8. Waiting for Nothing
Tom Kromer’s Waiting for Nothing deals with a similar theme but gives a different understanding of the vagrant experience. Kromer’s novel not only takes a first-person voice, but it stays in the character of a more prototypical hobo than other semi-fictionalized accounts. The first-person device adds a sense of immediacy and effective ventriloquism, but the simplistic diction and staccato sentence structure brings the narrator to life as a fully formed character. Furthermore, the vocabulary Kromer uses has a blunt ruggedness about it that paints the protagonist as a tough, streetwise desperado who spends more energy struggling through life than reflecting on it. Altogether, this writing style was effective in passing as natural and bringing me into the psyche of a desperate “stiff” in the 1930s.
What comes across most clearly in this novel is that the narrator seems to have no real concept of past or future. There is little time for any amount of self-reflection or Kromer details the day-by-day process of survival in brutal terms; the furthest our hero ever looks into the future is finding a “four-bit flop” for the night. This gives the narrator’s concerns a visceral edge that is supported by his distinct voice. Of course, a rare and striking exception to this futureless stream of consciousness is the final paragraph of the novel, just as another stiff has died just feet away in a mission and the narrator has given up trying to scratch the lice crawling all over him. “Dead in an hour. I shiver. Great Christ, I think, is this the way I will go out too? ... It is getting me. I can feel it. Twenty years before my time I will be like this guy. … I am not cold. I am afraid” (129).
Equally striking is how Kromer flouts normal plot structure in the narrative (if it even is a “narrative”). The story, like the narrator, goes nowhere. Each chapter is another short-lived vignette into the day-to-day life of helplessness. Unlike other stories we’ve read about the Depression, this novel is by no means a Bildungsroman, and it’s not entirely clear to the reader if the novel ever completes, or even attempts, a point-A-to-point-B journey. Though crushingly depressing, this may be closer to the “true story” of the 1930s than any other of our readings thus far.
The legal system in this country has become a critical part of the American experience as reflected in popular culture and the arts. Crime dramas have become a quintessentially American institution fascinating the rest of the world. Part of the popular appeal of the fictionalized courtroom is the mysteriousness of the process. Unless you are legally trained, attending school for many years, the system is a labyrinth of specific regulations. Legal terminology might as well be a foreign language to those whose fate lies in its grasp.
In Waiting for Nothing with all the powers at be against the protagonist and his fellow vagabonds, the legal system is a critical part of the failings of the system to protect the individual. Though the men’s “crimes” are seemingly victimless this does not prevent them from being charged.
“Down so far I don’t know how far,” I say (Kromer,10).
Kromer as a young man, only a few years out of college probably could not have imagined a destitute existence such as the one he paints in Waiting For Nothing; he must have truly lived it. This is apparent in the subtle shock lining his unnerving account of his time as a stiff. In his short, simple sentences, Kromer tries to relate a true sense of his experience- attempting to close the gap between his reality and our understanding of it (Solomon, 806). From Kromer’s poignant anguish however, comes a kind of surrealism that holds the reader’s imagination captive throughout and not always to the reader's liking. The desperation takes my mind to edges of reality and this I'm sure a reader in the '30s would find unfamiliar. The part where the main character gets picked up by a homosexual in the park illustrates that point well.
“‘Did you ever go out with any fellows?’”
“‘I never did.’”
“I am lying, but if this queer wants a virgin, that’s what he gets” (Kromer, 45).
The author, in spite of his blatant homophobia, is quite nonchalant in his admission simply because “a guy’s got to eat and what’s more, he has got to flop” (Kromer, 53). Now look, I’m no stranger to stories of prostitution but this one was unexpected. Maybe it was the way he was recounting it all, so straightforward, but its truth surprised me. It seems when you’re down and out you have no limits and anything can happen. In a way, that can set you free as you have to answer to no one but yourself and the prospect of seeing new things can be exciting; or it can rob you of everything you thought you stood for. A bum has no self-respect, no dignity, and no moral boundaries. He goes from day to day, week to week, month to month, year to year thinking only of “three hots and a flop” (Kromer, 131). His existence becomes animalistic, but unlike an animal, he knows that things can be better, that they could be different; and this is perhaps more painful than going hungry. Surreal is this departure from humanity into a world devoid of happiness and hope. Sureal is Kromer's reality.
