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Stealing Rides

The Fate of the Modern-Day Hobo
by Nelson Taylor for Bikini magazine, November 1998

 

There's a boiling stew of controversy bubbling around the hobo community. Yes, they're still out there, uncounted tens of thousands of freight-hopping 'bos criss-crossing the country every year - for free. Although reports have been purporting the extinction of the American hobo for the last century, such hearsay might finally be here. The railroads are merging. They are conglomerating, although slowly, into sleeker, tauter machines. New car designs are geared toward making illegal train riding a lifestyle of the past. Because of escalated cases of vandalism, theft, fatal accidents, and the bad press surrounding a chain of grisly murders, security is ever-tightening. If the railroads have their way, which they probably will, come 1999 stealing rides will be a felony offense, cuffed, stuffed, and straight to jail. What better place than the National Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa, to get the lowdown on the fate of the American hobo?

Folded between a sea cornstalks and beanfields in the core of our nation's heartland, Britt is 2 hours west of Des Moines, the turnoff so discreet that you could blink and never know it existed. Parked, I make tracks to the Hob Nob, knowing the local watering hole is always the best place to begin a story. Flush with the fly-dotted bar, a cold PBR in my palm, I'm poaching a conversation between a large middle-aged woman and a youngish Paul Bunyon, when a tall and lank guy with wild hair kicks himself in the back door with a huff. "I just got out of fucking jail, man," he says to the two next to me. "It was such shit. Have you seen Adman around?" His name is Anywhere-But-Here T, a full-time railrider, maybe in his early 30s. After fishing through his pockets and coming up empty, he asks the bartender how much a beer is. His teeth are black in the gaps. There's a piece of string caught in his beard. I overhear T recount how he was arrested the night before at the Red Rooster, the rival social adjustment lounge just across Main Avenue. A huge barroom brawl erupted, over what nobody seems to remember, and T, who was only trying to safely get the dogs out of the middle of the pounding, was hauled off by the cops with the rest of the bloodied crew.

Another note of ill-ease surrounding the Hobo Convention is the rise in dissention among the ranks. More so than ever, boxcars, grainers and piggybacks are considered home to a very diverse bunch of rail denizens. In the recent past, the convention has had its problems. And this year has started no differently. Here, for four days, people that wouldn't get along in the real world try to co-habitate in one jungle. Between oldschoolers like the graybeard relics of a dustbowl yesteryear and a flood if rough-looking hard-talking newschoolers, the air is tense. "All of a sudden this conservative town sees everyone from TV they are afraid of," says Adman, spokesperson for the hobos. "They would prefer to just have the old time guys that no longer ride." Adman, who is a different breed than T, came to his rescue, fronting the $650 bail money. In his early 50s, Adman has a clipped white beard and wears a frumpy Guatemalan hat. The owner of a successful marketing firm in Minneapolis, he's an executive-like hobo, the closest most hobos come to PC. And naturally, among such authority bashers, there's a certain amount of hostility towards him. But helping T out was a strategic move.

The 2100-person town of Britt has been host to the National Hobo Convention for almost a century. Begun as a publicity stunt in 1900, three local men wined and dined hobo organizers Onion Cotton and Grand Head Pipe, who, it's safe to assume, got good and sauced and agreed Britt was the place. And why not? There's a railroad that passes through its center and townspeople wary though ready to accept this strange breed. The word hobo is said to come from the phrase "hoe boy." In the early years, men often traveled with hoes locked over their shoulders, which helped them, find daylabor. This year, there is a lot of talk about what the definition of a hobo is. Although everyone has a different experience as a hobo, most seem to agree that hobos are not bums. Hobos pay for their way through life. Bums don't. Also, hobos are not homeless. As the shell-shocked and twitching Texas Madman has said again and again, "Under your feet is my bed and over your head is my roof. The bed may have lumps in it and the roof leaks from time to time, but I wouldn't think of trading this home for any other." Hoboing, more than anything, is a state of mind. Most hobos lead the lives they do by choice. Others fall victim to addiction, run-ins with the law, mental problems and financial ruin. They live a life of codes where respect in its many forms is held like a torch. By Saturday, around 20,000 farmer-tanned folks descend on this small mid-western town, some to learn about history, others to gawk at these alterna-culture oddballs.

Adman is pinning for the communal respect of yesteryear. His slogan this year is "Legit-with-Britt." He's taken on the role of the bad guy. "Personally I've kicked out about 8 or 9 bums this year." Most of those who were thrown out or arrested, including T, are unconfirmed members of a gang of railriders called the FTRA. Somewhere between 800 and 2,000 strong, FTRA, depending on who you ask, means "Fuck the Reagan Administration" or "Freight Train Riders of America." Many are unwilling to admit to being a part of the FTRA because of the bad press that has befallen this mysterious clan. Sidetrack, or Robert Joseph Silveria, who was first assumed to be an FTRA member but has recently claimed otherwise, committed a now-unknown count of murders on the rails, beating fellow transients to death with a goon stick. He's is now in jail serving two life sentences. Most of the hardcores, whether FTRA or not, are full-time riders. Decked out in camo and black, they often make camp under bridges and often prefer crystal meth (although they'll take any drug they can get their hands on) and booze to a day's work. They make money any way they can, scraping metal, selling dope, and running foodstamps. Many "legit" 'bos blame these derelicts for the tightening railyard security.

