Buckhead Tales: Mark of the Hobo

1958 was a long time ago. That’s more than 60 trips around Mr. Sun. I was in 2nd grade at Sarah Smith Elementary on Old Ivy Road in Buckhead when I witnessed something that may be gone forever, swept away into the dustbin of history like those dodo birds I used to read about. Those birds were long gone before I was born but in some strange way I miss them anyway. I spend much of my time these days missing things that have gone away.

I guess it was my mom who brought this to my attention. After school one day I had ridden the yellow school bus through Buckhead until I was deposited at the corner of Wieuca Road and Wieuca Terrace. A short walk down the hill and around the corner and I was home. As I rounded the bend I saw something scrawled on the curb in front of our house. It looked like something a neighbor’s kid had drawn with a piece of white chalk: a circle with an “X” inside. I didn’t give it much thought.

I went into the house and headed straight for the couch to watch The Millionaire. Every kid I knew watched that show and wondered “What if a stranger gave me a million dollars?” This was my after-school ritual, watch TV and goof off until dad came home and then pretend to be doing homework. This particular day mom said a man had come to the kitchen door that morning, asking for food. That got my attention as I had never heard of anything like that, this was something new. She said she gave him two cans of soup. I’m guessing it was Campbell’s soup, she usually had a good supply of that in the pantry. My mom told me he politely received the offered soup and then was gone.

“Gone with the wind,” as she loved to say. She liked to work in that phrase as often as she could into any conversation. I think it had something to do with some mythic Old South trance that her generation fell into whenever the summer turned hot and the magnolias started to flower.

It all seemed strange to me. Why were anonymous men wandering around our lily-white suburb coming to the back door and asking for things when the men folk were off at work? This was very weird indeed. Growing up in the 1930s she said she had often seen this type of man at her parent’s house in Rome, Georgia. Not a week would go by without a knock at the back door during the Great Depression. Millions of otherwise stable men were forced to take to the road in search of jobs and survival, they just kept moving and knocking on doors.

It had been many years since she had encountered this phantom army of travelers and she could not remember there ever being any trouble. “Hobos,” she said, “everyone called them hobos and they had a code of conduct they lived by and even used secret signs to communicate with each other.” I suddenly remembered the chalk mark on our curb, that X within a circle. We went out front and as soon as she saw it she said she remembered seeing that mark many times during her childhood on the street in front of her parent’s house.

A Secret Code

Years later I ran across the Rosetta Stone of the hobo language and learned that the sign meant “good place for a handout.” Better that than two overlapping circles; “hobos are jailed here.” There had once been a vast invisible army of men moving throughout the county leaving signs for each other in acts of kindness and courtesy.

Those days are long gone. As I said I only heard of this once in my life and that was over 60 years ago. That knock at our kitchen door may have come from one of the last of the hobos. Just like the dodo birds they are gone and almost forgotten but I’ve been thinking lately that it might be a good idea to resurrect that coded language. Not in the same way but in some other way. How do we respond to the stranger who knocks at the door?

These days no one comes to plead at the kitchen door. The chalk marks on the curb are gone, faded away and not coming back. You can’t blame folks, there is just too much fear. If someone shows up at the kitchen door these days looking for help the police will surely be called. Hard to blame anyone for dialing 911, the danger zone is everywhere.

A Moral Dilemma

So those strangers don’t come to the door anymore looking for help. They are now all out on the street corners. I see them everywhere with their signs pleading for help. “Homeless veteran,” “Have a blessed day,” “Will work for food.” I don’t know what to do. I’ve been scammed so many times I don’t know who to help anymore. What should I do? Give fruit? Give money? Avoid eye contact?

What should we do when we are confronted with the stranger knocking at the door? Some say that keeping our eyes on the heavens and trusting our fellow man is probably a good way to go. But– and this is a big but– the woods are full of pirates. Bad pirates. Do we dismiss all strangers in need because there are pirates about?

I don’t know the answer, but I know there is a lot of need and people are always knocking at the back door. They are looking for a handout, a hand up, or maybe just a speck of kindness in this harsh ol’ world. Sometimes it is a stranger knocking, sometimes a friend, sometimes it is us. So much knocking.

I asked my mom once how to respond to a world calling out for help. She said, “No matter how you choose to respond just don’t pretend you don’t hear the need. If a man pretends he doesn’t hear a cry for help, his child will be born without ears.”

She sure could lay out some pretty good advice. She would cut to the bone and just put it all out there to bake in the bright Georgia sun. She has been gone for a few years now, but I still miss her. Her and the dodo birds, all gone. Gone with the wind.


Jim Tate
Author, Buckhead Tales
jimtate@charter.net