The fact that each chapter is more or less self-contained is an interesting formal choice made by the author that I feel is very successful. With no overarching narrative the reader is left without a sense of continuity that is intriguing and has left me contemplating what happens to the characters outside of the confines of the chapters.
An aspect of the writing that makes the work so compelling is the author’s repetition of slang used by the central character and all the people he comes in contact with. The recurring use of words like stiff, flop, and gat makes the reader feel even more personally connected to the culture of those down and out individuals that the novel chronicles. This discourse introduced by the author creates a unique identity for these characters and strengthens the bare bones writing style employed throughout.
The way in which Kromer writes, as mentioned above, is yet another formal construction that is central to the success of his novel. The cool unemotional style that is used to describe horrific events including prostitution, violent crime, and appalling living conditions make them all the more unsettling because of the matter of fact tone in which they are recounted. One particularly chilling example is when a penniless woman leaves her newborn in a park during a rainstorm because she does not have the means to feed it: “Through the blackness of the park I can see a white splotch on one of the benches. I know what that is. It is the baby. She has gone back after the rain and put it there. She waits here to see if anybody picks it up”(74). The jaded and unattached voice clearly demonstrates that the people living in the poverty-stricken seedy underbelly of big city life have nothing left to lose and are indeed waiting for nothing.
Although they are both 1930s travel stories, Waiting For Nothing was drastically different than our first novel, The Grapes of Wrath. Aside from the obvious fiction vs. memoir comparison, Steinbeck is an author first and foremost, and this is evident in the literary form he adopts throughout his book. Kromer has a much more relaxed, conversational style that explains situations in a very matter of fact manner.
Another key difference is the family structure that exists within The Grapes of Wrath, and the solitary journey Kromer takes. It could be argued that Kromer cultivates a “road family”, but the truth is that nobody sticks around for long enough to truly count as kin. He is without the built in support system the Joad’s had. Kromer’s lonely travel adds to the desolate feeling one gets reading his work. In some ways, The Grapes of Wrath feels like a more personal story, in spite of the fact it is an imagined account. A gift of fiction is that we can go inside the heads of the characters from an omnipresent narrator. Thoughts are not (or less frequently, at least) filtered through one man’s thoughts and instead through the character’s. Kromer’s writing is without romanticism, and though the lack of emotion works for the tone of the story, it can be hard to relate to. The Joads manage to be both lovable and relatable.
What I found interesting was the doughnut gig the one man put up in order to hustle money. Through his acting and carefully thought out skit he was able to win the sentiments of other people and most prominently to get their attention. Although it was a fake and planned situation, it was not a scam in any way, because the men were in reality starving. It was essentially a creative presentation of the problems of the poor, in a manner that is easier for people to swallow and understand. This reminded me of the discussion we had last week in class about our reaction to the fictional character of “Box Car Bertha”. We discussed whether or not it made the story and message of the novel less authentic than it would have been if it had been non-fiction. In correlation with the Burke-White and Caldwell picture book we studied before which was also had fictional elements to it, we discussed the way that fiction has its own positives in that it can compile the best examples of what it is representing into a more well rounded depiction. Essentially, the doughnut gig was a creative tool just like literature and photography are which set up to shed light on something in a certain way. These artistic forms seem to be the only way to get people to see the problems around them and call for action.
On a side note, I also noticed the dominant role of coffee in this book as someone else did in Grapes of Wrath. Coffee functions in the same way in both novels, which is as a symbol of their humanness.
I can understand why this novel has been poorly remembered. It does not align with the genre of romantic vagabond adventure tales like Woody Guthrie’s Bound for Glory. Kromer exhibits no desire to fictionalize or glorify his life as a stiff; there is nothing uplifting, no hint of Hollywood in the story. At times the book is also guilt-inducing, since many readers were and are much more able to identify with the stories “antagonists” – those who walked out of restaurants full and satisfied, change jingling in their pockets – than Kromer’s character.
The story lacks a typical plot-arc, but there are several motifs of depression-era writing that exist in other novels we’ve read. Early in the novel, Kromer decides to hold up a bank. He says, “This is the last time I will whine for a feed. I am going to show these bastards I will get mine” (55).