If Adman is the spokesman for the hobos in general, New York Slim is the undeclared voice of some 50 outcasts (some FTRA) at the convention. Standing at about 6'5", black (one of the few in a largely white population) with a salt-and-pepper beard and jaundiced-looking eyes, Slim had a better chance than most at a normal life. He earned a college basketball scholarship, but didn't keep up his grades and was drafted for Vietnam. After returning from several tours, including 26 months in a POW camp, Slim no longer fit in with his generation. He first hit the rails in 1976 to find his uncle, Butcherman, a hobo who, he later heard through the grapevine (a quick and accurate means of hobo communication), had been "beaten to death with a brick because he was a nigger," Slim says, stonefaced. "One of the reasons I continue to ride freight trains is the relationships I've developed over the years with guys like Shotdown Wills, Spaceman, Preacher Steve or Iowegian Rick. We grow very close out there." Slim goes on to give the reasons why he first started coming to Britt. "I realized something that I now consider my mission. You'll see some of the guys I hang around with have swastikas tattooed to their face. They are the guys nobody wants to come around. They are the rowdy bunch, the drunks, the people who cause the problems. I don't drink and everybody always asks how I can hang around with them. It's because these are the people that need it the most. They don't fit in. Now who are we to create right here in Britt the same prejudice that drove us to the tracks?"

The guest of those I met at the Hob Nob, that evening I dined on a hot bowl of Mulligan Stew (stew made from whatever one can rummage up) in the jungle at the edge of town. Although a little nicer than one you might find out on the road, a jungle is typically just a spot where hobos spread out their bedrolls, grab some grub, pass a bottle and catch a story or two around a crackling fire. They are often near railyards, rivers, or city dumps, but always a safe distance from the cities they liken to disease and the police they consider mortal enemies. The Britt hobo jungle is at the edge of town nestled next to the IMRL Soo Rail Line. There's a small pavilion, a boxcar on 50 yards of track, working-water restrooms and showers for the soiled to sally before their big weekend on the pedestal. The fire in the middle of the jungle is aflame. Several of the railkids have their coffee kettles in the coals. After my meal, I walk around quietly inspecting the surroundings, weaving through beat-up Buicks and primered Plymouths and tents dotted with duct tape, making note of different groups huddled away from the fire. New York Slim's homebase in the lower jungle consists of tarps tied between trees. The railkids are centered around the boxcar in the upper jungle. And the oldtimers sit in the middle, playing guitars and banjos around their own small fire. Always skirting the perimeter of the jungle is a pair of tree-size cops.

Captain Dingo, another of the many Vietnam Veterans who hobo, came into this world on a "cushion-car" train. With short curly hair, a clipped mustache and a tattoo on each forearm, Dingo is walking with a heavy limp. "I had to carry a passed-out Sidedoor Pullman Kid out of the bar last night. I'm telling you, this is my last freight ride to Britt," he says. A runaway, heavily abused by his father, Dingo enlisted in the Army at 17. Blown almost completely apart in combat and medevac'd out, he cringes, "Man, I don't want to go there. I was a soldier. I did my job." If that wasn't tough enough, in 1975 his wife was killed in a car wreck. But Dingo didn't revert to riding the rails until the mid-80s, when he was sued for everything he owned after one of his taxicab employees killed two people in a traffic accident. As a result, Dingo remained homeless for 9 years. In the last year, he has survived several life-threatening events: a shooting, a stabbing, a heart attack and a brain aneurysm. What keeps him sane? His music. Dingo only rides the rails from April to November playing his guitar all over the country at various festivals, promoting the hobo lifestyle. He claims to be on the cusp of national success, having received phone calls from David Letterman. Although becoming a felony won't affect Dingo, he says, "It's pretty much going to stop hoboing as we know it. When an overnight stay turns into a year and a day, you can bet your ass 'bos are going to stay in the jungle with a warm bottle of brown water."

If Vietnam is the reason many escaped to the tracks, it's just the opposite for Frog. Standing at 5'3", with short hair and a hummingbird mustache, Frog is full-time rider that considers being denied the chance to fight for his country in Vietnam the biggest disappointment of his life. "Because of my past, I was classified as a prime candidate for desertion. I mean, they were taking people out of jail and sending them." Clocking in anywhere from 40-50,000 miles a year for 28 years, Frog is more tramp than hobo. Often traveling alone or with whomever he finds along the way, Frog doesn't much like hard work, but makes enough money at odd jobs to survive. He is also the 1997 King of Hobos, with which, he admits, come certain advantages. "This year I've actually only put in about 10,000 miles illegally. I accepted car rides, bus tickets and even a round-trip on Amtrak. I was on NPR and I got to send my first email." In his smoky, morning-after voice, he continues, "But it's not all so glorious. I live the life of a criminal. Even in this year of my reign, as little as I've ridden, I've been to jail twice. One of the times I was stuck with this new trumped up charge called Theft of Services." He has a trick that has kept him out of jail more times than he can count. "I just start scratching like I got the bugs." Frog is not so worried about the felony charge. He will ride no matter what. It's his way of life. "I've been trying to get off these rails for several years now. I quite for awhile, stay somewhere for about a month, then I just have to go. There's always something new I have to experience or feel or see."

