The Role of the Undesirables
[Reprinted from the book, The Ordeal of Change,
In the winter of 1934,1 spent several weeks in a federal transient
camp in California. These camps were originally established by
Governor Rolph in the early days of the Depression to care for the
single homeless unemployed of the state. In 1934 the federal
government took charge of the camps for a time, and it was then that I
first heard of them.
How I happened to get into one of the camps is soon told. Like
thousands of migrant agricultural workers in California I then
followed the crops from one part of the state to the other. Early in
1934 I arrived in the town of El Centra, in the Imperial Valley. I had
been given a free ride on a truck from San Diego, and it was midnight
when the truck driver dropped me on the outskirts of El Centre. I
spread my bedroll by the side of the road and went to sleep. I had
hardly dozed off when the rattle of a motorcycle drilled itself into
my head and a policeman was bending over me saying, "Roll up,
Mister." It looked as though I was in for something; it happened
now and then that the police got overzealous and rounded up the
freight trains. But this time the cop had no such thought. He said, "Better
go over to the federal shelter and get yourself a bed and maybe some
breakfast." He directed me to the place.
I found a large hall, obviously a former garage, dimly lit, and
packed with cots. A concert of heavy breathing shook the thick air. In
a small office near the door, I was registered by a middle-aged clerk.
He informed me that this was the "receiving shelter" where I
would get one night's lodging and breakfast. The meal was served in
the camp nearby. Those who wished to stay on, he said, had to enroll
in the camp. He then gave me three blankets and excused himself for
not having a vacant cot. I spread the blankets on the cement floor and
went to sleep.
I awoke with dawn amid a chorus of coughing, throat-clearing, the
sound of running water, and the intermittent flushing of toilets in
the back of the hall. There were about fifty of us, all colors and
ages, all of us more or less ragged and soiled. The clerk handed out
tickets for breakfast, and we filed out to the camp located several
blocks away, near the railroad tracks.
From the outside the camp looked like a cross between a factory and a
prison. A high fence of wire enclosed it, and inside were three large
sheds and a huge boiler topped by a pillar of black smoke. Men in blue
shirts and dungarees were strolling across the sandy yard. A ship's
bell in front of one of the buildings announced breakfast. The regular
camp members - there was a long line of them - ate first. Then we
filed in through the gate, handing our tickets to the guard.
It was a good, plentiful meal. After breakfast our crowd dispersed. I
heard some say that the camps in the northern part of the state were
better, that they were going to catch a northbound freight. I decided
to try this camp in El Centra.
My motives in enrolling were not crystal clear. I wanted to clean up.
There were shower baths in the camp and wash tubs and plenty of soap.
Of course I could have bathed and washed my clothes in one of the
irrigation ditches, but here in the camp I had a chance to rest, get
the wrinkles out of my belly, and clean up at leisure. In short, it
was the easiest way out.
A brief interview at the camp office and a physical examination were
all the formalities for enrollment.
There were some two hundred men in the camp. They were the kind I had
worked and traveled with for years. I even saw familiar faces - men I
had worked with in orchards and fields. Yet my predominant feeling was
one of strangeness. It was my first experience of life in intimate
contact with a crowd. For it is one thing to work and travel with a
gang, and quite another thing to eat, sleep, and spend the greater
part of the day cheek by jowl with two hundred men.
I found myself speculating on a variety of subjects: the reasons for
their chronic bellyaching and beefing - it was more a ritual than the
expression of a grievance; the amazing orderliness of the men; the
comic seriousness with which they took their games of cards, checkers,
and dominoes; the weird manner of reasoning one overheard now and
then. Why, I kept wondering, were these men within the enclosure of a
federal transient camp? Were they people temporarily hard up? Would
jobs solve all their difficulties? Were we indeed like the people
Up to then I was not aware of being one of a specific species of
humanity. I had considered myself simply a human being - not
particularly good or bad, and on the whole harmless. The people I
worked and traveled with I knew as Americans and Mexicans, whites and
Negroes, Northerners and Southerners, etc. It did not occur to me that
we were a group possessed of peculiar traits, and that there was
something - innate or acquired - in our makeup which made us adopt a
particular mode of existence.
It was a slight thing that started me on a new track.
I got to talking to a mild-looking, elderly fellow. I liked his soft
speech and pleasant manner. We swapped trivial experiences. Then he
suggested a game of checkers. As we started to arrange the pieces on
the board, I was startled by the sight of his crippled right hand. I
had not noticed it before. Half of it was chopped off lengthwise, so
that the horny stump with its three fingers looked like a hen's leg. I
was mortified that I had not noticed the hand until he dangled it, so
to speak, before my eyes. It was, perhaps, to bolster my shaken
confidence in my powers of observation that I now began paying close
attention to the hands of the people around me. The result was
astounding. It seemed that every other man had had his hand mangled.
