Hobos hope for peace with railroad

by matthew schofield for the kansas city (mo) star
aug. 31, 1998

Jack - one of as many as 200 hobos expected to straggle into a camp in the East Bottoms in the next two weeks - spreads his arms, imploring a visitor to take in the surroundings:

Thigh-high weeds. A bevy of flies.

The back of a warehouse to one side, a series of rail tracks to the other. Wooden pallets that serve as a floor. A long, white deep freeze, full of food but far from the nearest electrical outlet, and a beige couch, now damp and muddy from two nights of rain.

"All the comforts of home," he says with a straight face, "but none of the hassles. It doesn't get any better than this." But, he adds, it once was better and it should be again. Jack may be a hobo, but he's a hobo with a purpose. Years ago, hobos lived at peace with those around them. In recent years, however, railroads (their main source of transportation) have become less welcoming, businesses near the tracks have become more suspicious and police have become less tolerant of their unconventional lifestyle. So Jack is part of a group called H.O.B.O. (Help Our Brothers Overcome).

The group was started by Raytown's own past King of the Hobos, Liberty Justice. They've been called to gather here through the "Hobo Internet" a collection of rail riders who have e-mail addresses - either privately or through public libraries.

The group is a couple of years old, and this meeting is supposed to lead to an agreement between railroad lines and hobos to work together.

"See, if they'll agree to let us ride the trains - which we're going to do anyway - we'll agree not to damage or pilfer anything on their trains - and we don't do those things now, anyway," Justice explains. "We'll also promise to help them stop anyone else doing those things."

So far, those in the hobo jungle near Interstate 435 and Front Street seem to abide by those guidelines.

Sgt. John Cisper of the Kansas City Police Department's East Patrol Division said police hadn't had any reports of trouble stemming from the gathering.

"I heard they were passing through," he said. "But we've had no problems reported yet."

And the hobos insist they get what they need either through the trash or the kindness of strangers.

"We're hobos, not bums," Justice said.

He also explained that the term hobo comes from the days when wanderers carried their possessions in a sack, tied onto a garden hoe, which they used to earn meals. They were called "hoe-boys," which was later shortened to hobos. Of course, a hobo meeting is hardly a formal thing. Friday morning, four self-described rail riders lounged around the camp. Twenty-five had been camped out nearby overnight, and more are expected to arrive throughout the coming week.

Their talk - like their lives - wandered from topic to topic, rarely staying at any one place for long.

There were tales of how some extra change in their pockets had turned unwelcome frowns into happy smiles at a local bar, or at a grocery store in a distant state.

There were serious discussions about the most scenic rail routes ("Along the bottom of the Royal Gorge").

And they recalled various old friends: New York Slim, Frog, the Texas Madman.

Tuck, who got into the camp about a week ago, says it will be quite a gathering.

He's been riding the rails for 22 years, since he was 15. But he worries about the future of the hobo way of life.

"There ain't no wrong trains out there," he said. "Just different ways of getting someplace.

"But it's getting rough to find a place to settle for a while, people saying you can't stay here, you can't stay there. And all we want is to be left alone.