I picked the song prompt “The Good Life” by Three Days Grace a couple of weeks ago and scheduled the post for the future. Afterward, I heard about a man who was traveling through Cumberland, Maryland, on whose true tale this short story is based. The person who told me about him is the cook character in the piece.
It is amazing how well this story fits the sentiment of the prompt song. It was serendipitous I was told about this story just as the prompt song posted.
The Good Life
by Fay Moore © 2012
The stranger sidled up to the lunch counter and took a seat.
The cook, who also served as waiter at the rescue mission, didn’t recognize the man as having been there before. No matter. More and more, the faces were new, coming in for a meal or two before disappearing, not to be seen again. Yet something about this man piqued the cook’s curiosity.
“Would you like a bowl of soup?” the cook asked.
“Yes. Thank you,” said the stranger.
He dropped his knapsack on the floor beside the counter stool, took a seat, then swiveled around to survey the room. A half-dozen wizened-faced men peppered the room, sitting at tables in dark corners. Like fly specks on an otherwise clean kitchen counter top, they were an uncomfortable reminder that something unlikable was present in this city.
“I don’t think I’ve seen you here before,” remarked the cook.
“No. I’m only here for a day or two.”
“Where are you staying?”
“At the hobo camp by the railroad yard.” The man showed no embarrassment or shame.
Hobo. Until recently, it was an archaic word that conjured the depression era men who traveled with a bindle, riding in box cars, looking for the next place that promised a chance at a job.
Hobo. Here at the mission, modern hobos arrived daily, attracted to the hobo camp near the railroad hub, where trains converged for a re-shuffling of the cars into new configurations based on each car’s destination. Men traveling from southern or eastern cities came here to catch a western- or northern-bound train. And vice versa, depending on the season or the work available. Some were disheveled from countless days between using a bath or laundry facility.
The cook noticed this stranger was clean and cleanly dressed.
Hobo. A lifestyle of survival and of necessity exacerbated by bad economic times. Unlike bums, hobos traveled looking for work. A job yielded a good life. Modern hobos might or might not be penniless. The common characteristic hobos shared was using the railroads to travel – for free.
“Are you riding the train?” the cook asked.
“Hope to. I’m heading for Canada.”
“For vacation,” came the reply.
“You’re kidding me,” the cook gasped.
“No. I guess I should explain. I used to be a hobo, always traveling from place to place by rail, trying to find work. Finally, I was lucky and landed a good job. Someone took me under his wing to guide me. I went to law school. Now I am a lawyer. But every year, I take a vacation and ride the rails. For old time’s sake, I guess.”
The cook looked incredulous.
“It’s true. I have a hand written book given to me by an old man a long time ago that outlines every rail line, every yard, where the junctions are to change course, which yards to avoid because the bulls are mean sons of bitches. That kind of stuff. He collected it all by writing it down. Before he died, he gave it to me.”
“Have you ever been thrown off a train by a bull?” The cook was wide-eyed.
“Yes. It’s worse in the deep south. I got roughed up down there and taken to jail. But I paid my fine, and I went on my way.”
The cook shook his head. The man finished his soup and slapped a twenty dollar bill on the counter.
“The lunch is free,” said the cook. “The boss says to feed whoever walks through the door.”
“I know. This is a donation. It’s what I do now that I can. When I eat, I pay for myself,” he said, panning his arm across the room, “and for my friends. Thanks for being here to feed us. There was a time that without soup kitchens like this one, I would not have had a meal for days while I hunted work. It’s my way to give back.”
The stranger picked up his backpack, shouldered it, and walked out through the same door he entered earlier, without looking back. In his head, he thought about the cook. He thought each of them had found a little of the good life.