Friday, June 24, 2011

Words With Fiends: Hobo

Editor's Note: This is a new blog experiment where various people have sent me random words, and I will try and write a halfway coherent blog about it each day this week. Today's word is: Hobo.

I've lately had an alarming interest in hobos. I'm not sure why. I've never had a desire to wear a soiled brimmed hat and an army jacket, bundling my prized possessions of watered-down mouthwash in a discarded Jack Daniels bottle in a picnic blanket, and hop on the least-secure flatbed railroad car bound for Kansas City. I've never felt the necessity of begging for odd jobs for scraps of leftover food or, worse, Jack-In-The-Box. I don't see the romantic appeal of smelling like dog vomit and dressing like an extra from The Walking Dead.

Still, there is something alluring about the life of the hobo. Perhaps it is the freedom from responsibility, when you don't owe rent to the park bench and the tin of pork and beans doesn't withhold 15% of itself when you pick it out of a dumpster. No one is interrupting your nap or your meal because no one needs you to mow the lawn or get that report in by Thursday, and you don't have a landline or Cricket phone at your disposal anyway.  Sure, the comforts in live are compromised for this freedom, but considering the fact that people willingly pay to sleep on rocks, wipe with maple leaves, and eat preservatives shaped like food and call it "camping" probably means most of us are closer to the "hobo" end of the spectrum than we'd like to admit.

Of course, my fascination may also stem from other places. I remember having one of those random educational books as a kid: you know, the sort that just took like thirty completely unrelated topics, make fun pictures and colorful puzzles from the information, bound it all together and market it up about 300%, and convinced parents it was an 'encyclopedia of knowledge." Actually, that was reasonably accurate; I remember learning an inordinate amount of random things from books like that. But I distinctly remember that one of those chapters was about the Secret Hobo Code.

The Secret Hobo Code were mysterious markings that hobos would leave in inconspicuous but universal places--say, fenceposts--to let other hobos know the score in the area. This could be something simple, like "food given here," or something much more sinister, like "owner of this house likes to boil up hobos and serve other hobos hobo soup." This most certainly wouldn't have made it into any current children's books, because the one I had painted the life of the hobo so colorfully that I am quite surprised there wasn't a rash of hobo activity in young children in the early 80's. I'm still not convinced there wasn't, because that would certainly explain a lot.

Hobos also fall into that odd category, much like thieves, where they have their own code of ethical behavior. I was shocked at one point in my life that hobos actually had conventions in our history. I always supposed that hobos were more or less otherwise known as the more specific sociological term of "drunks." While true to some extent, the advent of railroads let hobos become a profession of sorts: communication hadn't caught up with transportation, and the ease of travel from one place to another made getting drunk and bumming for food an attractive proposition when each community didn't know who you were.

Alas, the hobo is no more. Aggressive police work, along with the Progressive movement in the 20's as part of their campaign to stamp out anything even remotely fun in this world, put an end to the proper hobo. Sure, some stuck around, but as trains diminished in importance, Pinkertons started not caring about throwing said hobos from moving trains, and the world wars sort of sucked all the excess hoboism off the streets and into uniforms, the hobos got replaced by the mentally ill and the eternally drunk, neither of which were interesting in maintaining the ethical codes their forebears agreed upon. Ah, I suppose, it's just as well. If I feel like slacking off and throwing off the shackles of a responsible society, there are always internet forums.

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