I drew forth the yellow 20-dollar bill and casually handed it to him without even looking at it or him.

By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, September 22, 1934.

“Do you know,” asked Jimmie Frise, “who are the happiest people in the world to-day?”

“The Eskimos?” I ventured.

“No,” said Jimmie, “the bums. The fellows who ask you for a dime. They’re the happiest. Not a care in the world. And always guaranteed, by the eternal goodness of human nature, a dime.”

“That’s very interesting,” I said. “You think human nature can always be depended upon to the extent of a dime?”

“Yes.” said Jimmie. “That is the measure of it. If it were more, bums would ask for more. It is the ancient and exact measure. You never hear a bum ask for fifty cents or a dollar. That is, except some of the bums that are your personal friends.”

“I wonder what a bum would do,” I asked, “if you did give him a dollar? Or ten dollars!”

“Or twenty,” said Jimmie. “Imagine walking along the street and a bum shambles up.beside you and asks for a dime and you nonchalantly reach into your pocket and hand him a twenty dollar bill. What would he do?”

“Probably drop dead from heart failure,” I guessed.

“No, now, there’s an interesting experiment,” went on Jim. “We could go out on the street, and you walk a few paces ahead of me and be the one the bum would ask. You hand him the twenty and I’ll follow him. We’ll just see what a bum would do with a lot of money.”

“He would head for the first beer joint,” I said.

“I don’t know,” demurred Jimmie. “Maybe he would head for the barber shop and then go and get a new suit. It would be interesting to find out.”

“We would have the pleasure,” I said, “of seeing our hard earned twenty being shot to pieces in record time on a lavish investment in rubbing alcohol, native wine and canned heat. I can think of better investments.”

“You have a very poor opinion of your lesser brethren,” said Jim. “I find it convenient to believe that a heart of gold beats beneath those shabby outer integuments. Just give the boys a chance, and they will rise, not fall. Anyway, it would be very interesting just to see what would happen if we handed out, to the first bum we met, not a selected bum but just any old bum, a twenty dollar bill. How about contributing ten of it?”

“Who is going to hand the money out?” I questioned.

“You could,” said Jim, generously.

“Very well,” I said, because it wouldn’t be the first time I had been manipulated into paying the entire cost of one of our social experiments.

“I tell you,” suggested Jimmie, “we’ll make a little gamble of it. If the bum does what I think he will do, that is, buy some clothes or pay his room rent, you pay $15 of the cost of the experiment. If he heads for the beer joint, or otherwise flings the money away, I’ll pay $15 of the $20. How about it?”

“Now it’s a sporting proposition,” I agreed. “I like to see optimists pay 75 per cent. of the costs.”

The Happiest People

“I said,” pointed out Jimmie, “that the bums were the happiest people in the world, because they had no cares. Did you ever read Thoreau’s ‘Walden’?”

“Not yet,” I admitted.

“Well, it’s a book nearly a hundred years old that ought to be a best seller to-day,” said Jim. “It answers all the questions people are asking these times. In it, Thoreau shows that every bit of property you acquire, whether it is only a rake or a hoe, or block of a quarter million shares of stock, is tied around your neck like a stone. And the more you possess, the more hopelessly are you burdened.”

“I don’t mind a few burdens,” I said.

“These bums,” said Jim, “are secure in their belief that somebody, every day, is sure to be found good enough at heart to save them from starving. What more do they want.”

“I suppose they have a lovely free feeling,” I said. “With us, it isn’t a question of where is the next meal coming from? It is the question, where are the meals we have had for the past two or three years coming from?”

“Now you’ve hit it,” said Jim. “And I want to see the face of the guy you give that $20 to.”

We changed our various small bills into one $20. We arranged that I would stroll along the street in an expansive and leisurely manner, looking as much like a stockholder as possible, while Jim would come ten or fifteen paces in rear of me so that the bum would not notice him. I have the faculty of being able to disguise myself completely with nothing more than my hat. If I wear my hat in the in the middle of my head and perfectly straight, I look like the organist in a Methodist Sunday school. If I wear it where it feels most natural, on the side, I look like the proprietor of a pool room. I was to wear my fall coat until I had given the $20, and carry the coat thereafter. A fall coat carried over the arm gives a man a very racy look.

We went out to King St. We walked to Yonge. No bums. It was around 3 p.m., which is a good time for bums. We turned up Yonge and worked back to the office district via Adelaide. Up Bay again and west on Richmond St. Reflected in shop windows, I could see Jimmie following me casually along.

Then we met our bum. He was walking slowly toward me. He was the typical panhandler. Coat and pants did not match. Shoes pretty soft looking. Panhandlers, like all other kinds of people about to commit some irregularity, never know what to do with their hands. They usually hold them together in front of them, twisting the fingers. I suppose it is because a panhandler doesn’t want to accost you with his hands in his pockets for fear you would be frightened. He shows his hands, a mute, unconscious gesture of his humility and innocence.

As this bum selected me for the touch, he turned quickly and started walking the same way I was walking, only slower, so that I would catch up to him.

