It was a peculiar type of knock, and it always gave them away. It was a nervous knocking, a timid rapping of tired, weather-burned bones on my grandmother’s back door, nothing at all like the pushy pounding of the vacuum-cleaner salesmen who came through town each year, and yet not the calm confidence of a neighbor’s knuckles, either. This knock was different. It was humble but insistent. It was a knock born of the constant struggle for sustenance, the continual search for nourishment.
My grandmother’s house, where, growing up, I spent much of my time, where my brothers and I enjoyed many of our most memorable meals, was three blocks from the railroad tracks in Norman, Oklahoma. You could hear the trains roll through every few hours—first, the wailing whistles, then the low, heavy rumbling of the big diesel-electric locomotives as they pulled their burden along the tracks, rattling the windows of the small house and, sometimes, the dishes in the cupboard. A minute later the train would pass and the low rumbling of the locomotives would fade into the distance like an echo, and I’d begin to listen for that knock at the door.
They were hoboes, drifters, rail-rusted men who seemed fraught with the freight of their past, the creosote-smeared burden of another new day in yet another new town. They were always alone, scouring the streets in the train wake’s silence, going door to door, perhaps looking for something specific, some detail that told them they’d come to the right house.
In his book The Road, Jack London details his adventures riding the rails across the United States as a hobo, recalling, among other things, how these traveling men left signs for one another, small clues from which others could discern whether a certain homeowner was friendly or hostile to strangers and, especially, where they could find a meal. I don’t know if the drifters who passed through my old hometown had affixed some such sign or detail to my grandmother’s house, or if they somehow passed along her address, but it amazed me that so many of them found their way to her, as if they knew that here they’d find a sympathetic ear, a surviving veteran of that hunger war known as the Great Depression, who understood the value, and blessing, of food. Even more surprising to me were their requests, for they were all the same. “I’m passing through town and haven’t had a bite to eat in days,” they’d say. “Could you spare a sandwich and a cup of coffee?”
Why a sandwich? I would wonder. Why a cup of coffee? Coffee! Yet, in retrospect, I believe it was a certain gesture these dusty men were seeking as much as food itself. And perhaps, in their minds, a sandwich and coffee were the items lending themselves most easily and unobtrusively to this gesture.
I remember the first few times I witnessed my grandmother interacting with a drifter. She’d tell the man to have a seat on the porch, then she’d walk into the kitchen and fire up her cast-iron skillet. She’d fry bacon and eggs, which she’d put between two pieces of toast and served on a saucer, along with a cup of coffee—the same foods we’d eaten for breakfast, and sometimes for lunch, a few hours earlier. Then I’d follow her outside, where she’d sit on the porch and talk to the stranger while he devoured the food: Where you from? Where you headed? Belong to a church?
They ate like coyotes. Their faces were weathered. Their fingers stained, hands calloused. At the time, in my child’s mind, these men always seemed dangerous. Perhaps it was simply their disheveled appearance. Or maybe it stemmed from a fear that one of them might someday bite back at the gnawing pain that must have tormented them. But I admired my grandmother’s willingness to help them. She appeared so confident in her compassion. And brave. Perhaps she knew—she must have known—they were simply like all the rest of us.
Once, I asked her why she fed these men. The response I received was typical of my grandmother—humble yet simplistically profound. “Well,” she said in that voice of hers, which to my young ears always sounded so optimistic and uplifting and wise, and which I can hear even today, “they have to eat too.”
At the time, I thought she was just being nice. My maternal grandmother, Sarah, was the kindest and gentlest person I’ve ever known. She fed my brothers and me, the birds, stray cats and dogs, the neighbors’ kids. And in doing so, she showed me how nourishing compassion can be.
Today I live in a new city, in a neighborhood with freshly paved streets and sidewalks, with homes with bricks that aren’t yet sun-bleached and cracked. Sometimes, on winter nights, when all is still and quiet, I can hear a train whistle blowing across town, far away. Invariably, my mind drifts back to that knock from so many years before, that sound that resounds between my ears, regardless of how many donations of unused or surplus clothes my family gives to Goodwill, no matter how many checks we write in response to solicitations received in the mail. At such times, despite the distance, it seems I can feel the ground rumbling beneath me, hear the dishes rattling in the kitchen cabinets, almost see the slow, steady diaspora of hope and need dispersing throughout the neighborhood. And I listen for that knock, those few persistent notes that sound unlike anything else in the world, the ones that remind me that food is most nourishing when it’s shared.
John Gifford is the author of seven books, including two creative-nonfiction titles: Red Dirt Country (University of Oklahoma Press, summer 2019) and Pecan America (University Press of Kansas, autumn 2019). His essays and reporting have appeared in Southwest Review, The Atlantic, Notre Dame Magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, and elsewhere. He lives in Oklahoma.