By Laurie LaZebnik
My grandfather was a hobo. That’s what he told my brother and me as we sat at his kitchen table, dunked toasted Wonderbread in mugs of hot chocolate, and listened to his stories.
Paul told us about the kinship he found in the hobo jungles outside railyards. He often slept on a piece of cardboard and covered himself with newspapers. He called it his “California blanket.”
The Hobo Jungle provided social contact, a community that was safe and a source for nourishment. Each traveler contributed the bits of food they had to a communal pot. When the Mulligan Stew was hot, they each ate their share from a tin can. Times were tough on everyone, yet they shared stories, laughed, and looked out for one another.
Paul told us regardless the hardships, riding the rails was the best time he had in his life. He was in great physical shape and could easily flip aboard a crawling outbound train. Railroad security guards called ‘Bulls” routinely clubbed hobos like him if they found them boarding in the freight yards or sleeping in open cars. He learned from his pals to jump down before the train entered the station.
My grandfather Paul spread happiness with his stories like butter on warm toast. He told us how he came to America in 1933 as a stowaway on a ship leaving Germany. He described where he hid, about being discovered part way across the Atlantic, and what it was like shoveling coal for the rest of the voyage to New York to pay his passage.
Paul’s adventures on the rails ended when he found work in Detroit at Sander’s Bakery. That’s where he met and married my grandmother. She was a widow living in a small garage with her six children. Paul was the man who raised my mother and her five siblings. Despite the hardships that led to his decision to leave his family in Germany, and his sightseeing tour of America via cattle car during the Great Depression, he was a happy man.
Mom, Dad, my brother Mickey, and me were welcomed into their Arizona home. It was 1952. I was 8. Mickey was 9. Grandma made the hot chocolate each night. Paul made the toast and slathered it with real butter. His stories were our bedtime treat during the months my dad healed from leg surgery. After his story, but before we jumped into our bunks, Paul would have us tell him three things we were grateful for from that day, then wished us sweet dreams.
My curiosity about the science behind happiness began during this pandemic as I recalled happier times. That led to the Happiness Lab at Yale University and Dr. Laurie Santos. My hobo grandfather had no advanced degrees. Had he lived later and had the luxury of going to Yale I bet he would have earned a PH.D. in kindness, and would be a guest lecturer in Dr. Santos’ class.
Dr. Santos observed her college students were highly stressed, depressed and barely functioning. The academic requirements to get into Yale gave these students a head start on stress before they matriculated. Once inside the hallowed halls they were worried they couldn’t keep up and would fail. Schoolwork gave them little time for social interaction. They became isolated, lonely, and had trouble sleeping. Professor Santos saw a need and developed a course called, “The Science of Well-Being.” It became the most popular class on campus with three out of four Yale students enrolling.
The professor’s research revealed life circumstances impact the happiness scale 20 to 50% of the time. The lesson here is to do the best you can with what you cannot control, then control the other 50-70% by doing whatever makes you happy.
Recently I was having one of those stressful I’m-stuck-and-this-may-be-the-end-of-the-world kind of days, when a friend gave me a reality check. “Laurice,” he said. “Life is a lot like playing cards. We’re not always dealt a good hand, but we play to win with the cards we’re dealt—even if it’s a bad hand.”
Professor Santos assured her students they were never stuck; their brains were elastic; they could always make choices, form habits, and change their behavior. She suggested meditation. This intentional brain rewire could improve concentration and mood, stop the mind from wandering, and help them sleep.
Santos’ and her colleagues extensive research found grateful people were happy people. She had her students write three things they were grateful for in a journal at the end of each day, like my grandfather had with Mickey and me.
I asked my friend Bob what gave him joy. He is a septuagenarian and holocaust survivor. Bob told me one of the best moments in his life was holding his first great-granddaughter. She is the fourth generation in a family nearly wiped from the map by the Nazi war machine. Bob is a kind, giving and grateful man.
The number two habit of happy people, according to Dr. Santos, is spending one-on-one time with family members: social interactions with real people, not social media.
Dr. Santo’s research concluded that most people in the US are dead wrong about what makes them happy. It is not fame, more money or material possessions. Research shows what people want is time to spend with friends or do what they want.
These one-on-one social connections have been proven to break the loneliness block. Social media doesn’t count. Santos tells her students to turn off their phones. She says we should all try talking to the clerk in the grocery store. Strike up a conversation with a neighbor while walking our dogs. Make the effort to call folks and see how they are doing. Or share stories with grandchildren like Paul did with Mickey and me. Personal connections make all of us feel better.
My grandfather was an optimist and a devout Christian, yet he based much of his ease with living on a creed learned from his homeless pals. Their road to living a good life reminds me of what most of us use as a life guide, the 10 Commandments. This is the Hobo Creed:
1. Decide your own life; don’t let another person run or rule you.
2. When in town, always respect local laws and officials, and try to be always a gentleman.
3. Don’t take advantage of someone who is in a vulnerable situation, locals, or other hoboes.
4. Always try to find work, even if temporary, and always seek out jobs nobody wants. By doing so you not only help a business but ensure employment should you return to that town.
5. When no employment is available, make your own work by using your talents at crafts.
6. Do not allow yourself to become a stupid drunk and set a bad example for locals’ treatment of other hoboes.
7. When jungling in town, respect handouts and do not wear them out; another hobo will be coming along who will need them as badly, if not worse than you.
