In Cedar Rapids, Iowa during the Depression, “tramps” are what we called the hoboes who rode the rails going from town to town trying to find work. They would usually start appearing in the spring when farmers were beginning their spring planting and might be able to hire help.
The tramps were always men. Always hungry, they would go up to a family’s back door and ask for food. But never more than one would approach. All the housewives (and children) were afraid of these strange, gaunt men in their shabby, soiled clothes, but I never heard of any of them ever being turned away without being given something to eat.
We lived in a house on 3rd Avenue and 11th Street Northwest. It was a corner lot with easy access to the back yard. Our ice box was on the back porch, and our Collie-Shepherd dog, Laddie, always slept next to it. Laddie was very, very sick with distemper and I could hardly bear to leave his side. (Visits to the vet were unheard of during the Depression). I was sitting on the floor stroking him, giving him sips of water, and trying to get him to eat something.
Suddenly, I saw a tramp come up on the sidewalk leading to the back door. Usually when tramps came, I would run away and hide, but I knew he would see me if I left Laddie, so I hunkered down so as not to be seen.
The photo you’ll see further on reminds me of the tramp, except that he was wearing a Fedora hat commonly worn by men at that time. His shoes were quite worn down. I guess he must have been about 40 years old. He seemed to be very tired.
The tramp went up to the back door and knocked. My mother opened the door. Now, to add to the tension of the scene, my Norwegian mother was not only afraid of the tramps, she had an inbred suspicion of ANY strangers. especially at her own back door.
The tramp said “I’m awful hungry, Missus. Do you have anything I could eat?”
Mother hesitated a second or two and then she said. “Yes. Sit down on the steps and wait. I’ll fix something and you can eat it out here.”
I watched as the man practically inhaled the food. I’d never seen anyone so hungry before. When he finished with the food and the coffee, he sat for a minute or two and then got up, went up to the back door again and knocked.
When mother opened the door, the tramp handed her the dishes and silverware. Then he said “Thank you for the good food. It’s the best I ever tasted.”
I could see that Mom was trying to close the door. “I would like to do something to repay you”, said the tramp. “Do you have any knives or scissors that need sharpening?”
At first I was shocked at the idea of mother handing knives to this scary man but then I remember thinking that no way would she do such a thing. And actually, she didn’t. Not exactly.
After what seemed like a long pause, mother slowly said, “I’ll see if we have any”. Then she went back inside.
Genuinely pleased, the tramp took the scissors, sat down on the step, took a tool or stone out of his bag and proceeded to sharpen the scissors. Finally, he got up, went back to the door and knocked again. When mother answered, he handed her the scissors, and said, “These are high quality scissors, ma’am, and they were easy to sharpen. I enjoyed sharpening such fine scissors.”
I couldn’t see my mother’s face when she took the scissors but I hope she was smiling. Because the tramp certainly was. I heard mother say, “Thank you.”
And with that, the tramp proceeded to walk out of the back yard. To this day, I would swear that he was walking straighter and taller, and didn’t seem as tired as when he first appeared.
Whenever I remember this strange incident, I can’t help being proud of the tramp for his desire to make payment for what he had received, and of my mother for respecting him enough to accept it.
My husband Gene worked in fundraising for many years. One time he told me that of all the religious groups that fundraisers work with, the Jews are the most generous. The Torah teaches that charity (tzedakah) is not voluntary, but mandatory; that it has little to do with benevolence or generosity — but instead with justice and fairness.
Certain kinds of tzedakah are considered more meritorious than others. To a practicing Jew, the levels of charity, from the least meritorious to the most meritorious, are:
- Giving begrudgingly
- Giving less than you should, but giving it cheerfully.
- Giving after being asked
- Giving before being asked
- Giving when you do not know the recipient’s identity, but the recipient knows your identity
- Giving when you know the recipient’s identity, but the recipient does not know your identity
- Giving when neither party knows the other’s identity
- Enabling the recipient to become self-reliant
It’s that last one that’s the most interesting. In her small way, I think my Catholic mother managed to exercise the most meritorious level of charity, as the Torah intended.
As a final footnote, our faithful dog Laddie died a day or two after the incident. I’ll always remember that scene he suffered through because he was certainly an important part of it.