The Hobo Code


happens all the time. You think of a subject that hasn't crossed your
consciousness in ages, and then like that it's being written about. (There's
also that thing where you keep seeing a reference to something in multiple
places. Though I can't even recall where other than in Another Bullshit Night
in Suck City
, which I finished last night, I know I've seen Orwell's Down and
Out in Paris in London
mentioned at least twice this week. I've had an old
paperback for years that I bought because I liked the cover–third one
–but have never read it. ABNISK, the book, its a memoir, and I guess it's a downer and a bit hobo-ish now that I think about it. Son works in a homeless shelter, his dad eventually ends up there, but that's just one action point. I enjoyed reading online reviews, in particular, one that that it would be funny like The Hangover) Last week it was hobos.

of the women I stayed with briefly when I first moved to Brooklyn in '98 was
pitching a story about the national hobo convention to Jane. I'm fairly certain
that didn't pan out. Magazine writing is competitive even if you're a good
writer, and I imagine that even with dwindling rates it still pays better than
online. Now you can practically write about anything anywhere, or rather,
someone will publish your article, you just won’t get paid much of anything and
it's quite possible you won't get anything at all. I can't be a full-time writer. Maybe if I were a hobo with a very low cost of living.

I had been thinking about hobos recently, or how I first
heard about them 30+ years ago and assumed the lifestyle was still a popular
thing (amusingly, in the Buzzfeed comments, people are saying how the practice
never died out in Oregon where it's hobo central).

I spent a lot of my youth in the not-that-big children's
nonfiction section of the Gresham Public Library which looked like a
Hansel and Gretel house
. By the time
the library relocated to a modern building down the street, I was out of high
school, lived in Portland and had outgrown the magic. Fairy and folk
tales are 398, and that was along the wall immediately on the right, in the
corner, bottom shelf. I learned about Baba Yaga.  Cooking is 641, and was full of honey and
wheat germ and make-you-own Play-Doh recipes, and very close to the codes and
ciphers in 652 ( just found this interesting Dewey decimal tumblr when checking
on that number). I didn't know what ciphers were, but I was obsessed with the
idea of communicating secretly.

codes and ciphers blur with hobos because they had their own code using
symbols. The only one I remember was that a cartoonish cat scrawled on a
property meant there was a kind woman who lived there. I took that to mean that
she would provide food or shelter, but now I wonder if it wasn't something

TomfooleryI guess I had a penchant for Americana without even
knowing it. Tomfoolery was another book I checked out frequently (I could've
sworn I bought it online since I've lived in NYC, and mentioned it here, though
neither seem to be the case) full of old-timey humor and dumb jokes like
"What's a henway?" The author, Alvin Schwartz wrote a number of similar books about riddles and tall tales, though in many ways it was the loose, hard-angled illustrations by Glen Rounds that stick in my mind.

The thing about hobos and much of this
half-a-century-ago (in the early '80s, I mean) lore was that I didn't fully
realize it was from the past. Sure, it wasn't within my frame of reference, but
I lived in a small suburb and it was just as possible that there were still hobos
roaming the countryside and pies being put on windowsills (favored trope:
close-up of  Help Wanted sign in diner getting
yanked because drifter me got the job)  as
there were Sesame Street cities with kids on stoops and neighborhood grocers.
Both were completely foreign to me. 

The notion that you could just set off on your own
and live by your own rules was appealing to a grade-schooler, and to plenty of
adults still–why else does Alaska exist? Of course, it would only take a few
years before graduating to already-dated ‘70s and late ‘60s Go Ask Alice (I got a low mark on a 7th grade book report because the teacher said I didn't use my own words, "candid," in particular, maybe I plagiarized, I don't recall doing that. Of course the irony is that there's no one believes a 15-year-old actually wrote the book) teen
scare novels to put a dark damper on my runaway fantasies. I didn't want to be
slipped angel dust, sleep in bus staions or turned into a hooker. I just wanted
to hang out at lakes, doze by campfire and walk on train tracks with a

 In my twenties I knew people who hopped freight
trains, but I never dreamed to be a crusty punk Boxcar Willy either. That path
was never in the realm of possibility then and it's even further from reality

The only times I feel even remotely like I wish I
had kids, would be to share books, and that's it. And obviously there's no
guarantee they would care or enjoy any of it. Tastes are particular. It's as
lame an argument for procreation as having someone to take care of you in old

You would think that would mean that I have a teaching personality (as a
kid, always a few years older than most of the children in my neighborhood, I
often played teacher) or would make a good children's librarian, but
interacting with youngsters daily is the last thing I want to do and it's really all like babysitting or social work, two things I also hate now but perhaps will soften on in old age. I'm not ready for a helping profession–I don't even know if I could work in a public library again and it's weird to me now that I ever did. I could be
one of those high-paid/powered (I am neither of those) career types who
throws-it-all-away/starts fresh/wasn't fulfilled around this age and begins
baking artisanal dog biscuits or screenprints wallpaper or builds furniture
from reclaimed wood and find their true calling because do what you love and
the money will follow. Didn't you know?


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