As I came level with him, he cast a quick, furtive look around, and then sidled alongside of me.

“Say,” he said, confidentially, “could you spare the price of a cuppa coffee, mister…”

Keeping right on walking, but bending my head sympathetically, I said:

“Why, sure,” and reached into my pocket. After a moment’s pause as I felt about in my pocket the usual way, I drew forth the rich yellow $20 and casually handed it to him, without even looking at it or him.

For an appreciable moment, he just kept walking beside me, and I could see he was looking down at my hand.

“Here you are,” I said, shortly, speeding up a little, and thrusting the bill at his dangling hand. He took it. I walked straight on.

Panhandler Goes Shopping

Jim had paused and was looking in a window. I went on a few doors, as prearranged, and then stepped into the lobby of what happened to be an office furniture store where I studied the hat racks and roll top desks, watching out the big window.

Jim says the man stood like a statue, head bent, hand in pocket, where he had whisked the bill. For a long moment after I had disappeared, he stood there. Then he raised his head slowly, and looked all around, at the street, at the passerby, at the windows above.

Very slowly he turned and with dragging feet, he walked back past Jimmie, staring at the pavement with a stunned look, his face brightly flushed.

I waited a full minute in the furniture store before walking casually out on to the street again. There, almost out of sight was Jimmie, anxiously looking back. I snatched off my rain coat, tipped my hat to its proper angle, and chased along until I caught up with Jimmie in the southwest entrance of a big department store.

“Hurry,” said Jim, “we’ll lose him in here!”

But we didn’t. There he was ahead of us, slowly advancing, as if he were timid, into the resplendent aisles of the big store. Carefully, by circling around aisles and counters, we followed him, filling in the pauses, as he stopped and stared at the various displays.

“I win,” said Jim. “He’s going to buy new clothes!”

I had my first good look at him now. He looked stunned. Every few seconds a kind of shy grin would start to spread over his face, and he would chase it with a frightened glance around. One hand was tightly in his pants pocket.

“He’s afraid to offer the $20,” said Jim.

He looked at the men’s clothing, the cameras, the school text books. He wandered down the long bright aisle where they have all the little islands filled with lingerie, beads, gloves. When he stopped at the bead counter and fingered a string of pink beads, the girl looked at him more in surprise than anger, and he hastily dropped the 20-cent string of beads and went on down the aisle. He came to the escalator and asked the uniformed girl a question. She motioned him. up the escalator and followed him with her eyes filled with a cold amusement.

“Pardon me,” I said to the girl, “would you please tells us what that bum wanted to find?”

“Ladies’ hats,” she laughed. “Old ladies’ hat.”

“It’s gone to his head,” I suggested to Jimmie as we trailed him up the escalator.

Among the counters and the racks and knobs of the ladies’ hat department he wandered, timidly pausing and looking sideways at certain hats, always moving away when a clerk came near. Then a short, stout lady with gray hair popped up to him and they went back to where there were some elderly ladies’ hats – you know the kind.

He bought a black one, with a purple ribbon across it. He handed his $20 bill out quickly, without looking at it. The saleslady took it unconcernedly, and after a pause brought him the change, and the hat done up in one of those paper hat bags of a bright brown color. Before we had time to question the saleslady, he was speeding for the escalator and we had to follow.

We followed him out into the street, along Queen to Church. Never a moment did he pause, across against the red lights he went, with shabby legs striding strongly. With one hand tight in his pants pocket.

Our Lesser Brethren

Away beyond Church he went, until we came to those streets where dwell our lesser brethren.

Up one of them he hastened, and into a tall gray house in whose windows hung the cracked card, “Bed 25c.” Across that grassless handbreadth of lawn, into that shabby door he went.

“So what?” I said.

“Of all things, an old lady’s hat,” said Jim.

We went to the corner and stood there. We walked to the other end of the block and stood there, debating, questioning. Nearly half an hour went by.

“We could go to the house,” argued Jim, “and say we were sanitary inspectors or something. Or we were thinking of buying it. That’s it, the real estate men had sent us,”

We went back and rapped, since there was no bell. A girl of fourteen or so, dirty and small, answered.

“Is your momma in?”

“No, she’s working.”

“Your poppa?”

“He’s out.”

“Well, now, that’s too bad. The real estate man said we could come and look through the house, we were thinking of buying it. It’s for sale, isn’t it?”

“I wouldn’t know,” said the little girl. “We just board here.”

“Well, do you think it would be all right if we just walked through the house to get an idea of what it is like?” asked Jim.

“I guess so. It’s a nice house. It’s the best one we have ever stayed in,” said the little girl proudly. “The bath is of marble.”

“Well, now,” exclaimed Jimmie.

Into the high dark hall we stepped. There was no dining room. The dining was a family apartment. Terrible tangled kitchen, with an empty high-chair standing there, and a holy picture on the wall. Up the steep, old fashioned stairs we went, the little girl showing us the rooms, rapping for us and explaining to the strange stern women and men who answered the knock, that we were gentlemen sent by the real estate. She showed us the marble bath. Oh, isles of Greece, where burning Sappho…

But none of the knocks revealed our man. “Are there more rooms?” asked Jim.