There was a man with one arm. Some men limped. One young, good-looking
fellow had a wooden leg. It was as though the majority of the men had
escaped the snapping teeth of a machine and left part of themselves
It was, I knew, an exaggerated impression. But I began counting the
cripples as the men lined up in the yard at mealtime. I found thirty
(out of two hundred) crippled either in arms or legs. I immediately
sensed where the counting would land me. The simile preceded the
statistical deduction: we in the camp were a human junk pile.
I began evaluating my fellow tramps as human material, and for the
first time in my life I became face-conscious. There were some good
faces, particularly among the young. Several of the middle-aged and
the old looked healthy and well preserved. But the damaged and decayed
faces were in the majority. I saw faces that were wrinkled, or
bloated, or raw as the surface of a peeled plum. Some of the noses
were purple and swollen, some broken, some pitted with enlarged pores.
There were many toothless mouths (I counted seventy-eight). I noticed
eyes that were blurred, faded, opaque, or bloodshot. I was struck by
the fact that the old men, even the very" old, showed their age
mainly in the face. Their bodies were still slender and erect. One
little man over sixty years of age looked a mere boy when seen from
behind. The shriveled face joined to a boyish body made a startling
My diffidence had now vanished. I was getting to know everybody in
the camp. They were a friendly and talkative lot. Before many weeks I
knew some essential fact about practically everyone.
And I was continually counting. Of the two hundred men in the camp
there were approximately as follows:
|Old men (55 and over)
|Youths under twenty
|Men with chronic diseases, heart, asthma, TB
|Fugitives from justice
(The numbers do not tally up to two hundred since some of the men
were counted twice or even thrice - as cripples and old, or as old
and confirmed drunks, etc.)
In other words: less than half the camp inmates (seventy normal,
plus ten youths) were unemployed workers whose difficulties would be
at an end once jobs were available. The rest (60 per cent) had
handicaps in addition to unemployment.
I also counted fifty war veterans, and eighty skilled workers
representing sixteen trades. All the men (including those with
chronic diseases) were able to work. The one-armed man was a wizard
with the shovel.
I did not attempt any definite measurement of character and
intelligence. But it seemed to me that the intelligence of the men
in the camp was certainly not below the average. And as to
character, I found much forbearance and genuine good humor. I never
came across one instance of real viciousness. Yet, on the whole, one
would hardly say that these men were possessed of strong characters.
Resistance, whether to one's appetites or to the ways of the world,
is a chief factor in the shaping of character; and the average tramp
is, more or less, a slave of his few appetites. He generally takes
the easiest way out.
The connection between our makeup and our mode of existence as
migrant workers presented itself now with some clarity.
The majority of us were incapable of holding onto a steady job. We
lacked self-discipline and the ability to endure monotonous, leaden
hours. We were probably misfits from the very beginning. Our contact
with a steady job was not unlike a collision. Some of us were
maimed, some got frightened and ran away, and some took to drink. We
inevitably drifted in the direction of least resistance - the open
road. The life of a migrant worker is varied and demands only a
minimum of self-discipline. We were now in one of the drainage
ditches of ordered society. We could not keep a footing in the ranks
of respectability and were washed into the slough of our present
Yet, I mused, there must be in this world a task with an appeal so
strong that were we to have a taste of it we would hold on and be
rid for good of our restlessness.
My stay in the camp lasted about four weeks. Then I found a haying
job not far from town, and finally, in April, when the hot winds
began blowing, I shouldered my bedroll and took the highway to San
It was the next morning, after I had got a lift to Indio by truck,
that a new idea began to take hold of me. The highway out of Indio
leads through waving date groves, fragrant grapefruit orchards, and
lush alfalfa fields; then, abruptly, passes into a desert of white
sand. The sharp line between garden and desert is very striking. The
turning of white sand into garden seemed to me an act of magic.
This, I thought, was a job one would jump at - even the men in the
transient camps. They had the skill and ability of the average
American. But their energies, I felt, could be quickened only by a
task that was spectacular, that had in it something of the
miraculous. The pioneer task of making the desert flower would
certainly fill the bill.
Tramps as pioneers? It seemed absurd. Every man and child in
California knows that the pioneers had been giants, men of boundless
courage and indomitable spirit. However, as I strode on across the
white sand, I kept mulling the idea over.
