According to homeless advocates, thousands of street people are starving to death in America each year. I set forth to find out for myself by hopping freight trains and living on “skid rows” in St. Louis, Kansas City, Chicago, Detroit. . .wherever the trains ran.

Garbed in old jeans and a sweat shirt, I began by hopping my first freight out of Muskogee, Oklahoma. I simply reached out and grabbed a handful of boxcar as the train sped past. Almost jerked me out of my sneakers, ripped the crotch from my jeans. I’m a fast learner; you don’t just grab a train. You have to get up some speed running alongside it first.

Within a few days I was blending right in with the homeless. Ripped jeans, shaggy-looking, filthy from riding coal and cattle cars. I slept on park benches, in alleys, and on good nights in a Salvation Army dorm or private mission; you have to attend church services first in order to eat and sleep.

I waited in line to receive a blanket for a night on a hard, cold tile floor at a Salvation Army. I was issued a half-blanket. Which meant I either slept on top of it to ward off the chill from the floor, thereby getting cold on top—or I slept underneath it and let my bottom side freeze. Either way, I was destined to spend a miserable night.

Everyone snoring all over the floor like rancid dominos. Suddenly, in the middle of the night, my neighbor sprang upright as though having received a revelation from God.

“What if there really ain’t no Great Wall of China?” he cried.

I sat up. “What if man didn’t really walk on the moon?” I responded, thereby providing additional grist for him to worry about.

One afternoon, I stopped to watch one of my counterparts digging through a trash barrel in a park. A little man, fiftyish, balding with strings of his remaining hair dangling down in front of his face. He felt me watching and jumped back with a stricken look. As though afraid I might steal his treasures.

“People throw away all kinds of good stuff,” he muttered, displaying a half-eaten Big Mac still in its wrapper. “It’s still fresh,” he said. “I’ll share it with you.”

I respectfully declined, mumbling something to the effect that I’d find my own trash barrel.

An NBC-TV affiliate was filming a special on the homeless at a downtown mission house where I happened to be dining with the other flotsam and jetsam of the city. Cameras started whirring. That evening I appeared on network TV as one of the homeless, looking up into the camera with a grin that displayed where I had got some teeth shot out in a little war in Central America. (But that’s another story). Friends who saw the clip undoubtedly shook their heads in dismay.

“We knew he’d end up there sooner or later.”

Incidentally, I saw no one starving to death. There are too many places doling out free food for anyone to go hungry. I gained ten pounds and returned home with twenty dollars that I didn’t have when I started out (That’s also another story).

TO BE CONTINUED