently the Municipal Lodging House was open only one night a month to non-residents and five nights to residents of New York. This restriction has now been removed. There are 3,300 people sleeping at the Municipal Lodging House, of which one hundred are women. The beds are full, and they are sleeping on benches, on the floor.
In the life of this drifting worker there is never any security. He is never sure where he is going to sleep. It is easy to learn to panhandle twenty-five or fifty cents for a night’s flop. Between the agencies who help homeless men—the Salvation Army, Municipal lodging houses, the Y. M. C. A. and missions—there are not enough beds. Make a count of all the agencies, even including the new pier, which furnishes shelter for seven hundred more, and the Salvation Army boat that gives lodging to six hundred seamen, besides its other shelters. There is still a slack of thousands for whom there is no free accommodation at present in the city.
The present situation is indeed a school for bums. A thing to sap moral and physical strength. A situation which in a few weeks would make most employable men unemployable, and which puts a premium upon panhandling. It is the deadly frustration of each unsuccessful day of job hunting when, tired and footsore, a man again stands in the long gray queue of the breadline only to seek an uncertain shelter. It is astonishing how soon a newcomer learns the ropes, how quickly it spreads from mouth to mouth where food is better, where flops are to be had.
Usually when times are hard and people are out of work, Fifth Avenue and Broadway know nothing about it. This is the first time these streets have lost their glittering shine. The shabby, shifting, ebbing men out of work have taken it from them.
On a street corner near Fiftieth Street was a store which had been turned into a free restaurant for the unemployed. Well dressed young ladies were cutting sandwiches for all who wanted to come in and get one. In the middle of each table stood a pot of mustard. There were men with well brushed clothes, men who looked like old bums, young white-collar men, all engulfing enormous sandwiches, cheese spread with mustard—three sandwiches to a person and coffee.
There were men whose faces made a spot of yellow, famine color. They had been starving. The men eating behind the plate-glass windows of the corner store were being gaped at by a crowd. Outside two men discussed them.
“That’s to keep ’em from riotin’; it’s to keep ’em quiet that they’re feedin’ ’em,” said a man who talked like a play by Upton Sinclair.
“Har! Ye talk like a radical,” said a man with an English accent. “That’s fir hadvertising that they’re feedin’ ’em, them’s society girls in there.”
“It’s to keep ’em quiet, I say. If they didn’t feed ’em, they’d come marchin’ down to the markets. They’d break the windows and loot ’em and help ’emselves. An’ what’s to prevent ’em from takin’ what they want? They’s a millign of ’em in the city; if they was to march they’d make a procession!”
What if they should march, one wonders—all of them. What if having had their census taken and their misery compiled, they should give an exhibition of their numbers? What then? Tear gas and clubs and arrests, no doubt.
There are other sides to the avalanche of despair. As a part of the widespread slump, the people who thought themselves secure have been thrown into it. The people who have been able to have a college education suddenly find themselves out of a job. No one can take the census of this misery. It doesn’t walk the street. It sits and shivers in cold houses. It hides itself.
They hunt in vain for jobs. Or, if they have homes to go to, they return, defeated, to be dependent. Or perhaps, having no home to go to, these people, too, may slip gradually downhill where they must apply for charity.
And what about such people as a friend of mine told me of recently? She was working in one of the emergency employment bureaus on the East Side where daily men came to get the Prosser jobs which are now nonexistent. Daily the little crowd of people gathers outside and waits in vain.
I watched this flood of people who had been once well-to-do, judging by their clothing. People used to steady work, coming in vain with their stories of five children, no work, savings gone.
“It’s not nearly as hard as the employment agency I used to work with in Queens,” my friend told me. The first day she worked there, she went to nine houses, which had in each case been lost by the young people who were in the process of buying them. Here was a little suburban community where young people, many of them with college educations, had come to found homes, to live where their children could be brought up healthfully.
“There was something more desperate in Queens,” my friend told me, “than there is on the East Side, where people are used to the idea of insecurity. The car goes first: the furniture goes; then the house goes; confidence in life goes.”
Of the number of people losing their all, because they cannot raise a few dollars, there is no record as yet. Maybe there will never be. One can only generalize and say that the white-collar class is suffering today with the mechanic. The man who has spent thousands upon his education is no more secure than a laborer. The misery, doubt and defeat piles up, an incalculable mountain. There is no census yet of these.
Source: Vorse, Mary Heaton, “School for Bums,” The New Republic (April 29, 1931), http://newdeal.feri.org/voices/voce02.htm. New Deal Network, http://newdeal.feri.org (April 14, 2014).