What has become of the drifter?

Ronda Rich's picture

Not long ago, headed down Interstate 20, somewhere near Augusta, Ga., I saw a sight, not particularly unusual but thought-provoking, nonetheless. One detail caught my attention.

It was a man on foot, not hitch-hiking, mind you, but walking rather briskly along in the afternoon sun, pulling behind him, a piece of luggage, which was on wheels.

Now, that amused me.

I gave him more than a passing glance. He was middle-aged with short gray hair and dressed in blue jeans and a denim jacket. He didn’t look rough, weathered or troubled.

I have traveled many highways, byways and back roads of this great South and I have seen the occasional hitchhiker. But never have I seen one so modernly advanced as to be pulling wheeled luggage.

I have seen many with tote bags of some kind, slung over their shoulders or on their backs. A few I have seen with grocery sacks holding their meager belongings and once I even saw one, carrying an armload of clothes, dropping socks behind as he staggered drunkenly up the dirt road.

But wheeled luggage?

I chuckled. Then just as the snicker faded, I realized that this is what is wrong with the modern era of Southern literature. The most enduring plot-enhancing character once vital to all great Southern stories has disappeared. Somewhere, somehow over the evolution of time, we lost the drifter. He became extinct.

Beginning with depression-era novels and running straight through to post-World War II, the drifter was the character you could depend on to appear and stir the story.

With no more than the clothes on his back, he showed up, looking to work for a hot meal and a few nights’ slumber in the barn. With him, he always brought tales of wanderlust adventures, a certain amount of trouble and definite romance as he always seduced someone’s daughter and that, inevitably, brought on a knock-down, drag-out of some dramatic proportions.

My favorite drifter character was that of Ben Quick portrayed by Paul Newman in “The Long, Hot Summer,” adapted from William Faulkner’s “The Hamlet.”

For once I have to say that the movie was better than the book. But then who could resist Newman with his nonchalant good looks and his devil-may-care attitude? To me, Newman’s Ben Quick is king of the drifters, the quintessential wandering troublemaker.

Thinking about drifters got me to thinking about hobos and how they’ve disappeared, too. Like drifters, hobos gave the movies of the 1930s and 1940s an extra dimension of non-conformity.

Hobos and drifters weren’t pigeon-holed into 9-to-5 jobs, white collars and ties. In fact, the reason there were hobos and drifters in the first place is that they were men without jobs, homes and families who had either been lost or left behind. They were on the run, drifting from town to town, just trying to scrape together enough money to eat every couple of days.

For weeks I pondered the loss of the drifters and the hobos and what their demise has meant to the Great American Novel. I romanticized their place in history and the colorful adventures of these renegades. Imagine the brave hearts and sense of adventure those folks had.

But then something happened that made me start rethinking my longing to see the return of the drifter and the hobo.

The economies of the country began to shift. Foreclosures forced countless folks out of their homes, banks failed, the stock market crumbled, credit tightened and jobs disappeared. It was similar situations that created those vagabonds known as drifters and hobos back then.

On second thought, we’re better off without them.

Even if they do have wheeled luggage now.

[Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of “What Southern Women Know About Flirting” and “The Town That Came A-Courtin’.” Her newest book is “What Southern Women Know about Faith.” She lives near Gainesville, Ga. Sign up for her newsletter at www.rondarich.com.]

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