By Greg Clark, January 5, 1935
“Psst,” said Jimmie Frise. “Look at this guy.”
We were walking along King street back to the office.
A scarecrow, cringing from the wintry wind, was hugging the tall buildings, and from under his capbrim he was anxiously scanning the passers-by.
We drew near. The scarecrow sighted us. Pulled himself together. He fell in beside us.
“Excuse me, Mac,” he mumbled. His face was bloated and boiled looking. His eyes were sunken. “Spare a guy a bite to eat. I ain’t et–“
“How much?” said Jim, cheerily. “Two bits?”
The scarecrow snatched the coin from Jimmie. With scarcely a gesture, much less a word of thanks, he cringed into the biting wind and sped away. We looked after him. He was a ragged, shambling caricature even of a bum. But he sped away as if filled with a mighty purpose.
“Jimmie,” I said, “you’re a sap. That, if ever I saw one, was an undeserving case. An unworthy case. He looked as if he had just risen up out of a ditch where he had lain drunk all night. A horrible specimen.”
“He was unworthy,” said Jim, gently. “That’s why I gave him two bits.”
“Because he was unworthy?” I gagged.
“Exactly,” repeated Jimmie. “Because he was unworthy. In this town are a thousand agencies of state and church; municipal and national, amateur and professional, for the care of the worthy and the deserving. But there is no place for the unworthy and the undeserving. There is no place for that man.”
And we looked back again, into the biting wind. But he was gone.
“Jimmie,” I said, “I hadn’t thought of that.”
“That’s what we have to think about now,” stated Jim. “We have everything solved. We know the cause of all our troubles. We are planning the remedies. We have planned recovery. We have official government relief. It is part of the scheme of things now. But outside all of it there are the unworthy, the undeserving. Now somebody has to come along and look after the unworthy.”
“It sounds funny,” I assured Jim. “It’s a new idea.”
“It’s an old idea,” argued Jim. “There once was a great Teacher who said He did not come to save the worthy, but the unworthy, and who went first amongst the publicans and sinners, who sought out the bums and the street walkers. I don’t think He even once mentioned planned economy or relief. He just went around and touched with His hand dead men and gave them life, diseased men and healed them, lepers, the scum of the earth.”
“I see,” I admitted.
“Suppose,” said Jimmie, “we start a society for the assistance of the unworthy and undeserving?”
“Wonderful,” I cried.
“Suppose we just organize a little society of a couple of dozen of us that feel the same way we do about things,” went on Jimmie: “a society that takes just as much trouble to make sure the applicant is unworthy as the social workers take to make sure their cases are deserving?”
Starting a New Society
“We could maybe hire a social worker, a girl,” I added, “who could have a little office. It wouldn’t cost much.”
“No,” said Jim. “Our secretary would have to be some worthless failure of a guy, a complete and unreclaimable wreck of a man, whose investigations of each case would have to be doubtful and themselves not very reliable. What I want isn’t a half-way sort of society. I would like to see our society itself unworthy. Its very unworthiness would have to appeal to those of us who were the supporting members.”
“We could go out and ask the social welfare people who is the most undeserving man in Toronto and hire him?” I suggested.
“Perfect,” said Jim. “Perfect. Our office would be the shabbiest and dirtiest little office we could find in downtown Toronto. The secretary would have to be a loathsome object, with a jail record preferred. To him would come all the most unworthy cases in the city, the ones without a single thing to be said to their credit. They would be the perpetual drunks, the wife deserters, the petty thieves. No big thief could get a cent of aid. Just the miserable thieves, the cowardly, creeping thieves.”
“I begin to see the beauty of it,” I breathed.
“It is beautiful,” said Jim. “But it is more than that. It is the secret at the bottom of all our human troubles to-day. We base our entire human society on worthiness. It’s wrong.”
“We have to adopt some standard,” I submitted.
“We don’t,” said Jim. “That’s where we make the first mistake. That’s the wrong alley we turn up into, right at the start. Jesus didn’t ask Lazarus what he believed in. He just raised him, knowing that when he was risen he would believe.”
“I wasn’t taught that way,” I protested.
“Can’t you read?” retorted Jimmie.
