A Return to Britt - What a Mistake!

by captain cloud, grand duke of hoboes

After several years of educational confinement, I finally obtained my Bachelor of Science degree and was ready for a long and overdue summer road trip. One event I longed to return to was the annual National Hobo Convention held in Britt, Iowa every August. I had skipped the previous 5 gatherings and greatly missed it during my time in school. The millennium gathering was to be a special one, it was the 100th anniversary of the convention, they had been promoting it since my previous visits in the early '90's. It would be the granddaddy of them all, all the great hoboes would be there this year, or so I was told.

I was quite disappointed when I arrived and discovered a very low turn-out of hoboes. So many I longed to see choose to pass on the gathering. The list of absentees included many past Kings and Queens. I was aware of one King that wouldn't be there, having seen him a few weeks prior at the National Hobo Association's Elko gathering he expressed his decision with the simple comment, "F*** Britt!" but gave no explanation. I was aware that in recent years there had been a lot of bad politics between the city leaders and the event sponsors (Hobo Foundation) which turned many people off and drove them away, but I don't get caught up in politics. I was also aware of the age-old claims by many hoboes who felt they were being exploited and used at the event, "They make all kinds of money off us and give nothing in return" were common words, but I've never expected anything in return, so I could never agree with this claim..., until this year and after I experienced a few incidences which caused me to re-evaluate their claim.

Many of the town merchants treated me real nice, but others treated me like less than a citizen. One of the encounters I had was with the notorious "Mary Jo's Hobo House" cafe. For years they had been promoted as a great supporter of the hobo culture (as the name would imply), so based upon their outstanding reputation I spent my first morning there eating a hearty breakfast and leaving a healthy tip. Then when asking to use their phone I was told, "Our phone isn't for use by the general public. You'll have to walk a few blocks down the road and use the pay phone at the convenience store". Having been knighted a "Grand Duke of Hoboes" some time ago, I was supposed to be a member of some kind of hobo royalty, but if a place that calls itself "The Hobo House" perceives me simply as "The General Public" then I fail to see the validity of my title. Does the general public promote their city and contribute to their convention as much as I always have? True, I don't expect anything in return for my contribution to the convention, but I do expect to be treated with some kind of respect.

The bad politics and feelings of being used were nothing new. I learned that the main reason this special gathering had such a low turn-out was due to the constant police presence and harassment in recent years over a lot of petty issues. For example, one good friend did I learn would not be returning because in the previous year he was slapped with a $350 fine after nature called and he was caught relieving himself in a secluded back alley. Over the weekend the police were frequently making unnecessary camp sweeps with unprovoked searches of tents and road gear. They even went as far as planting undercover snitches. Never was there anyone in camp being unruly, obnoxious, offending others and in need of removal. No, these sweeps and arrests accomplished nothing more than breaking up the good times and camaraderie all were enjoying. I guess in this town, "To Protect and Serve" is in reference to protecting the city's income by serving fines and arrests.

Earlier in my vacation I was talking with a legendary hobo who is a folk music icon (and shall remain nameless). He spoke of how he was being courted to come to Britt and run for King of the Hoboes, but wasn't interested due to being arrested and put in jail during his only previous attendance at the convention. The reason for his arrest as he put it was, "For being there!". I had no clue what he meant at the time, but unfortunately I soon found out.. I guess officer Darren "I'm going to make your life miserable" Robinson should be commended, in my nearly 40 years, leave it to one of Britt's finest to do what no railroad bull or town police ever did before when he arrested me and locked me up in jail (when he wasn't preoccupied with performing in minstrel shows while on duty). Those who witnessed my encounter can attest to how bogus and trumped up the charges were. My advice to any future Hobo Convention attendant is to always look around your chosen sitting spot and know what lays around you, or you might be charged for possessing things that aren't even on you, regardless of if the quantity is almost nonexistent.

I owe much gratitude to my hobo family. Captain Dingo took care of my pet Iguana Mojo and looked after my stuff while I was in dispose, and the Queens of all Queens, NY Maggie and Connecticut Shorty, bailed me out the following afternoon to the tune of $225. Upon my return to camp, King Preacher Steve said, "Now we can leave. We weren't going to break camp until you were free". Others added, "We were prepared to stick around and work day labor until we could bail you out".

Britt and the hobo convention were once wonderful experiences, but boy do things have a way of changing over time, as it did during my 5 years away. I really missed it and longed to return, I just wasn't aware of what I was missing. So, does the city of Britt, host of the annual "National Hobo Convention", capitalize on the hoboes while treating them poorly? I can only write based upon my own experiences. They sent me an invitation requesting my presence, I attended at my own expense, contributed greatly by playing my guitar and harmonicas around the camp fire, talking rail tales with the old-timers, letting a few hundred kids pet and hold my Iguana Mojo, pitched in to maintain a clean and orderly camp (my arrest came after the convention when I choose to stay an extra day and help clean up), and for my efforts I was treated poorly by town merchants, locked up in jail overnight and had to drain my vacation finances for my freedom as part of another form of the city capitalizing on hobo presence.

To my hobo brothers and sisters, if you don't mind a city that treats its visitors terrible while they make money off them, if unnecessary police raids consisting of tent and road gear searches doesn't bother you, or the possibility that the brother next to you might be an undercover snitch, and if you don't mind running the risk of a bogus arrest then by all means go to Britt, but if you prefer to be treated with respect and maintain your civil rights then you may want to consider joining myself and the countless other hoboes (including many Kings and Queens) and Boycott Britt! Let them do as they have suggested in the past and hire actors to portray hobo clowns. We've given this town 100 years of our annual convention, we can easily give another town our next 100, a town whose appreciation and respect for hoboes is genuine and sincere. Lets face it, Britt's a bust.