Thursday, January 19, 2012

Back When There Were Hobos

I have been trying to determine how the romantic, free-spirited hobo evolved into the pitiful homeless person. I'll admit, I have so far been unsuccessful in my research.

It's always possible, I suppose, that the two distinctions still exist and represent two different types of individual. However, I think it more likely that hobos are figures of the past while homeless people entered the collective consciousness when President Reagan "liberated" schizophrenics and veterans with PTSD from mental institutions.

It used to be quite common to see children dressed as hobos on Halloween. On the other hand, one doesn't usually see kids costumed in mismatched layers of smelly outerwear pushing overflowing shopping carts.

Hobos travelled light, their possessions tied to the end of a sturdy stick flung over their shoulder. They travelled on freight trains, stopped at farm houses offering to do chores in exchange for food. Many had interesting tales to tell. After all, they had travelled all over the country.

Hobos were not forced into homelessness; they actually chose it as the freest possible lifestyle.

When I was a child I wanted to be a hobo. I wanted to ride the trains, feeling the clickety-clack rhythm of the wheels beneath me and watching the scenery whiz by.

I imagined myself bathing in a clear brook while my only set of clothes hung on a tree limb to dry.

I would scribble poems with pencil stubs on scraps of discarded paper which people would later find and publish, proclaiming me "the true voice of the twentieth century". Agents, publishers, and professors of literature would try in vain to discover my identity and would end up calling me "the vagabond bard

I can't explain why hobodom was, hands down, my first and pretty much only career choice. Clearly there must have been something terribly wrong with me.

At ten, eleven and twelve most of my girlfriends wanted to be actresses or airline stewardesses. The boys imagined themselves as athletes, cowboys or soldiers. Some of them wanted to be juvenile delinquents modeled after James Dean in "Rebel Without a Cause."

I wanted to be a hobo, traveling so fast no karma could cling to me.  Here, and then gone -- mysterious as the Lone Ranger, untraceable as Robin Hood, living freely outside the prison of authority, the chains and fetters of the law.

I admit, I yearned under the influence of certain songs, the most influential being "Fast Freight" by the Kingston Trio.
I feel my pulse a-beatin' wtih that old fast freight
And thank the lord I'm just a bum again...

Needless to say, my aspirations came to naught. As an adult I lived briefly on the verge of homelessness which, rather than romantic, was a nightmare vision of a failed life.

My guess is there are no longer any hobos leading the life I fantasized. For one thing, not many family-run farms exist where one can chop wood in exchange for a hearty meal. There are fewer trains, too, and more sophisticated ways to detect the presence of a stowaway.

Worst of all, there are very few streams pure enough to bath in and wash one's clothes, and the likelihood of being arrested to indecent exposure has increased due to urbanization and population growth.

It makes me sad in a way that my grandsons will grow up in a world without hobos. Not that I'd recommend this as a career choice for any of them.

It's just that it was pleasant to think there were some truly free spirits roaming this world... they way they chose.

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