We went up to Jimmie’s studio in the tiptop of The Star and looked across the world fogged with driving snow and a wind that blew grimly from the Pacific to the Atlantic,
“Out there,” said Jim, “the ones to worry about are the undeserving. An unworthy man, it seems to me, gets colder than a worthy man. And hungrier. It helps keep man warm if he knows he is worthy.”
“I suggest,” I said, “we pick out about thirty or forty of our friends and start a little group for the assistance of the worthless.”
“You draft a letter,” said Jim. “We can send it around to a select bunch. Let’s call a meeting for some day next week. If enough turn out we can organize a group and draw up a set of resolutions.”
So while Jimmie worked at his cartoon I drafted a beautiful and impassioned letter. I wrote and rewrote and tugged at the heart strings and brought tears even to my own eyes. I read bits to Jimmie. He nodded and went on scratching.
When the letter was done I read it all, standing up and using gestures. Jim and I were both deeply moved. We both blew our noses and frankly wiped our eyes.
Hunting Undeserving Cases
“That’s a beautiful letter,” said Jimmie. “It’s a classic.”
“Now we can have it mimeographed,” I said.
“Wait a minute,” interrupted Jimmie. “Just a minute. We don’t want to go off the deep end. We want to have some idea of the number of the undeserving cases. How many really undeserving cases are there in town? One hundred? Five hundred?”
“Perhaps the social service people could tell us?” I offered.
“They sort out the worthy,” stated Jim. “Let us find the unworthy ourselves.”
“I can find ten between here and the Market,” said Jim.
So we went along King street in the wind and sleet. We saw numbers of poorly-dressed men and one old woman. But she had a bunch of pencils in her hand, offering them timidly from a damp and ill-sheltered niche in one of the big buildings.
“No, no,” whispered Jim, when I paused.
“She’s trying to make a few cents. She’s a worthy case.”
We went on. Up until Yonge street, we had found none at all.
“It takes a worthy man to be out at all on a day like this,” I said. “All the unworthy are sheltering somewhere, sneaking into missions and things.”
At Toronto street we met a panhandler. Our hearts leaped.
“Could you spare-” he began.
“Are you a worthy case?” we demanded. “Do you drink? Do you support a wife and children… ?”
The poor chap broke down and moved aside into the shelter of a building.
“I have a wife and child,” he said. “I spend the mornings collecting scraps of wood and junk to keep the fire going while I-“
“Sorry,” we said, leaving him.
Between Toronto street and the Market we met three more. One of them was quite tipsy, but he said he was going back to a good job with his older brother as soon as he sobered up. The other two were both willing to work and showed by their calloused hands that they had jobs lately.
“Would you work in a ditch?” we demanded.
“Lead us to it,” they cried, heartily.
So we left them.
“We’ll have to go to some mission or some place,” I said. “That’s where the unworthy will be cringing on a day like this.”
“It will be like poaching,” said Jim, “but we will go.”
We dropped in on a mission not far from the Market. There were fifteen men in it at the time. Some were scrubbing floors, some were making stew, others were making beds, one old man was darning socks for his comrades. A young man was lying very ill on a cot and three men were down in the big room around the piano, singing softly.
“What are you singing for?” I asked. “Is this a worthy pastime when all your comrades are working?”
“We’re rehearsing for a concert to-night,” said the man at the piano. “We expect a full house the way the weather is.”
A Box Car Club
Jim was already tugging my sleeve, so we went on the streets again. Along Queen we walked. Two very young chaps, extremely chilled looking and ragged, responded to our friendly eye by pausing.
“Well, boys,” said Jim. “You look kind of peaked.”
“How about something to eat?” asked the larger boy.
“Where are you from? Toronto?” I asked.
“No, sir; we’re trying to get to Owen Sound,” said the big one. “We’ve come this far from Montreal.”
“In this weather?”
“Well, it got too bad yesterday, so we laid off until it gets milder.”
“Do you live in Owen Sound?”
“I don’t, but the kid does,” said the bigger one. “We met in Montreal trying to get a job on a ship. That was last September we met. We didn’t get a ship. So finally the kid said he wanted to get home to see his mother for Christmas, and I said I’d get him home. But we kind of got away to a bad start. We got pinched at Prescott and laid up ten days. However, I’ll get him home before all the goose is eaten.”