Who were the pioneers? Who were the men who left their homes and
went into the wilderness? A man rarely leaves a soft spot and goes
deliberately in search of hardship and privation. People become
attached to the places they live in; they drive roots. A change of
habitat is a painful act of uprooting. A man who has made good and
has a standing in his community stays put. The successful
businessmen, farmers, and workers usually stayed where they were.
Who then left for the wilderness and the unknown? Obviously those
who had not made good: men who went broke or never amounted to much;
men who though possessed of abilities were too impulsive to stand
the daily grind; men who were slaves of their appetites -drunkards,
gamblers, and woman-chasers; outcasts - fugitives from justice and
ex-jailbirds. There were no doubt some who went in search of
health-men suffering with TB, asthma, heart trouble. Finally there
was a sprinkling of young and middle-aged in search of adventure.
All these people craved change, some probably actuated by the naive
belief that a change in place brings with it a change in luck. Many
wanted to go to a place where they were not known and there make a
new beginning. Certainly they did not go out deliberately in search
of hard work and suffering. If in the end they shouldered enormous
tasks, endured unspeakable hardships, and accomplished the
impossible, it was because they had to. They became men of action on
the run. They acquired strength and skill in the inescapable
struggle for existence. It was a question of do or die. And once
they tasted the joy of achievement, they craved for more.
Clearly the same types of people which now swelled the ranks of
migratory workers and tramps had probably in former times made up
the bulk of the pioneers. As a group the pioneers were probably as
unlike the present-day "native sons" - their descendants -
as one could well imagine. Indeed, were there to be today a new
influx of typical pioneers, twin brothers of the forty-niners only
in a modern garb, the citizens of California would consider it a
menace to health, wealth, and morals.
With few exceptions, this seems to be the case in the settlement of
all new countries. Ex-convicts were the vanguard in the settling of
Australia. Exiles and convicts settled Siberia. In this country, a
large portion of our earlier and later settlers were failures,
fugitives, and felons. The exceptions seemed to be those who were
motivated by religious fervor, such as the Pilgrim Fathers and the
Although quite logical, this train of thought seemed to me then a
wonderful joke. In my exhilaration I was eating up the road in long
strides, and I reached the oasis of Elim in what seemed almost no
time. A passing empty truck picked me up just then and we thundered
through Banning and Beaumont, all the way to Riverside. From there I
walked the seven miles to San Bernardino.
Somehow, this discovery of a family likeness between tramps and
pioneers took a firm hold on my mind. For years afterward it kept
intertwining itself with a mass of observations which on the face of
them had no relation to either tramps or pioneers. And it moved me
to speculate on subjects in which, up to then, I had no real
interest, and of which I knew very little.
I talked with several old-timers - one of them over eighty and a
native son - in Sacramento, Placerville, Auburn, and Fresno. It was
not easy, at first, to obtain the information I was after. I could
not make my questions specific enough. "What kind of people
were the early settlers and miners?" I asked. They were a
hard-working, tough lot, I was told. They drank, fought, gambled,
and wenched. They were big-hearted, grasping, profane, and
God-fearing. They wallowed in luxury, or lived on next to nothing
with equal ease. They were the salt of the earth.
Still it was not clear what manner of people they were.
If I asked what they looked like, I was told of whiskers,
broad-brimmed hats, high boots, shirts of many colors, sun-tanned
faces, horny hands. Finally I asked: "What group of people in
present-day California most closely resembles the pioneers?"
The answer, usually after some hesitation, was invariably the same:
"The Okies and the fruit tramps."
I tried also to evaluate the tramps as potential pioneers by
watching them in action. I saw them fell timber, clear firebreaks,
build rock walls, put up barracks, build dams and roads, handle
steam shovels, bulldozers, tractors, and concrete mixers. I saw them
put in a hard day's work after a night of steady drinking. They
sweated and growled, but they did the work. I saw the tramps
elevated to positions of authority as foremen and superintendents.
Then I could notice a remarkable physical transformation: a seamed
face gradually smoothed out and the skin showed a healthy hue: an
indifferent mouth became firm and expressive; dull eyes cleared and
brightened; voices actually changed; there was even an apparent
increase in stature. In almost no time these promoted tramps looked
as if they had been on top all their lives. Yet sooner or later I
would meet up with them again in a railroad yard, on some skid row;
or in the fields - tramps again. It was usually the same story: they
got drunk or lost their temper and were fired, or they got fed up
with the steady job and quit. Usually, when a tramp becomes a
foreman, he is careful in his treatment of the tramps under him; he
knows the day of reckoning is never far off.
In short, it was not difficult to visualize the tramps as pioneers.
I reflected that if they were to find themselves in a single-handed
life-and-death struggle with nature, they would undoubtedly display
persistence. For the pressure of responsibility and the heat of
battle steel a character. The inadaptable would perish, and those
who survived would be the equal of the successful pioneers.
