So You Wanna Be a Hobo…

I’ve always been a bit restless when it comes to putting down roots. A lot of people happily live out their whole lives in the same town in which they were born. My grandfather (my mother’s father) died in the same house in which he was born. I probably get my vagabond leanings from the other side of the family.

As I’ve mentioned a few times before, I’m not much of a nester. I move some place, unpack my stuff, put it away and that’s about the extent of my nesting. I like to move. I like to find my way around new neighbourhoods and meet new people.

For a long time, as a teenager and young adult, I considered becoming a hobo.

We should probably define hobo. A hobo is different from a street person or homeless person — usually because a hobo chooses his or migratory lifestyle. Traditional, Depression-era hobos travelled around working at various farms and picking up odd jobs wherever they could. This was quite different from a tramp, who only worked when he was forced to or a bum, who never worked at all.

Hobos, then and now, normally stay away from cities and try to find work on farms where passersby are more liable to be hired.

Back on our farm we would have people stopping by once in a while looking for work. We had a one-room cottage on the farm with a bed and a stove and fridge where these migratory workers would stay. There was a pump for water and an outhouse that served as the rest of the bathroom. They’d get paid at the end of every day in cash and they came and went as they pleased. Most of them were single guys, young or old. There were a few couples. And then there were some more memorable hobos.

We had one young fella – who was a dashing combination of  James Dean and Elvis —  show up one day with two young ladies. He said one of them was his sister and the other his girlfriend – not that anybody asked. The three of them lived in that cottage for a whole summer one year. It was incredibly scandalous. We’d have all sorts of fun over supper every night swapping stories about what we’d seen them doing or what we’d overheard them saying that day and/or speculating on what strange kind of relationship they must have to be all sleeping together in one double bed.

They worked hard though and did a good job picking fruit, so we let them get on with it.

One summer when I was about 14 or 15, I remember a young girl arrived who couldn’t have been more than 2 or 3 years older than I was. I thought she was the coolest thing ever, wandering around all on her own like that. She looked like the quintessential hippy and was travelling with a mangy dog named Boo – after the Lobo song.  

She stayed for almost a week and I’d sit outside with her every night while she told me about all the stuff she’d seen and done. One morning she wasn’t there anymore. I was heartbroken. She didn’t even say good-bye. I kept expecting her to come back, but she never did.

But she’d given me a lot of good tips and advice on how to become a hobo. After that, I put extra effort into my research. I had a list of WWOOFs (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms)  from all over where I could have gone to work and where I could have stayed.

I also had some ideas on how I could get around. Once upon a time it was easier to travel for cheap or even for free than it is now. A girl I knew used to go to the local airport and hitch rides with private airplanes. Probably, you can’t do that any more. Also, she was very well-developed and “easy going”, so getting a ride was a snap for her.

I don’t know if companies are still allowed to hire freelancers to carry packages to other countries/states/provinces. You could sign up with some courier database and a company would pay your one-way airfare if you took along whatever it was they needed to have sent to some other place.

There were also once opportunities for almost free last-minute trips by plane, train or bus. I never really considered hopping freight trains. I couldn’t figure out how hobos did that. I’m guessing trains were slower in the hobo heyday.

I’d also applied to crew on various cruise ships and freight ships as a means of getting around.

I was systematically paring down my possessions so I would only have a backpack of stuff to carry around.  I opted for a backpack because the stick and kerchief thing seemed pretty cumbersome and not very efficient. How much stuff could you really carry in a kerchief anyway? And how does it help you to tie it to a stick? It’s awkward to walk around with a stick slung over your shoulder all the time. I suppose the stick makes a good weapon, but by the time you detach your bundle of smelly socks from the stick, whoever you’re in danger from would have killed you.

Anyway, along with the WWOOFs I also had a list of “intentional communities” that welcomed travelers and a list of hostels where a young person could sleep and shower and maybe work for a while for his or her keep.

I’m not much fond of sleeping outdoors or living in the same underwear for more than a day at a time, so I could definitely see some drawbacks to the nomadic life. But I figured I could find a way to stay clean and not have to sleep on the ground with the bugs if I really, really put my mind to it.

In 1937, Esquire Magazine published an article called “The Bum Handbook.” One of the tips outlined there was to always be clean so that you’d have a better chance of getting work. I, too see no reason why you have to be crusty and stinky just because you’re a hobo. There’s a lot of free soap and water around.

I also always had big plans to make it to Britt, Iowa by the second weekend of every August  to attend the National Hobo Convention. It’s been held there since 1900 and is the largest regular gathering of hobos in the country – probably even the world.

There’s a hobo jungle (camp) set up for sleeping and fat-chewing, a parade, a hobo museum, hobo auction, hobo memorial service, a flea market (probably with actual fleas), hobo gift shop (I have no idea what they’d sell), and lots of music, food and the all the other stuff that usually attaches itself to a festival.

