Boxcar Shantytown

During one of my stints in the Marion County Jail this summer I got to know a 62-year-old black man whom I’ll call C. We were the oldest prisoners in the cell block — most of the others were tattooed young meth-heads and such.

C. grew up on the West Side, Hannibal’s ‘hood. Back in the early 1960s he was Hannibal’s first black paperboy, and he still remembers the name of the Courier-Post woman who hired him. His route consisted of several streets such as Spruce, Gordon, and Griffith, then as now a predominantly black and poor part of town.

After we had been released from jail I would run into C. and his wife from time to time out on the street. They were friendly to me and invited me to their house. Over the next few months I had many pleasant visits with the couple, just sitting around talking, yarning, and watching TV. While I was there I’d fill up one of my water jugs and charge my cell phone.

C. had many stories of life in Hannibal in “the old days” and told them with great vigor and expression. He told me stories his father told him over the years. C’s dad had a trash-hauling business in nearby Palmyra before he got married. This was back in the 1920s. C.’s father routinely saved what money he could in a local bank; all in all it amounted to several hundred dollars, a sizable sum back then. Then the Crash of ’29 happened and the bank failed. Until the end of his life C.’s father squirrelled away sums of money in coffee cans which he buried in the back yard. He also had a leather portfolio which he hid inside his mattress. A quote from C.’s father: “I’ll be damned if I ever trust my money to a white man again!”

C. recounted to me his father’s memories of a makeshift neighborhood on the edge of Hannibal, a settlement of indigent people who lived in boxcars during the Great Depression. The Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad had a lot where worn-out wood-sided boxcars were deposited after their poor condition made them unreliable. I imagine they kept the boxcars so that parts such as wheels and coupling mechanisms could be scavenged for re-use on newer boxcars.

I had some questions for C.:

“I suppose they carried their water in, but were these people completely without access to electricity?”

“Oh, there would be a few who could afford to run generators, while others would run extension cords. They would just move in, run a stovepipe out the roof, and start scavenging wood to burn before winter came.”

“Did they cut in windows in the walls of the cars?”

“Naw — if they wanted some fresh air they’d just open the big sliding doors. People were still living in some of those boxcars when I was a little kid, and I remember visiting some of those families with my folks. Y’know, when ya get right down to it, it sure was better than sleeping under a bridge!”

This story intrigued me. I had read about shanty towns during the Depression, but I had no idea there was one in Hannibal!

I don’t see C. any more because he is currently serving time in the Boone County Jail. One night C. and his wife were fighting, probably about money, and his wife either fell or was pushed down the long flight of steps leading up to their second-floor apartment. She broke a toe in the fall and from the bottom of the steps she called the police. When the cops came they ran C.s name and discovered that he had an outstanding warrant in Boone County.

I didn’t know about this unfortunate incident until the next morning. I was buying some food at the Save-A-Lot store when a black woman approached me. I had never seen her before but she knew who I was. She said “Hey, Larry, didja hear that your buddy’s in jail?” I was a bit nonplussed that she knew who I was and that I was a friend of C.’s; she told me the story, though in her version the number of toes broken had doubled. Later that day I talked with C.’s wife and she told me her version. I don’t think she really wanted to have her husband arrested and put in jail, but that’s what happened. She may not have even known about the outstanding warrant.

Larry

My Thanksgiving: 2010

So here I am again, sitting in front of a keyboard and resuming my contemplations and chronicles. It’s been a rough several months for me; my friends Dale and Sarah have been kind enough to give me a respite every week or so, welcome sojourns at their bucolic country place near New London.

Sarah has told me that I’m welcome to use her computer when she’s at work (12-hour night shifts at the hospital) or sleeping. I’ve had a problem up until today, though. Her much-used keyboard is missing the printed letters on the keys. I’m not a touch typist, although I can type as fast as I can think with my index and middle fingers. I just need to be able to see a few key letters from time to time in order to maintain my orientation.

Last night Dale swapped out the old keyboard and hooked up another one with legible letters — and now I can type fluently again.

Just to recap recent events and circumstances of my life here in Hannibal: I’ve had no electricity or water in my building for the past eight months or so. It really hasn’t been a third-world period; more like a medieval era. The nights (and some days!) have been getting cold and I’ve been preoccupied lately with survival, just staying warm and keeping my internal fires stoked with food.

I woke up Thanksgiving morning feeling chilled, as I had managed to kick off the blankets during the night. I made some coffee on my propane camp stove and fried a couple of eggs. I realized I had to do something about providing myself with heat. I began to ponder the issue. What does one do when the usual civilized sources of heat, such as electricity or natural gas, just aren’t available? Why, make a fire, of course!

What to burn, and where? I walked down to the local Save-A-Lot grocery store and bought a bag of charcoal and lugged it home. I noticed that puddles were frozen in the streets and gutters; the temperature had descended into the middle teens overnight.

I went downstairs into the courtyard and unlocked the door to a storage area. I found a pile of split red cedar which I had garnered from a farmer’s front yard years ago — clear quartered chunks intended for musical instrument soundboards and braces. The guitar I currently play has a top made from wood from that same cedar tree. I selected the less-than-perfect splits, most of them pieces with grain distortions due to nearby knots.

I found a sharp handsaw and took it and the cedar up to the second-floor porch. Down in the courtyard I’d found an ancient riveted-together iron bucket with a thick wrought-iron bail. The bucket was two-thirds filled with dirt, as I’ve planted marigolds in it for the past couple of years.

I sawed the 22″ cedar splits in half and split off kindling sticks with a double-bladed axe. I started a little cedar fire in the bucket and eventually put charcoal briquets on the new coals. Later in the day I found some old-growth southern yellow pine 2x12s leaned against the brick wall under the porch and began to saw ten-inch chunks from one of the planks as I needed them, and for the remainder of the day I kept warm.

I mentioned that my life and circumstances seemed medieval, but after starting the fire and warming myself I was reminded of the unchronicled lives of humans in the Pleistocene Era, following the glacial ice sheets as they retreated northwards. Next I’ll be out hunting mastodons!

I have a generally optimistic nature. I try to see the good in a situation rather than dwelling upon uncontrollable negative factors. I must say that I’ve really been enjoying my little bucket-borne fire. I spent years heating exclusively with wood and I realized that I’ve missed the ritualistic aspects of making and tending a fire. Fussing with splitting the kindling into progressively smaller splints, seeing how little newspaper I can get away with using and still getting the fire going, and assiduously providing the greedy combustion process with carbon-based food.

I’m reminded of a scene from my rural Knox County days years ago. My ex-wife’s father and mother were visiting us and Betsy’s father Chris was watching me as I quickly built a fire in the stove. As I struck a match and prepared to ignite the twisted up newspaper beneath the carefully-arranged kindling Chris said to me: “Can ya do it with just one match?”

“Most of the time; it doesn’t pay to get in a hurry and then have to start all over.” I replied.

Chris grew up poor in the central Ozarks and I could tell that his question was one he had retained from those hardscrabble Depression days. It must have been a point of pride back then to be able to start a fire with a single match.

A fire is a particularly effective aid to contemplation. How pleasant it is to sit gazing into the flames and letting the mind drift, speculating upon the future and remembering scenes from the past…

This period of my life hasn’t been all bad luck and setbacks! Even seemingly unfortunate and trying times can provide interesting experiences and food for thought. The two main things I’ve learned: things can just go to hell faster than you ever imagined, and having friends and family certainly does help!

Larry