Posted by: johnhourihan | November 11, 2013

The disease of greed

It is always around this time of year when I remember a story that makes me feel warm inside, safe. It makes me feel satisfied with life.
The Great Recession of 2010 frightened the greedy fools who caused it more than the rest of us. I’ll tell you why.
It reminded me of a half-painted plank that rose up the side of the stairway at Bickford Shoe where I used to wait for my old man so we could walk home.
This particular day, I didn’t see him coming until he was sitting right beside me.
“This is a good idea,” he said, hunkering down. “The stairway keeps the wind off you.” He admired my ability to keep warm protected only by a cloth jacket meant for the spring.
It was a comfortably brisk fall day, so we decided to sit awhile, and whenever we sat awhile, he told stories. After all, he was true Irish.
This day, he told of a train ride he took in the 30s across the dust bowl and into California looking for work in the fields. He also told of the conductor who threw cans of peaches off the back of the train as it rumbled through the tent cities lulling the hobos to sleep through the fear of the smell of kerosene. “And Jocko,” he said wide-eyed “the adults scrambled for the cans like kidos, with no reservations and only what pride the times had left them. They groveled in the cinders and the dirt beside the tracks to get a fair share of food.”
He took out his Luckies, tapped one on a thumbnail to tighten the tobacco, then offered me one by holding the pack in front of me. I laughed. He did too because he thought it was a joke — thought I didn’t smoke because I was only 10 years old.
He went on to tell of Woody Guthrie, his favorite. (Could be why he became a union organizer later in life.)
“Woody would stop in the camps or in the factories and sing his songs until they threw him out. He’d be singing ‘Birmingham Jail’ and ‘This Land is Your Land’ and songs about hobos and drifters and unions. He told of workers just like us who were killed in a plane crash in a place called Los Gatos, and no one even cared who they were, Jocko. He told of beatings and the unbeatable spirit of just plain folk who had hard lives just like us.”
Scrapper Jack had been lied to, and there was no job where he had been sent, “But I met a guy in a bar,” he says, “who said Contadina was hiring, so we hopped a train and rode on to the fields. The guy who did the hiring was from Milford , and he gave me a job. Turned out it paid less than he said, but I got to send some home to your mother and the girls.”
These stories must be why I grew up praying to be a hobo at Halloween. They were my heroes. The hardened men, women and children who worked the fields, and for whom there was no free lunch, even when it was “free.”
He was out there long enough for his clothes to change colors where he sweated the most, and then jobs opened up in the shoe shops back in Massachusetts so he came home. And he brought with him the stories of the last depression, of Woody and the road and sang his songs to us every night. I rode along with him and Guthrie, and absorbed a unique understanding of the ways of the world. An understanding I hoped would never come in handy.
At the turn of the century, it seemed it might.
As he flipped away his cigarette in the practiced way a working man does, he said (and he would say it maybe a thousand times more before he died.) “Jocko, if you got your principles intact, I’ve always said, ‘Deal me your hardest card, I’ll win this GD game.'”
I never knew it was a quote from Woody Guthrie until decades later, but I wasn’t surprised.
Nature and greed got the country into it then, and greed has got us into it again. But the real men and women will always survive.
Hard times breed hard people. It’s the ones whose greed has made them soft who lose that game.
You can bet on it.

This time of year makes me remember where I came from.



  1. Good one John…


  2. John,
    This is an awesome piece and I will print it for my students ..right now
    great job Hard to believe but you just keep getting better

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