I never entirely gave up this notion of becoming a hobo. However, as per yesterday’s post, these days I’m a little too attached to travelling first class, or at least with a pre-booked ticket, to seriously consider hitting the road. But I really think if XUP Jr. hadn’t come along and tethered me, I would have been some form of hobo. Fortunately, XUP Jr.  likes to keep moving, too, so we’ve managed to get around somewhat, while still adhering to that stable home-life thing.

I once even made a point of memorizing all that hobo symbol stuff, though I don’t know why. It’s not like anyone uses them anymore.

Hobos also have (had) their own hobo lingo. I tried to learn some of it so I wouldn’t look so much like an angellina (a newbie hobo). Here are some other cute hobo sayings to keep in mind in case you ever decide to become a hobo:

  • Bindle stick – yes, there’s a name for that kerchief tied around a stick thing! Not to be confused with a bindlestiff – which is a nasty hobo who steals from other hobos
  • Banjo – That small frying pan you need to cook your bullets (beans)
  • Snipes – Cigarette butts. I don’t know where this word comes from All I know for sure is that it has nothing to do with Wesley Snipes
  • California Blankets- Newspapers that you use for blankets
  • Jungle – A hobo camp
  • Jungle Buzzard- A hobo or other evil person who preys on hobos.
  • Barnacle – A hobo or any other person who stays in the same job for a long time
  • Blowed-in-the-glass – If a hobo calls you that, it means you’re trustworthy. I can’t for the life of me figure where that means
  • Catch the Westbound – If you’ve caught the westbound it means you’re dead
  • Chuck a dummy – Pretending to faint, which is a good way to get people to feed you
  • Doggin’ it- Traveling by bus, as in Greyhound. Aren’t hobos clever?
  • Mulligan Stew- The hobo version of “stone soup”. All the hobos in the jungle toss whatever they have into the pot and everyone enjoys a delightful meal. One of the primary hobo credos always was “what goes around, comes around” – so sharing whatever little you had with fellow hobos guaranteed that when you were down on your luck, someone would share with you.
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24 responses to “So You Wanna Be a Hobo…

  1. Not having access to a toilet at all times would keep me from being a hobo. I love to travel though and I like change-it just gets so expensive

  2. I grew up near railroad tracks and used to look for hobos in the cars when they went past. Watching the train fly by, I could never imagine jumping on one, but now I know they do that near railway yards and stops. I guess I’m the modern version of a hobo in that like you, I have moved around alot. In June I will have lived in this house 9 years and that is a huge record for me. My previous record for one place was 6 years. I lived one place for two months and another place for 5 months. My husband is the same as me and is always talking about moving. Maybe we’ve been here too long.

  3. What a great post. I’ve grown roots, but they’re actually my kids and we’re about to uproot them and move to Ottawa soon. Anyhow this post reminded me of that old tv show The Littlest Hobo

  4. I don’t know that I could do the full-fledged hobo thing, but I do like to move around and try new things. Luckily, my husband enjoys that too. We’ve moved quite a bit since we’ve been married. We both have a dream of being able to move around Europe in the next few years.

    The title of this post struck me as totally hilarious! It reminded me of those career pamphlets you’ll see around schools or colleges: So You Want to Be a *insert career choice here*.

  5. I’ll be a hobo if I can travel business class and drink champagne. Oh, and have clean undies every day and freshly laundered sheets.

    I guess I’ve passed that age…

  6. Ah, the hobo life. So romantic, but so dirty! And considering that you have a hard time at pot luck dinner, this might prove to be very challenging for you! ;)

    In Australia, I had the good fortune of doing fruitpicking. Like the young folks you met at your farm, I could pick up and travel at a moment’s notice while still making money. You could literally travel the entire circumference of Australia by following the fruit picking seasons — and some people did, on their own or with a friend or partner. Some people had their own trailers and others just stayed in whatever cabin was available on site. I wouldn’t mind doing that as a form of retirement, I think.

  7. I look forward to reading your blog with a cup of tea…another great post today XUP. :) Blowed-in-the-glass – I’m going to talk “hobo” today…maybe have some bullets done on the banjo tonight.

  8. Linda – Even when you’re travelling first class, there are still toilet issues. At least in Paris you have public toilets all over the place. Here there’s nothing. If you’re lucky some kind coffee shop person will let you use their toilets without having to buy something.

    Geewits – I’ve never been anywhere longer than 4 years and that includes places I lived with my parents. My dad got tired of places pretty quickly, too. I was in my last job in Halifax for 9 years though. That was a major record.

    Sean – Littlest Hobo is still on sometimes on weekends – the old shows. My daughter thinks they’re hilarious…because they’re so 1970s.

    Kimberly – I might start up a School for Hobos. Successful students will just drift in and out of classes; not stay put long enough for the exam; sell their books for tobacco…I might get bored of the whole thing and just abandon the school after a few weeks…

    Trashy – And you call yourself a rocker!

    Jazz – I think there’s a new wave of techno age hobos who carry cell phones and electronic notebooks so they can network with each other and scope out work before ever arriving at a spot. If you have no expenses and work a whole season on some farm or other, you can definitely travel first class to your next destination. Something to think about.

