During one of my stints in the Marion County Jail this summer I got to know a 62-year-old black man whom I’ll call C. We were the oldest prisoners in the cell block — most of the others were tattooed young meth-heads and such.
C. grew up on the West Side, Hannibal’s ‘hood. Back in the early 1960s he was Hannibal’s first black paperboy, and he still remembers the name of the Courier-Post woman who hired him. His route consisted of several streets such as Spruce, Gordon, and Griffith, then as now a predominantly black and poor part of town.
After we had been released from jail I would run into C. and his wife from time to time out on the street. They were friendly to me and invited me to their house. Over the next few months I had many pleasant visits with the couple, just sitting around talking, yarning, and watching TV. While I was there I’d fill up one of my water jugs and charge my cell phone.
C. had many stories of life in Hannibal in “the old days” and told them with great vigor and expression. He told me stories his father told him over the years. C’s dad had a trash-hauling business in nearby Palmyra before he got married. This was back in the 1920s. C.’s father routinely saved what money he could in a local bank; all in all it amounted to several hundred dollars, a sizable sum back then. Then the Crash of ’29 happened and the bank failed. Until the end of his life C.’s father squirrelled away sums of money in coffee cans which he buried in the back yard. He also had a leather portfolio which he hid inside his mattress. A quote from C.’s father: “I’ll be damned if I ever trust my money to a white man again!”
C. recounted to me his father’s memories of a makeshift neighborhood on the edge of Hannibal, a settlement of indigent people who lived in boxcars during the Great Depression. The Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad had a lot where worn-out wood-sided boxcars were deposited after their poor condition made them unreliable. I imagine they kept the boxcars so that parts such as wheels and coupling mechanisms could be scavenged for re-use on newer boxcars.
I had some questions for C.:
“I suppose they carried their water in, but were these people completely without access to electricity?”
“Oh, there would be a few who could afford to run generators, while others would run extension cords. They would just move in, run a stovepipe out the roof, and start scavenging wood to burn before winter came.”
“Did they cut in windows in the walls of the cars?”
“Naw — if they wanted some fresh air they’d just open the big sliding doors. People were still living in some of those boxcars when I was a little kid, and I remember visiting some of those families with my folks. Y’know, when ya get right down to it, it sure was better than sleeping under a bridge!”
This story intrigued me. I had read about shanty towns during the Depression, but I had no idea there was one in Hannibal!
I don’t see C. any more because he is currently serving time in the Boone County Jail. One night C. and his wife were fighting, probably about money, and his wife either fell or was pushed down the long flight of steps leading up to their second-floor apartment. She broke a toe in the fall and from the bottom of the steps she called the police. When the cops came they ran C.s name and discovered that he had an outstanding warrant in Boone County.
I didn’t know about this unfortunate incident until the next morning. I was buying some food at the Save-A-Lot store when a black woman approached me. I had never seen her before but she knew who I was. She said “Hey, Larry, didja hear that your buddy’s in jail?” I was a bit nonplussed that she knew who I was and that I was a friend of C.’s; she told me the story, though in her version the number of toes broken had doubled. Later that day I talked with C.’s wife and she told me her version. I don’t think she really wanted to have her husband arrested and put in jail, but that’s what happened. She may not have even known about the outstanding warrant.