Sunday, July 13, 2008

Hobology 101

Prologue: For a ridiculous amount of photos, check out this guy's website. He's apparently been hoboing since the 1970s and has documented much of it!

Anyone on Facebook who has noticed my "status updates" this week already know that I've been obsessed with a rather unusual topic all week: hobos. Not totally sure why, something I came across in the news on Tuesday that led me to think about the word and it just struck me- What IS a "hobo," anyway? It's not a word anyone seems to use anymore, so why did it fall out of fashion? And is it really derogatory? Something told me there was more to this story. I decided to dig in . . .

Let me define some things, at the outset. This is sort of a famous quote from a guy named Ben Reitman, the self styled King of the Hobos, in the early 20th century:

"There are three types of the genus vagrant, the hobo, the tramp and the bum.
The hobo works and wanders,
the tramp dreams and wanders
and the bum drinks and wanders."

So basically, a hobo is a migratory worker. This is not a shameful thing, and hobos even have a code of ethics. It is also why ladies in old movies called their miscreant husbands "lousy bums" and not "lousy hobos." So I don't want to hear anyone griping about how I'm not being politically-correct in this posting: I will go head-to-head with anyone on hobology this week!

The etymology of the word "hobo" is in dispute, and there are explanations as lame as "it's an acronym for 'helping our brothers out'" to the creative "it originally referred to people from Hoboken." It seems, however, that the most agreed-upon origin is that it originally referred to "hoe boys," in reference to the fact that early hobos often traveled with their own gardening tool, for ready use in agricultural labor. See, aren't we already getting a new appreciation for the much-maligned hobo?

There was a time, more than a hundred years ago, when there were lots of unemployed young men in the Northeastern U.S., and a vast frontier to the west that needed unskilled labor on a seasonal basis. Transcontinental trains reached all the way to LA by 1885, so the party was ON, and all sorts of people hopped on the trains, which were much slower-moving back then and, being steam powered (as opposed to today's diesel locomotives) stopped often to take on more water. Double bonus: those water-stopping points were convenient hopping off/on points, complete with water, and became hobo camps known as "jungles." These were the traveler's internet cafes of the day, a place where people shared information and planned the next leg of trip.
The heydey of the hobo was from just after the Civil War until the Great Depression (i.e., the turn of the century, plus or minus 30 years). That's a darn long time and it's no wonder hobo-lore has been so pervasive in popular culture, although not at all in recent decades. Several famous people "hoboed" for a time (these are not to be confused with "notable hobos"): Jack London, Jack Kerouac, John Steinbeck, even future Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, singer Woody Guthrie, to name just a few.

Lots of factors conspired to drive back the hobo army, starting around the 1920s. First, train companies consolidated: what were once locally-owned regional train companies became national corporate giants with a bottom-line focus and money to spend on extra security and anti-hobo measures (hobos were often blamed for derailments, and things such as spoiled produce on refrigerator cars that had been opened to let in air). Second, agricultural mechanization reduced the need for large numbers of seasonal workers. Third, increasing unionization pulled many hobos into the mainstream. Fourth, the Great Depression, which swelled the hobo army into the millions, led to the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps, and other work-programs that addressed some of the root causes of hoboism. There are lots more factors but I'll stop there, because this is Hobology 101, remember?

After all this reading, I learned that there is a whole set of words and symbols (hoboglyphs?) utilized by hobos to warn each other of danger and guide others in a safe path. Once I saw those symbols, I was reminded of some writing I'd seen a couple years ago on a train trestle here in Binghamton. Proof of hobos right here in Binghamton?? That was IT- I needed to go on a hobo safari.

Again, please do not fault this amateur hobologist. I am honestly curious about this whole sub-culture that seems uniquely American and has been the subject of lots of scholarly books and studies, believe it or not. Since many things in Binghamton seem frozen in the 1950s, or earlier, I figured there was a decent chance we might find some remnants of hobo life at our local train tracks (commercial trains still run through here regularly, but passenger service stopped in about 1961). Mostly, I was looking for markings, like the "LAPD broke my nose" warning I'd found two summers ago.

Unfortunately, we didn't seem to find much in the way of hobo markings, but we are certainly not trained to know where to look. Mostly we found graffiti, which seemed very vulgar and not at all clever like the code I'd read about. That said, some of the graffiti seemed to take on new meaning, when considered from the perspective of possible hobo communication. For example, this stick-figure drawing of a fight- does that mean "this is a city where you will get beaten up?" Because that seems to describe Binghamton. It is very blue-collar/immigrant/working class, and I would bet not-at-all hobo-friendly. Ever.

We did find a bit of hobobilia, I think- a couple pairs of discarded work boots under one of the trestles.

By now, you are asking where I got all this information. Obviously, I started on the internet (with wikipedia, as usual) but the internet seemed to just scratch the surface. Not surprisingly, hoboism is one of those subjects that doesn't get fully translated to the internet, since there is not much crossover between people who are tech-savvy and also knowledgeable about the subject.

I tried our local Barnes & Noble. Yup, marched right up to the kid at the customer service desk and said, "The key word is 'hobo.'" Not surprisingly, our "hobo" section is non-existent.

So I was forced to mine the NY Times database from the past 125 years. This was much more interesting, and I learned there was a Hobo College founded in Chicago and also New York in the early 20th century, there is a National Hobo Convention each year in Britt, Iowa, since 1900, the last of the great hobos seem to have died out in very recent years, as evidenced by the fact that some earned a legit obituary in the NY Times!

So, class, if you have learned one thing from reading this, it is that "hobo" is not necessarily a derogatory term, and is not a synonym for "homeless." Rather, a "hobo" is a person who wanders the country in search of temporary work, and typically uses trains as the preferred mode of transportation. A "gentleman of the rails," if you will.

P.S. I asked my husband what he thought of when I said the word. His first recollection was his 6th birthday party, for which the theme was apparently . . . hobos! (See, I married the right guy for me.) All the little kids apparently came dressed up in tattered clothes, with smudged faces to look like facial hair, and his mom gave each kid a "bindle stick" with a bandana full of treats on the end. Cute, huh?

1 comment:

wheeedle said...

I think you are suffering from an acute case of hobolatry.