In Grapes of Wrath, the characters lamented the oppression of higher powers, whether that came in the form of the sharecropping institution, government, or the bank. The Jim Casey martyr figure, the man who risks his safety to rise above the abuse, takes an interesting turn in Waiting for Nothing. As Kromer waits in line at the bank, his gun resting in his pocket, tension builds and the reader anticipates an exciting moment, maybe even a redemptive moment. But Kromer pathetically fails to even pull the gun out of his pocket because it is stuck on the lining of his pants. It’s a total anti-climax.
Kromer is the anti-Horatio Alger. The antithesis of the sexy bank robber savior. In an era where gangsters and bank robbers where romanticized, and the Robin Hood myth loomed in the back of the national consciousness, of course Waiting for Nothingwas a total bust!
The book is useful because it highlights the writing techniques of the era’s famed fiction writers. It is gritty and sad. Kromer is powerless and paralyzed by poverty.
No wonder figures like Pretty Boy Floyd have are so revered. To an economically starved public who feels victimized by the forces in power, any way to “stick it to the man” feels good. Sometime those who are being trod on don’t even know who to point a finger at, or what to accuse them of (obviously the Occupy Wall Street protests come to mind, but that’s a subject for another post).
Tom is greeted by so much negativity every time he asks someone for help. Many times throughout the story he is told to “get a job and go to work,” as if getting a job was an easy task at that time (20). Even nowadays it is difficult to find a job (I am lucky to be able to work to earn the money I need to buy my aforementioned necessities). It seems that Tom would be happy to be working and earning his living if only that were an option for him. Every place he stops to “flop” seems to get worse and worse. How much can a man take? Although having to listen to church sermon after church sermon may seem like no big deal in exchange for food and a bed, it’s the mere principle of being unable to support oneself in any other way. That must be so frustrating to see no way out! Having to live moment to moment, not knowing whether you will only have newspapers to keep you warm or if you will be sleeping in an extravagant bed due to some person’s kind heart, I don’t know how someone could do that.
Tom did consider suicide at one point (as I’m sure many people did during that time). How could they not? The way that these poor people lived could barely be considered living. They received no respect from anyone and had no control of their lives. If you were alone, without a family (as Tom was), what would be the point of staying alive? You have no one to support and no one to support you. What would you do?
As Kromer rides trains and hitch hikes, like many of characters we have read about, he records his own story of struggling for shelter, food, and water. The choppy, short sentences that Kromer uses make the story seem reliable. It reads as though he is just stating facts, and ironically, it is believable. He puts so much effort into getting his food, hopping trains, and merely surviving, yet he does not seem to have much hope for his own future, hence the title of the novel. And with this sense of hopelessness seems to be a lack of faith. A church has no significant meaning to him aside from a place to sleep and get food; he even states, “There is no God. If there is a God, why is such as this?” The lack of hopelessness and lack of faith seem to go hand in hand. Kromer attempts to force his sense of faith to receive results in his own favor; he quickly learns this will not do him justice. During a trip through Denver, he writes “I kneeled at the mourner’s bench until I had blisters on my knees. I prayed for a job. I thought for sure I’d get me a job” (34). This shows that the faith people once had was now diminished by their unfortunate circumstances, and if no faith previously existed, a false forced one may be present in hopes that it will bring good fortune through belief. Many of the bums are left starving and sleeping on the streets simply because they did not get to the church in time for the sermon, and this forbade them from food and shelter. Is that really how God, if he exists for that matter, would want his house of worship to be treating others?
When reflecting on this idea of hope and faith, I began to wonder if those people that everyone passes on the streets everyday still have any sense of hope, faith, or motivation. Has their condition caused them to give up on what their future may hold or do they have a strong sense of faith that helps them get by each day?
Kromer is particularly good at portraying how the hobo skeptically observes true human nature. In Chapter 1, despite being bought steak dinner, the hobo narrator still characterizes the man buying his dinner as boastful and realizes that the man is using him in order to raise his own profile as a good person. This is something almost everyone in the situation would notice, as it is human nature to suspect a person have an ulterior motive and not be 100% grateful. In Chapter 4 he does a great job of describing the shame of being a heterosexual male trading sexual favors for food and board and how when hungry enough and shamed enough a man will do anything. In Chapter 5 he craftily describes the thought processes and subsequent actions of the wealthy man on the date and the owner of the fancy restaurant as well as the hobos tactical actions to force them into making “generous” donations. Outside observers may praise these men for their generosity, but in reality they have the selfish human tendency to believe that bums are in their pitiful situation due to their own laziness.