    Alison – Bah!You guys are no fun. I’d insist on clean underwear every day too though. There’s no reason why you have to let your standards slip just because you’re a hobo.

    Julie – Australia is very traveller friendly in that respect. They have tons of WWOOFs and other farms that will take on itinerant workers. There are all sorts of intentional communities and Yurts to hang out in and hitchhiking is relatively safe and easy. I still think that you can maintain a certain level of hygiene while on the road. No matter how you’re travelling it’s never the same as at home where you have all your soaps and cleaners and where you can trust the water and the food. I think what I’d like to do in my retirement is move to an interesting place for a few months to a year; soaking up the culture/community and then moving somewhere else. For a while anyway. We’ll see.

    MM – Ha ha. When you’re done with the blogs you can kick back and read your California blankets and fire up a snipe. Wanna go to the hobo convention with me in August? You don’t have to be a hobo to attend. Too bad it’s in Iowa and not somewhere fun like New York

  9. I’m with Sean-This post made me think of one of my favorite shows growing up, the quintessential “Littlest Hobo”. He helped people on his hobo journeys, what’s not to love? :)

  10. Maybe we could all start a traveling group of hobos.
    We could be the old hobos who work for arthritis medication and such..

  11. I had a friend who used to do the courier thing. he flew all over the place, just had to be available ‘immediately’ in order to do it. No long term planning for that gig.
    For a long time that sounded great. Then I dreamed of retiring in a RV and travelling from the end of one country and back through the other. Now it is too expensive. So my latest dream is to retire to a cruise ship. It can be cheaper than living in a retirement home and has way more amenities and better food. (that was before the France idea was implanted…)

  12. You can’t eat a potluck meal, how the hell are you going to eat Mulligan Stew and sleep in beds where a thousand other people have slept? Okay, you all ready sleep in beds where others have slept every time you go to a Hotel, but I try not to think about that personally, because it gives me the willies.

  13. Pauline – There’s a voice that keeps on calling me
    Down the road, that’s where I’ll always be.
    Every stop I make, I make a new friend,
    Can’t stay for long, just turn around and I’m gone again

    Maybe tomorrow, I’ll want to settle down,
    Until tomorrow, I’ll just keep moving on.

    Glen – Given our advanced years, maybe we could just form a Littlest Hobo fan club. We have 3 members right here already.

    Meanie – Some of them are hilarious, aren’t they? What are you going to make? Will you post it?

    Violetsky – Ya, I’ve heard that cruise ship thing, too. But the Golden Girls in France sounds even better. Or if we want to be hobos we could just rent something for 6 months or so and then go on to Italy and then Spain and then who knows. We’ll be upscale hobos.

    Cedar – I’m not saying I won’t have issues as a hobo. I’m not pretending that I’m going to be a model hobo that all up and coming hobos can look up to. I’ll be a hungry hobo. Just like I’m a hungry traveler every time I go away from home and can’t get exactly what I want to eat prepared in places that don’t gross me out. But I can see it would be even more difficult if you can’t afford to be really picky. As for the bed thing — a wise hobo is always prepared with his own bedroll so he doesn’t have to sleep in scungy beds.

  14. In my younger days, I too pondered a life of wandering and adventure. But like you, XUP, I realized comfort is nice too. Now, until I’m independently wealthy (sigh), I’ll take the occasional vacation and pretend I’m free.

  15. This post made me laugh! I could never be a hobo, I don’t even like to go camping. I pick up and move every 4 years or so but I move from house to house… so far lol. And I’m just WAY too lazy to walk everywhere or constantly look for cheap or free ways to travel. But if you ever get untethered and try the hobo life I wish you the best of luck! I’ll put the “Food here if you work” sign out for you.

  16. Are you really going to the hobo convention? Count me in as the 4th member of the Littlest Hobo Fan club…I think there are more fans out there. (maybe 8 or even 9)

  17. Dave – Freedom’s just another word for nuthin’ left to lose.

    Charlene – Thanks lady, much obliged I’m sure. I don’t like camping either. I like being outdoors and even cooking outdoors and sitting around a campfire, but I like to be indoors to sleep and shower and use the facilities.

    MM – I don’t think I’m really going to the hobo convention. It would be fun though, wouldn’t it – if you’re in the area or passing through or something. I wouldn’t go just for that.

  18. Nice article here. Was just doing some last-minute research for a book of poems I wrote that uses hobo lingo and a few hobo symbols (coming out this December from Salt Publishing), when I came across your site.

    I also keep intending to make it to Britt for the Hobo festival but have yet to do so. I have a wife and four kids and, yes, roots that keep me from just running off, but a vagabond at heart! I do love the road…

  19. Here in the states it used to be something like 30 days in jail for vagrancy if they caught you hopping freights. Now I think it’s a year in jail for “terroristic trespassing”. Some states will arrest you for hitchhiking. Times have changed for the Hobo. There’s still a few of the old one around, but they’re fading fast. We’ve lost about ten in the last year. I try to keep the Hobo spirit alive in my performances.

    Arkansas Red-Ozark Troubadour
    Ozark Mountains, Arkansas USA