02 July 2020

Signs and Symbols

The intriguing history of hobo signs/symbols | History 101

  At one point when I was talking with Mr. Matthews [see previous blog], I said to him, "There have been so many people come to the door lately, I am beginning to think my house has been marked.
    He said, "Yes, ma'am, it has."  I looked at him blankly.
    He took me down the back stairs, down the walk to the back of the garage where he pointed out a number of chalked signs. I was so stuck by them, and so excited, I forgot to ask him for an explanation. I was sure I would remember them, and of course, I didn't. I cannot say if any of my signs were on the list above collected in the Depression -- mine were 35 years younger.
    I was excited because my grandmother's house was marked in Depression Alabama, and because in a very small world I had now the honor of her status. My grandparents, my father's parents, lived near the railroad tracks, and every day close to eleven, my grandmother would listed for the whistle announcing that the Birmingham train was coming. My grandmother would go to her kitchen and start making sandwiches. They were poor enough that sometimes the sandwiches were bread and margarine, sometime bread and boloney, and sometimes there were just slices of bread, but there was always something to give the men who came along the fence and up the stairs to her back door.
    I think my grandfather did not formally know this was happening.  He would leave early every day with a sack lunch, and go to the hardware store which could no longer afford to employ him. He and several other men would go to the hardware store and sit around the iron stove, their work boots propped up on the fender, or if it was hot weather, sit in the dark rear of the store where a small breeze tunneled among stacks of pine planks.
    The men who rode the trains had to hide out for the rest of the day until the next train whistle announced a train going north or south -- there were two of each, each day. They had to hide because  local unemployed men who were members of the Klan -- my grandfather was one of them -- would look for them, beat them up, scare them so that they would never get off the train in that town again. My grandmother gave me very little information, but enough to let me know of her own fear every time she heard the train whistle. The Klan might avenge themselves on white women.
    My other grandmother, in Birmingham, had a reputation, too. Her house was not marked, but everyone knew she bought violins. Thin tired men with worn shoes and frayed trousers would come to her porch and offer her a violin.  She played the violin -- not terribly well though adequately for church solos -- but she led a small orchestra for workers at Avondale Mills who themselves were always thin and tired. The violins she bought on her porch for  $5 -- a lot if you realize that my mother's wedding dress cost $10 -- she would give to people who wanted to play in the orchestra and didn't have anything to play. Usually the violins did not come with bows, so she would have to find or buy a bow, and then rosin, and probably a couple of strings.  Also, she insisted on providing a square of velvet to go under the violin on the shoulder, and a piece of velvet to wrap the $5 violin in.
    I think often about the comfort my grandmothers provided to strangers.

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