Monday, 1 May 2017

1885 - Vagabonds

“Vags and Vagabonds  : The QueeR Philosophy of a Poetic Tramp”

Hamilton Spectator.   September 16, 1886.


                   “Homeless, tattered and tanned,           

                             Under the changeful sky,

                    Who so free in the land,

                             Who so contented as I”

          “The last time I heard the words of Molloy’s charming song was in the Opera House in the winter, and it brought back to the memory of one summer afternoon, a couple of years back, when I heard a rich baritone voice rolling them out beneath the shade of a maple tree on the mountain side.

          “I had walked up the Northwestern track that afternoon, and was calmly reposing myself, watching the ashes grow on a cigar, when I heard the song above me. Looking up, I saw the singer. He was a tall, slim man, dark of complexion he, brown hair and eyes, and crisp, curling brown beard. He was decidedly good-looking. He pulled nonchalantly at a clay pipe, black from constant use. His clothes had seen better days years ago, but no matter how poorly he was dressed, he looked what he was – a gentleman. I found this out when I talked with him. More, he was intelligent, well-read and a philosopher. Charming acquaintance!

          “ ‘ You don’t know what life is, my boy!’ he said to me. ‘Cooped up in the smoke and dust of a city, you are like a bird in a cage. Don’t you ever pine for the freedom of the country – the hills, the valleys, the lakes and rivers, and overall, the wonderful blue that hides us from heaven? I go where I like, work when I have to, and spend the rest of my time enjoying nature’s wonderful beauty. Here are my friends, the trees and flowers; the drowsy hum of insects is music to me; my couch, my mother the earth, and the moon and stars my guardians. I fear no man, and seek no man’s favor. I care for no one, and no one cares for me. I am as free and unfettered as the birds of heaven.’


          I thought my friend was getting a trifle too high-flown. I suggested constitutional laziness, and he laughed. ‘I work more than you do,’ he said. ‘Walking is tough sometimes.’

          “ ‘What about the police?”

          “Why, what about them?

          “ ‘They have a way of arresting vagrants.’

          “ My strange friend laughed again. ‘They never interfere with me. I don’t give them a chance to. Your vagrants are the men who loaf and beg about the city. I would scorn fellowship with them. I am a vagabond, and I glory in it. You say it is wrong for me to escape from the responsibilities of society – that if I were a man of honor, I would bear my share of the burdens of the social fabric’

          “ ‘Bosh. The social fabric has no burdens except those of its own creation. If men are foolish enough to bake brick for their own shoulders, let them. I will have none of them. I am content to live and die, unwept, unhonored and unsung. Nature gives me all I need. I love her in all her moods, and in all her varied loveliness, and leave the towns and cities with their dust, their rows of villainously-built and uncomfortable houses, their procession of painted women and badly-dressed men to those who care for them. I don’t !


          “ I began to suspect that my friend was slightly crazed on this point, though he talked intelligently otherwise, and having given him a cigar, walked away. And the last I heard of him, he was singing the same old song as lustily as ever.


          “Some time after that, I had occasion to go away down east one night to rout a man out of bed for something. I forget now what it was. He lived very close to the city limits, and his house was near the mountain. As I walked up the street, I was surprised to see a gang of six or eight fellows sleeping beneath a tree. This was about two o’clock in the morning. They were tough-looking characters, most of them, as I could see by the moonlight that filtered through on their faces. I mentioned the matter to the gentleman I had gone to see, and was quite surprised to hear him say, ‘Oh! that’s nothing. They’ll do no harm. We are quite accustomed to that. I daresay if I was to go out to my barn now, I would find one or two fellows sleeping in the hay. There is very seldom any trouble with them. If you don’t interfere with them, they’re alright. All the people in this neighborhood know of them. Walk around East Hamilton any summer night and you find them by the score.’


          “ ‘My experience since then has proved the words correct to a great extent. A large number of these vagabonds are lads who sneak from their homes expressly to do it. Others have no homes to sneak from. They commit small depredations constantly. Residents of the east end are frequent sufferers. Fruit, vegetables, chickens and small articles that are easily carried, form their customary prey. On several nights since then, I have seen gangs around small fires waiting patiently for the cooking of a stolen chicken or the roasting of some potatoes.


          “The east end is not alone in this respect. The prowler can find these pariahs along the mountainside, down around the wharves and up in the west end. Anyone who is curious can walk around the shores of the Dundas marsh. If he goes in the daytime, he will find traces everywhere – bottles, bones, bits of bread, maybe a smoldering fire. At night, fires are all ablaze. One night recently I counted six at once. I ventured to draw near to two of them. Squatting around one were three men, a woman and a lad of tender years. A black bottle was on active duty among them, and all were evidently on a fair way to a night’s debauch. At the other fire, three young men were sitting, and two were sleeping calmly on the grass. An empty bottle lay beside them, and another was in circulation. The three awake were rapidly getting ready to join their companions and sleep the sleep of the truly drunk. The policeman who was with me remarked that more drunken gangs hold out there than at any other camping ground in the city.


          “I was told by another policeman that an open vault in the Roman Catholic cemetery was the regular abiding place of another gang, but of this I have no personal knowledge. The reader of the police court reports in the newspapers will constantly find allusions to this sort of thing, for many of these night hawks are caught and jailed. Only yesterday, one story of this sort was told in the court – a story of perhaps more than ordinary interest as it shattered the hopes of the criminal theorists who prophesied that the traces of the terrible tragedy might be found beneath the weeds and waters of the Dundas marsh. It seems incredible to think that people who might enjoy the comforts, if not the luxuries of civilization, can throw all the advantages of that civilization so carelessly away. My friend the singer represents the highest type of the vagabond, the drunken wretches of the west end, the lowest. Between the two there is but a step. The high-toned vagabond will surely halt in time. It all shows how purely superficial civilization, refinement and culture is. Human nature, pure and simple, is just as strong in the breasts of the most polished ballroom habitue, as in the poor, unlettered, dusky sons and daughters of the forest.”1

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