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.