I also considered the few instances of pioneering engineered from
above - that is to say, by settlers possessed of lavish means, who
were classed with the best where they came from. In these instances,
it seemed to me, the resulting social structure was inevitably
precarious. For pioneering deluxe usually results in a plantation
society, made up of large landowners and peon labor, either native
or imported. Very often there is a racial cleavage between the two.
The colonizing activities of the Teutonic barons in the Baltic, the
Hungarian nobles in Transylvania, the English in Ireland, the
planters in our South, and the present-day plantation societies in
Kenya and other British and Dutch colonies are cases in point.
Whatever their merits, they are characterized by poor adaptability.
They are likely eventually to be broken up either by a peon
revolution or by an influx of typical pioneers - who are usually of
the same race or nation as the landowners. The adjustment is not
necessarily implemented by war. Even our old South, had it not been
for the complication of secession, might eventually have attained
stability without war: namely, by the activity of its own poor
whites or by an influx of the indigent from other states.
There is in us a tendency to judge a race, a nation, or an
organization by its least worthy members. The tendency is manifestly
perverse and unfair; yet it has some justification. For the quality
and destiny of a nation is determined to a considerable extent by
the nature and potentialities of its inferior elements. The inert
mass of a nation is in its middle section. The industrious, decent,
well-to-do, and satisfied middle classes - whether in cities or on
the land - are worked upon and shaped by minorities at both
extremes: the best and the worst.
The superior individual, whether in politics, business, industry,
science, literature, or religion, undoubtedly plays a major role in
the shaping of a nation. But so do the individuals at the other
extreme: the poor, the outcasts, the misfits, and those who are in
the grip of some overpowering passion. The importance of these
inferior elements as formative factors lies in the readiness with
which they are swayed in any direction. This peculiarity is due to
their inclination to take risks ("not giving a damn") and
their propensity for united action. They crave to merge their drab,
wasted lives into something grand and complete. Thus they are the
first and most fervent adherents of new religions, political
upheavals, patriotic hysteria, gangs, and mass rushes to new lands.
And the quality of a nation - its innermost worth - is made
manifest by its dregs as they rise to the top: by how brave they
are, how humane, how orderly, how skilled, how generous, how
independent or servile; by the bounds they will not transgress in
their dealings with man's soul, with truth, and with honor.
The average American of today bristles with indignation when he is
told that his country was built, largely, by hordes of undesirables
from Europe. Yet, far from being derogatory, this statement, if
true, should be a cause for rejoicing, should fortify our pride in
the stock from which we have sprung.
This vast continent with its towns, farms, factories, dams,
aqueducts, docks, railroads, highways, powerhouses, schools, and
parks is the handiwork of common folk from the Old World, where for
centuries men of their kind had been as beasts of burden, the
property of their masters - kings, nobles, and priests - and with no
will and no aspirations of their own. When on rare occasions one of
the lowly had reached the top in Europe he had kept the pattern
intact and, if anything, tightened the screws. The stuffy little
corporal from Corsica harnessed the lusty forces released by the
French Revolution to a gilded state coach, and could think of
nothing grander than mixing his blood with that of the Hapsburg
masters and establishing a new dynasty. In our day a bricklayer in
Italy, a house painter in Germany, and a shoemaker's son in Russia
have made themselves masters of their nations; and what they did was
to re-establish and reinforce the old pattern.
Only here, in America, were the common folk of the Old World given
a chance to show what they could do on their own, without a master
to push and order them about. History contrived an earth-shaking
joke when it lifted by the nape of the neck lowly peasants,
shopkeepers, laborers, paupers, jailbirds, and drunks from the midst
of Europe, dumped them on a vast, virgin continent and said: "Go
to it; it is yours!"
And the lowly were not awed by the magnitude of the task. A hunger
for action, pent up for centuries, found an outlet. They went to it
with ax, pick, shovel, plow, and rifle; on foot, on horse, in
wagons, and on flatboats. They went to it praying, howling, singing,
brawling, drinking, and fighting. Make way for the people! This is
how I read the statement that this country was built by hordes of
undesirables from the Old World.
Small wonder that we in this country have a deeply ingrained faith
in human regeneration. We believe that, given a chance, even the
degraded and the apparently worthless are capable of constructive
work and great deeds. It is a faith founded on experience, not on
some idealistic theory. And no matter what some anthropologists,
sociologists, and geneticists may tell us, we shall go on believing
that man, unlike other forms of life, is not a captive of his past
-- of his heredity and habits -- but is possessed of infinite
plasticity, and his potentialities for good and for evil are never