Komer’s use of short sentences read very well like quick thoughts; as if the reader is in the scene having these thoughts as they are happening. They give the reader a much more honest view of “life as a hobo” without the obvious agenda the intellectual writers all seem to have. The frenetic style Kromer uses is actually achieves somewhat similar results to the spontaneous prose writing one of my favorite writers, Jack Kerouac. Though Kerouac’s stories are much different than Kromer’s in that they are not tails of despair (and his writing is far less gramtically correct), they are similar in that Kerouac writes to give his reader as honest a depiction as possible of what his narrator (which is usually a fictional character based loosely around himself) is thinking throughout the story.
You particularly appreciate this style of writing when you read Kromer’s letters from the road in an afterword written by Arthur Casciato and James West III. His writing is eloquent and well thought out, in stark contrast of the short and fragmented writing throughout the novel, which makes this way of writing far more difficult. It is more shocking that such a well-versed individual was actually relegated to being a bum and really speaks to how desperate the times were.
Despite the common theme connecting most of our readings this semester - the weight of poverty turning Americans into migrants and vagrants - the characters have never seemed so hard-put as Tom Kromer. Our assigned readings have so far discussed their issues, whether they were the advent of tourism, the American Dream, the American Identity, etc., in the context of travel. Waiting for Nothing, however, to me never felt like a travel narrative. It was more a collection of the main character's memoirs; although he is constantly on the move between towns, boarding houses, and cafes, Tom Kromer never mentions any higher aspirations for the American Dream. He is singularly focused on finding his next meal and a decent "flop," so it never occurs to him to hope for a happy ending.
Our previous discussions of the American Dream always implied that the spirit of America involves a certain degree of hope. The Joads were on the move because they were forced from their home in Oklahoma, but as they traveled they maintained a level of optimism in anticipation of what they would find in California. Woody Guthrie was similarly traveling to California in search of better prospects. I suppose Kromer's story is most similar to the Southern miners' situation; they were also living to survive each day, although their poverty kept them firmly in place, stuck in the system of mining or sharecropping with no prospects for a bright future. The miners' resilience came from their faith that hard work will lead to success: "If we do not make good some day it is our fault," they insist (Anderson 20). Many of Kromer's stiffs follow the same philosophy; the stiff who makes $2.65 from a strategically placed donut on the sidewalk is confident in his ability to survive and explains to Kromer that any man who can't figure out how to earn his dinner deserves to go hungry (93).
I wonder if this resilience and ability to survive are as characteristically American as the pursuit of the American Dream. It all goes back to the idea that every man has the responsibility to fend for himself: work hard and you will succeed. Use your brain, take a chance, and you will eat tonight. Wait for someone to give it all to you, and you will stay hungry. You will always be waiting.
We have read a lot about the Great Depression and the Americans who lived through it, and resilience seems to be a more common theme than hope. Tom Kromer doesn't have a lot of hope for the future, but he does well enough moving from one day to the next. The small victories like scoring a hot meal or finding a warm bed are uplifting enough to keep the stiffs going, and surprisingly Kromer keeps his spirits relatively high. On many occasions, he immediately trusts the people with whom he makes eye contact; he assumes that each bartender or restaurant patron is going to help him out, until the other person turns him away and Tom is sorely disappointed. Still, he bounces back and has enough confidence in humanity to try the next cafe - maybe he is literally too desperate to give up - and that hope, small as it is, is it's own tiny version of the American Dream.
Kramer’s realism nearly becomes ironic when he discusses his friend, Karl. Karl is a writer, and “he is always hungry…it is not his fault he is always hungry. It is that nobody buys the stuff he writes. He writes of starving babies, and men who tramp the streets in search of work. People do not like such things” (67). Kromer writes of the very same things, and even some things even more gruesome. Yet, clearly his work is published. Perhaps America as a whole was not ready for such realism at the time. We saw in Margaret Bourke-White’s photos a dramatic portrayal rather than a more realistic one—perhaps the public saw the melodramatic shadows and knew that Bourke-White’s portrayal was exaggerated, and therefore preferred her work to more realistic depictions. Or perhaps Tom Kromer was just luckier than his friend Karl. Either way, it is difficult to imagine that Karl’s descriptions could have been more haunting and engrossing than those of Kromer.
