By the way: Remembering a hobo who visited yearly

Written by Ann Garlick April 03, 2010 08:35 am

Del Norte’s homeless population has come in for some resentment of late.

It reminded me of my childhood in North Hollywood, where a handyman named August used to come each summer to help my father around the house and yard. August  was a great friend to my brother John and me. He was what was known at that time as a hobo, tramp or knight of the road. Some people called the phenomenon of those Great Depression years as “hobohemia.”

I did some research into the homeless movement and found some interesting figures. As  many as 3.8 million people a year are on the streets of America for periods of a few days up to chronic situations where individuals have established permanent street living standards. Most stints at street-living last three weeks or less, but the number of chronic cases number less than 124,000, according to current statistics. Further, the numbers have been going down over the past few years.

Situations forcing people, including women with children, into the streets range from financial problems to substance abuse, political “floating populations” to mental or physical health issues. Some cases are    caused by the lack of education. All of these factors and more are being addressed by scores of agencies, some private, some public, some totally volunteer-generated.

Every president in recent times has been involved in legislation designed to create safety nets for those in need. President Obama is the latest Oval Office resident to leap into the fray.

What caused the problem to begin with? There is no lack of theories. Take your pick. The phenomenon goes way back in American history, and is world-wide in scope, not just here. But today there seems to be a difference.

Back when August was around, there may have been some hard feelings. But I think there was tolerance, too. However, I was just a little girl at that time. We all knew that there was a group of hobos living under the Magnolia Street bridge that spanned the Los Angeles River. They would stay until winter storms brought respectable amounts of water coursing through town. August  must have been one of them. He was a volunteer at heart, my dad said.

Each summer this short, wizened-face man would appear and work for us for several months. Dad used to say his name was August because he came every August. He agreed to work for my parents for three good meals a day, but my father paid him  wages, too.

John and I were fascinated by this romantic figure. He could show us magic tricks, tell us about wonderful places he had visited, and sometimes gave us pointers in the art of survival, such as how to sharpen a dull razor blade.

You hone it on the inside of a water glass. He built us an elegant tree house in a large pepper tree we had. He taught my father the fine points of hobo cuisine, including how to make a wonderful stew. I think it was called Mulligan Stew, but I’m not sure about the name.

One summer August failed to appear. Dad used all his newspaper sources trying to find the man or discover what had happened. He simply disappeared. We were told he probably had died somewhere along his accustomed route.

Dad always said August was on the road because he wanted to be. He must have been a true “hobohemian.” I think there are some people like him in every generation and statistics indicate this may be so. But today they have impressive fancy medical terms to cover that sort of thing.

One thing is sure. In the information I collected, there are lists of agencies one can access to find help, homeless or not. I counted 18 nationally oriented agencies that can be accessed for aid and more that operate only regionally. But I miss August and his cheerful, friendly ways.

Ann Terrill Garlick is a veteran, award-winning journalist and a native Californian. She spent nearly 23 years as one of the editors at the Orange County Register.