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Friday, March 9, 2012

Hobos - The Skinny

I have long been intrigued with the hobo. The romantic image of the tramp riding the rails, his belongings wrapped in a bandana tied to a bindle-stick and thrown over his shoulder always gave me a sense of freedom as a boy that if everything else went south, I could always fall back on being a world-traveling vagabond - good work, I figured, when you could get it.

In the intervening years, I began to form a different view of the hobo, mistakenly believing that there were two types: the "Street Hobo" and the "Rail Hobo". Street Hobos were indigents and homeless people who lived in refrigerator boxes; Rail Hobos were the ones people wrote songs about.

Apparently, there is a clear line of demarcation and homeless people are homeless people and hobos are hobos - period. Hobos differentiated themselves from "tramps" as well. H.L. Mencken wrote:

"Tramps and hobos are commonly lumped together, but in their own sight they are sharply differentiated. A hobo or bo is simply a migratory laborer; he may take some longish holidays, but soon or late he returns to work. A tramp never works if it can be avoided; he simply travels. Lower than either is the bum, who neither works nor travels, save when impelled to motion by the police."

 Again, my bad.

Hobos are sometimes not hobos by choice, whereas others have often freely chosen to ramble - though they might also be on the lam from the law or running from a life they have decided would be best left behind. Whatever the reason for their rambling, hobos have always lived on the fringe of our society, mostly out of sight, wandering from jungle to jungle, always in search of three hots and a flop.

Believe it or not, there is an entire code of ethics for the hobo - according to Wikipedia - established at the 1889 National Hobo Convention in St. Louis Missouri. Who knew? The code is as follows:

1. Decide your own life, don't let another person run or rule you.

2. When in town, always respect the local law and officials, and try to be a gentleman at all times.

3. Don't take advantage of someone who is in a vulnerable situation, locals or other hobos.

4. Always try to find work, even if temporary, and always seek out jobs nobody wants. By doing so you not only help a business along, but ensure employment should you return to that town again.

5. When no employment is available, make your own work by using your added talents at crafts.

6. Do not allow yourself to become a stupid drunk and set a bad example for locals' treatment of other hobos.

7. When jungling in town, respect handouts, do not wear them out, another hobo will be coming along who will need them as bad, if not worse than you.

8. Always respect nature, do not leave garbage where you are jungling.

9. If in a community jungle, always pitch in and help.

10. Try to stay clean, and boil up wherever possible.

11. When traveling, ride your train respectfully, take no personal chances, cause no problems with the operating crew or host railroad, act like an extra crew member.

12. Do not cause problems in a train yard, another hobo will be coming along who will need passage through that yard.

13. Do not allow other hobos to molest children, expose all molesters to authorities, they are the worst garbage to infest any society.

14. Help all runaway children, and try to induce them to return home.

15. Help your fellow hobos whenever and wherever needed, you may need their help someday.

16. If present at a hobo court and you have testimony, give it. Whether for or against the accused, your voice counts!

It almost sounds as if hobos were once considered on par with  knights of the round table or something equally romantic and beautiful. Proud, benevolent wanderers who only improve the quality of your town by passing through. If only we all rode the rails of life following a similar code (using "rail-yard" as an apt euphemism for life) - especially the "Try to stay clean, and boil up wherever possible" part. What a different world it would be.

As I lean back in my satin smoking jacket in my library, snifter of expensive brandy at hand, stroking my long, elegant beard, I wonder to myself if the rambling life could still be the life for me. "The American Gypsy", as Mike Lyon referred to the hobo. You never know - maybe if things go south...

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