One particularly tragic and gut-wrenching passage is in Chapter Six, when Kromer witnesses a mother leave her baby on a park bench so someone else will take it. Once again, we see Karl, who “thinks this is something new and something awful, this woman leaving her baby in the park because she cannot feed it” (75). Kromer tells us, though, that “Karl is soft-hearted. That is nothing. I have seen worse than that. I know that that is nothing” (75). This moment is when the reader truly realizes how difficult and widespread the Depression hit. The fact that not only must a woman leave her newborn baby on a park bench to give him or her a better life, but that this occurrence is an ordinary one. Kromer is cold and callous, but Karl is not; perhaps Karl’s writing is more sentimental and emotional, unlike Kromer’s. Perhaps that is the reason that Kromer got published—his realism is haunting and moving.
Kromer’s dark work overlays a personal struggle to keep personal and moral values alive when faced with a battle to stay alive. The Kromer of the book –which the author notes is meant to be autobiographical save for a few stories (259)—is constantly struggling over what plans of action will get him his basic needs. Tom often doesn’t even realize he is so intent on keeping his morality intact. He is unable to follow through with robbing the bank and when he meets the stiff who uses “dummy-chucking” to get money from women on the street Tom says, “Why can’t I do what this stiff does? I have as much brains as he has. I have the imagination, too. But I cannot do it. It is the guts… There is no use talking. I will never have the guts to do that” (93). This is where I think Kromer does his best work, keeping his main character (i.e. himself) in a covert and constant toil with what it means to be good.
I appreciate the book as well because it doesn’t have an extreme political agenda. Kromer attacks the “coppers” and often says things about showing restaurant managers or the “guys in the dough” what he would do if he had a “gat” but when he speaks of a working class revolution he seems to take no stock in it, saying it’s more pertinent to meet people’s physiological needs than to worry about politics. “You can stop a revolution of stiffs with a sack of toppin’s… When a stiff’s gut is empty, he hasn’t got the guts to start anything. When his gut is full, he just doesn’t see any use in raising hell” (72). It’s this “primitive fight for existence” –as the afterword notes—that makes the book so beautiful.
I was riding the subway over the weekend and a man walked in leaning on a cane saying, “I’m not ashamed.” During his long speech in which he profusely began begging for food or money or anything that would help him out, he constantly kept telling the entire subway car that he was not ashamed of asking for help. He had hit rock bottom and was seeking out the help of others more fortunate than he was. To go along with this theme of shame he told us that we shouldn’t be ashamed of ourselves if we were to help him.
Homeless people have been forfeiting their pride since homelessness became such an overwhelming lifestyle during the depression. Whether they were on the street begging for money or planning sneaky tricks like the “stiff” in Tom Kromer’s Waiting for Nothing. Men and women have been forced to set their pride aside in order even begin trying to survive on the streets. I think this speaks directly to the discussion we had in class about the middle class and the working class. How we use the two words interchangeable but in fact they mean different things. I think that one of the reasons that the middle class and the working class associate so strongly with one another is due to pride. The working class has too much pride to think of themselves as the “lower class.” As soon as they give up this pride they begin to fall in the same category as a homeless person begging for help. Pride really begins to define a border between the classes. The middle class however takes pride in the fact that they have a job and are able to work for a living. As expressed numerous times in Waiting for Nothing, most of the people wouldn’t give charity out because they felt that the bum’s just needed to get a job. So many times a stiff would ask for money and be given the exact same answer; No, get a job. The fact that jobs aren’t readily available begins to turn men with pride and hope into a hopeless and shameless man. As shown through the court hearing, even an educated man can’t escape the harsh detriment the depression put on the country.
Throughout the book we see key moments when the main character throws any sort of pride out the window in order to survive. It’s these moments; like when he trades sexual favors with a homosexual for food and a warm bed, that we see the character transform and begin to lose hope in ever becoming the educated man he could have been. In the end his character gives up the little pride he started with and lives on his basic human instincts in order to survive.