A chilly day like our east coast Florida Friday seemed like the best of days practice some hospitality, to ask people in for a time of shelter, a stretch of warmth and a good plate of food. Had the demands of my day been different I might have done just that, but the best I could do this time was read about others opening their home and hearts to people living their days on the edge. In the poem “Bums at Breakfast” from his 1999 book, Traveling Light, poet David Wagoner recalls his boyhood days at a time his mother welcomed the homeless into her kitchen every morning, offering shelter from the rain or cold, a half hour of stovetop warmth and a plate of breakfast.
Daily, the bums sat down to eat in our kitchen.
They seemed to be whatever the day was like:
If it was hot or cold, they were hot or cold;
If it was wet, they came in dripping wet.
One left his snowy shoes on the back porch
But his socks stuck to the clean linoleum,
And one, when my mother led him to the sink,
Wrung out his hat instead of washing his hands.
My father said they’d made a mark on the house,
A hobo’s sign on the sidewalk, pointing the way.
I hunted everywhere, but never found it.
It must have said, “It’s only good in the morning—
When the husband’s out.” My father knew by heart
Lectures on Thrift and Doggedness,
But he was always either working or sleeping.
My mother didn’t know any advice.
They ate their food politely, with old hands,
Not looking around, and spoke in short, plain answers.
Sometimes they said what they’d been doing lately
Or told us what was wrong; but listening hard,
I broke their language into secret codes:
Their east meant west, their job meant walking and walking,
Their money meant danger, home meant running and hiding,
Their father and mother were different kinds of weather.
Dumbly, I watched them leave by the back door,
Their pockets empty as a ten-year-old’s;
Yet they looked twice as rich, being full of breakfast.
I carried mine like a lump all the way to school.
When I was growing hungry, where would they be?
None ever came twice. Never to lunch or dinner.
They were always starting fresh in the fresh morning.
I dreamed of days that stopped at the beginning.
David Wagoner was born in Ohio in 1926. In addition to twenty-two collections of poetry and ten novels, his work has appeared in Atlantic, Harper’s Magazine, New Republic, Antioch Review and Prairie Schooner. Twice nominated for the National Book Award, the list of prizes and awards he has won is too long to include here. Considered by most to be a nature poet, Wagoner has been described as not writing as well about his human subjects. “Bums at Breakfast” with its rich characterization of homeless men sitting down for breakfast is surely enough to give the lie to that particular criticism. Wagoner lives in Bothell, Washington and teaches in the low-residency MFA program of the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts on Whidbey Island.