The younger boy turned a pale color.
“No, Jimmie,” I said. “These boys are both worthy. They were both trying to run away to sea. Then the one tried to get home for Christmas. And the other one was trying to help him.”
“Very deserving,” said Jim. “I would like to do something for you, boys, but it is against our principles.”
The older boy smiled thinly and the young one turned away.
In silence we walked toward Yonge street and just as we turned into Yonge who should we see creeping close along the tall walls of the buildings but the same worthless bum that Jimmie had treated to a quarter at noon! We stood in front of him.
“Ha,” said Jim. “Here we are again!”
“How about something to eat?” asked the bleary-eyed bum. “I ain’t et–“
“I gave you a quarter at noon,” said Jim. “What did you do? Drink it?”
The dreadful looking man rubbed his nose with the back of his hand.
“Listen,” he begged, “you’re the only touch I’ve made all day. There I got seven guys in a box car. One bottle of cat costs forty cents.”
“What’s cat?” I asked.
“Catawba,” said the bum, “wine. There I got seven guys in a box car. We gotto have our rum issue when we go to sleep, don’t we? We’re old soldiers, see? We’re used to havin’ a shot of rum in loo of a hot meal, see? In loo of. So it’s my job to rassle one bottle of cat a day, that’s for bedtime, and another guy he gets bread and whatever else is going, see, and another guy he’s got to get hay for the floor, and another guy tobacco. We each got our department, see?”
“What is this, a society?” Jimmie asked.
“A kind of society, captain,” said the bum, shuddering down into his collar. “A sort of society of bums, the ones that ain’t worthy, see, the undeserving, see? We just give up, we can’t get anywhere, so we just clubbed up. My job is to get a bottle of cat, see, and it costs forty cents, and all I got is your two bits. It’ll be dark soon, so I got to work up here.”
“Just a second,” said Jimmie. “I think you’re a liar.”
The bleary eyes opened and showed two icy gray pupils that stared steadily into Jim’s eyes.
“I’m a lotta things, captain, but I ain’t no liar,” said the bum.
“You look as if you had been on a drunk for a week,” stated Jim, staring back.
“Oho, that!” laughed the bum, revealing crooked teeth. “Oho, me face? My eyes? Oho, that’s hay fever!”
“Hay fever? In mid-winter?” scoffed Jim.
“Sure, you sleep in hay and see what you get, even in winter,” said the bum, hotly.
“That’s right, Jim,” I hastened. “Every time I change the hay in the dog kennel, even in winter, I get an attack.”
“Oho, so that’s what you was thinking?” laughed the bum. “The boys was saying last week that somebody else ought to have the rum issue to look after. They said I looked like a jag even when I was praying for Daffy Baird.”
“One of the guys is Daffy Baird,” said the bum. “He got shell shocked in the war and every once in a while he starts crying. He’s a little off, you understand; he’s not all there, see? So the only thing stops him is me praying I stand up over him and pray. I used to be good at imitating a preacher, see? So I pray and pray and pretty soon Daffy shuts up and we can all go to sleep.”
“That would be quite a sight,” said Jim.
“Where’s your box car?” I asked.
The bum looked sharply at me.
“Well, gents, thanks for the two bits,” he said.
“Look here,” cried Jim. “I’d like to fix you boys tip with a real feed. Suppose you let us come down and see your place, and we can bring a load of stuff with us we can get in the store here; we’ll make it a surprise party.”
The bum was shoving past us. His face had set again into a bleary mask.
“Nuttin doing,” he muttered.
“Half a minute,” I said after him.
But he started fast and although we walked back to the corner of Queen he was swallowed up in the five o’clock throngs.
“I guess he thought we might be informers or busy bodies,” I suggested.
“He figured we weren’t worthy,” corrected Jim.
And we got back to The Star without finding anybody unworthy but ourselves.
Editor’s Notes: This story appeared in the book Silver Linings (1978). It is one that really displays the difficulties of the Great Depression.
Catawba is a type of grape that can be used to make wine.