8. Always respect nature; do not leave garbage where you are jungling.
9. If in a community jungle, always pitch in and help. Try to stay clean and boil up wherever possible. (Boil clothes to kill lice.)
10. When traveling, ride your train respectfully. Take no personal chances, cause no problems with the operating crew or host railroad. Act like an extra crew member.
11. Do not cause problems in a train yard; another hobo will be coming along who will need passage through that yard.
12. Do not allow other hoboes to molest children. Expose all molesters to authorities. They are the worst garbage to infest any society.
13. Help all runaway children and try to induce them to return home.
14. Help your fellow hoboes whenever and wherever needed; you may need their help someday.
15. If present at a hobo court and you have testimony, give it. Whether for or against the accused, your voice counts!
Paul told us traveling by rail during the 1930’s was a dangerous and lonely life. Jobless men, women and even children were often hungry and depressed, much like our society today. Nearly 700,000 homeless people freight-hopped during the 1930’s to try their luck elsewhere.
Hobos figured out how to survive safely and be happy long before Dr. Santos was even born. These men and women left messages on trees and water towers to record they had been there and where they were headed. They marked doorsteps to help other travelers. A small triangle with hands signaled the homeowner had a gun. A circle with parallel arrows meant get out fast—not welcome here. Paul drew a cat with his finger in toast crumbs and said it was the sign for an easy mark, that a kind lady lived here that would share her food. He told us he was lucky he didn’t have to look for spare biscuits, a term used for surfing garbage cans for food.
Almost seventy years after eating my grandparent’s hot chocolate and toast, I still remember Paul’s words. He told us life is not easy, but you can be happy. He said you will experience hard times, but you can be happy. Be grateful for what you have, and you will be happy.
Another friend of mine, a woman orphaned in WWII Hungary, told me how fortunate she has been regardless of her hardships. At 16 she was on the run, escaping the Nazi war zone. She was homeless, cold, hungry, and frightened of what lay ahead. Sixty years later she feels lucky to live in her Ann Arbor home. She is grateful she has a husband who adores her and makes sure she has all food she wants. She feels warm, safe and happy. She played the hand of cards she was dealt and says she won.
Professor Santos encourages her students to live in the moment, to savor the experience. For example, when we reward ourselves by eating ice cream, we should smell the flavor, taste the creamy sweetness, and feel the cold on our tongues, instead of wondering if we have enough gas in the tank to get home, or if our husbands remembered to let the dog out, and then miss the ice cream treat altogether.
My husband, Bob, says eating good food makes him happy. He loves a corned beef sandwich on Jewish rye with deli mustard. I ordered takeout from Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor to give him some joy.
As it happened the meal made both of us happy. While munching my half of his sandwich that was piled high with juicy corned beef, I read an essay Ari Weinzweig wrote in Zingerman’s newsletter. It was entitled, “Joy at work (and working at joy) and why butterflies matter in the business ecosystem.” It was written on wrinkled newsprint inside the takeout bag. Ari quotes the poet, Rollo May, “Joy, rather than happiness, is the goal of our life, for joy is the emotion which accompanies our fulfilling our natures as human beings.”
Zingerman’s owner adds, “Joy is deeper (than happiness) more meaningful and purposeful.” He said, “Generosity leads to joy. It’s simple and it’s guaranteed. Generosity follows the natural law of the harvest—you reap more than you sow. When you give, you get more back. Minimally, you get a joy buzz.”
I asked my stepson where he found happiness. He said he wouldn’t describe himself as a happy person. He wasn’t unhappy, either. He had friends. He had a good job, was single, and had experienced a series of relationships and breakups over his last 50 years. He said one day he was looking ahead. He saw his personal life as being much the same. He may have a few more relationships and breakups but would essentially remain alone for the rest of his life, without a partner to share the joy. Paul acted. He met Julie on J-date and his life changed.
He is now 52 and married for the first time two years ago. He says he wouldn’t call his day-to-day life as happy. His professional life is complicated and can be stressful. He describes his personal life as content. He loves Julie and Grindle, the dog that came with Julie. He recognizes they both have strengths and weaknesses but is willing to compromise and work to make Julie happy. They are both busy with jobs and with renovating their townhouse. I have never seen Paul calmer. That makes me happy.
Scientists measure positive emotions and life satisfaction on a happiness spectrum with surveys and questionnaires. I learned from the 2020 World Happiness Report that the happiest country in the world is the Netherlands, followed by Denmark. The US is number 18 with Afghanistan hitting the bottom at 248.
Professor Santos tells us we can rewire our brains to reduce stress and anxiety and find happiness with the time-tested tools her research uncovered.
Paul Von-Wolf and his pals in the Hobo Jungle survived hard times and found joy by adhering to their moral code.
Nothing is new under the sky. We read how to live well in the Bible. William Shakespeare gave this advice: “Love All, trust few. Do wrong to none.”
My husband Bob is right. There is no better place to taste joy than a Zingerman’s corn beef sandwich.
Paul was right. He found joy in sharing his stories and spreading happiness to my brother and me along with buttered toast dipped in hot chocolate.
I am also right. I am alive. I am grateful.