“In the attic,” said the little girl. “But the old lady is sick there.”

“If you don’t mind,” said Jim. “We can just take a peep.”

He was there. In the front attic room, with its steep ceiling. He was sitting on a chair drawn up close by the bed.

The bed had a patch quilt worked in two colors of gray. Light gray and dark gray. And in the bed sat against the soiled pillow, a very old and a very thin woman. I am sorry she was not beautiful and pale in a lovely way, but her white hair hung in straight wisps down about her sunken face.

On her lap lay a new black hat with a purple ribbon.

“Pardon me,” said Jimmie, stepping right in. “We were sent by the real estate people. We are thinking of buying. Do you mind, please?”

“Go ahead,” said the bum, shifting his chair. He had to let go the two hands of the old lady. They were like bones.

We walked about the little room, with its bed, its unmatched dresser, its two chairs and its terrible bits of this and that flung about. We stalled for time, looked at the window sills and frames, all in a silence as thick as soup.

As we turned away, our inspection ended, Jim said, gently:

“Not very well, eh?”

“I’m all right now,” said the old lady in a husky voice. “My boy has got a job!”

The man turned a surly face to glance at us, and in that instant, he recognized me. His face went white and he continued to stare at me with a frozen expression. I tried to signal back to him with my eyes.

Everybody Has Cares

“Yes,” said the old lady, “my boy. He’s got a job. And what’s more, his new boss gave him $20 in advance. You see, we are not on relief.”

“Why not?” demanded Jim. “My goodness.”

“Well, you see, we came here…”

“I got into trouble with the pol…”

“Now, now, Jimmie,” said the old lady, laying her hand on the bum’s arm. “For reasons we have of our own, we came to Toronto from where we had lived for years, and we haven’t been here long enough to be on relief.”

“Well, I hope you’ll soon be well now,” said Jim.

“Ah, well,” sighed the old lady.

We went out and down the attic stairs, and the bum followed us, after closing the door. He came right down to the ground floor and on to the street where he touched my arm.

“Aren’t you the gentleman?”

“Yes,” I said.

“It was like this,” said the bum. “I was brought up good as a boy. So I was walking along that street, and I was praying to God. And I said: ‘God, please let me do something good for her just once before she goes.’ She’s going to die any day, mister. It’s one of those terrible things. You know.”

“Sure,” I said, because it is so easy to say.

“I said to God, just let me get her some little things, a nice room where she could look out the window. Or maybe a dress. It would be only about three dollars, God, for a week for a good room. And then I touched you, mister, and you gave me that twenty.”

“That’s all right, that’s all right,” I assured him.

“I’ve been a tough egg,” said the bum. “I just wanted to do one good thing. I even thought of boots for her, mister. Wasn’t that funny?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Boots,” said the bum. “But, anyway, when you handed me that twenty, mister. I thought I would drop dead right there. It was like I saw an angel. It was like something you didn’t believe and it happened.”

“I am sorry,” I said.

“Did you want it back?” asked the man, and I noticed for the first time he needed a shave and that he had a poor weak mouth.

“Certainly not,” I said. “This is just a coincidence. I am in the real estate business.”

“I see,” said the bum, but he couldn’t see.

“Good-by,” I said.

“Thank you, mister,” he said, but it was not me he was thanking, I could see that. He was still in a daze from having seen brighter glories from those low mountain tops on which the poor may stand.

Jim and I went straight down to King St. and slowly back. I think we both wanted to talk but we had cramps in our throats.

However, there is a little second-hand store window away along east there where they have old bayonets and mugs with “Down She Goes” painted on them and views of early Toronto. We always look in that window. It pulled us together.

“You see,” said Jim. “That proves that we are wrong when we think there are some fortunate people, like bums or millionaires, who haven’t a care in the world. I guess everybody has cares.”

“You can’t tell,” I said, “where a dime is going when you give it away.”

“By the way,” said Jim, “you pay $15.”

“Not on your life,” I assured him. “You said he would buy clothes for himself and get a shave.”

“You said he’d get pie-eyed,” countered Jim.

“I guess it’s fifty-fifty,” said I.

“Fair enough,” agreed Jim, glad to be back on the solid ground again where all happy-go-lucky people dwell.

Editor’s Note: Personally, I think this is their best story to come out of the Depression era. It also appeared in Silver Linings (1978).

$20 in 1934 would be almost $430 in 2023. The Bank of Canada only started issuing bills in 1935, so this was likely a Canadian chartered bank note. So when they say it was yellow, I don’t know what bank it could be from. When searching, I think it could have been from the Bank of Toronto. When the Bank of Canada stated issuing notes in 1935, only 10 Canadian banks were still issuing them, and they stopped doing so in 1944.

“Canned heat” was another name for Sterno, a portable heat source used for camping and other purposes, including use during the Depression to make cheap alcohol.

During the Depression, getting “relief” (welfare) was controlled by the municipalities, who often had residency requirements for a number of years to avoid having to provide for transients.