A lot of the controversy in Britt this year surrounds the growing numbers of railkids. Over eggs at the local greasyspoon, Danville Dan, an oldtimer, says, "Hell, with their green hair they look like trash. I wouldn't give them no job." This is the prejudice Slim was talking about. Among the railkids, whom the elders call Flinstones, I found three diverse sub-groups. First, and the easiest to dismiss, are the thrill riders, most notably a group of about twelve 20-24 years olds from Santa Cruz taking the summer off. The next are the runaways, the grungy punks wearing all black, ragged heavy-metal concert shirts, with colored hair and tattoos and piercing aplenty. Many were thrown out of the convention the year prior for shooting smack in the jungle boxcar. The last group is the new generation of hobos, those on the road because they have clear notions about why the establishment doesn't work for them. They are a creative bunch of misfits, town-to-town selling themselves: road-produced 'zines, jewelry and street theater. Although the town of Britt and the elder statesman steamtrain hobos don't accept the railkids for who they are, other hobos like Adman see them as the future. "What an opportunity to plant seeds in these younger riders. I think New York Slim might be the one to do it, to bring all of the fires together. Him being elected king would be a Godsend for all of us."

Shadow, a 26 year old male, grew up in Providence and graduated from college - tall, skinny, bald by choice, with a stripe of hair below his bottom lip. Speedy, a 25 year old female, is an extremely eloquent college dropout - deep blue eyes and braids of black yarn hair. They met at an anarchist gathering in Ohio three years ago. Before that, a friend who just might have saved his life had introduced him to the rails. Shadow was a junkie. "One day this friend showed up at my house after I was so fucked up for weeks and he packed me a bag and basically kidnapped me. I was so dope sick for days on that car. But I got clean on a train, so I really deep down relate the experience with freedom on so many different levels." Speedy started riding with Shadow. They were living in Brooklyn together, he as a photo assistant, she as a model for painters. They were hitting the rails more and more often, working just enough to keep them fed on the road and to advance their rent several months. The story is obvious: goodbye jobs, goodbye rent, hello America. "Every job I've ever had has made me feel like a hypocrite, shameful," Speedy says. Shadow continues, "So often when money comes into question, like with jobs, a lot of times you're having to settle for something less than you believe in." They call their theory DIY, do it yourself. And they do. Using local copy shops and friends' resources like darkrooms and computers, they produce a no-named 'zine they sell for $5 a pop. It's full of Shadow's rail-life photographs, interviews with other railriders, and Speedy's lyrical musings. "The more creative control one has over their own work, the more it's going to be educational and less of a spectacle," he says. They make out okay, though admitting that they've had to call Speedy's mom (who has hopped freights herself) to get her to bail them out of a grim situation or two. But for the most part they are living life on life's terms. This is their second year at the convention. And although they believe that such a gathering is destined not to be harmonious, they feel that there is hope. "Even if this group stays over here and that group stays over there, just by looking at each other there is something happening."

It's a hot Saturday afternoon, the first sunny day of the convention, and I'm sucking down a watery bowl of Mulligan Stew with Windy City Tom. He's a bicycle hobo with a self-chosen duty to make people smile with his music. He made $12 that morning playing his banjo on the street corner. Us and thousands of other folks are gathered around the pavilion to witness the election of the 1998 King and Queen of the Hobos. New York Slim, who is running for king, sits among his crew jigging to the mountain music. Dingo, also running for king, is onstage looking a little nervous. Frog is trying to get the ceremony started. Adman looks to be practicing his speech. Shadow and Speedy are keeping a low profile. The hardcores cheer as Slim stands and makes his way toward the stage. Tuck and some of the others Adman kicked out are back to see Slim run. The election speeches are almost silly and surreal. Grump, Hobo Joe, Dingo and Slim all promise to be good kings. But when Slim finishes and the crowd roars, he smiles ear-to-ear and gives a thumbs up. By the sound of it, there's not a person here that thinks anyone but Slim will be king. And they're right. Flashbulbs spark. The crown and robe are donned. Slim blows kisses to the crowd. One by one, his boys walk up on stage and give him a hug. For now and until the hangovers hit, they are all kings. I can hear Slim telling me, "If you go under a bridge that crosses a railyard in America, somewhere you will find my mark: Old F.A.R.T. (Fucking Asshole Riding Trains) Always Moving New York Slim See Ya."