My mother is 83 years old. She will be pissed that I’ve told everyone this. She is a child of The Depression. Her mother was widowed when she was a little girl, her father was a railroad man–a yard master for the Great Western Railroad. My mom lived at the end of the freight tracks at Austin Boulevard in Oak Park. She remembers well the homeless men who rode the rails. Her mother and grandmother often fed these men when they would knock at the door to inquire whether they could do any yard work in exchange for money or a meal.
Her grandmother lived to be 104. I remember her. I knew her as Nana. She worked as a domestic (a maid) and never refused the hungry hobos who knocked at her door. She would never let them in, being a widow and all, but would instruct my mother to get a linen to lay out on the porch and she would make them a meal. In exchange, they would fix the fence or do yard work. I try to keep my great-grandmother in mind when men knock at my studio door and offer to shovel the snow or wash the windows–there are more of these guys lately and they are hungry. Do they drink with the money I give them? Maybe they do–hell. . . I would. It cannot be easy being homeless in 2009 America. This is the only country that has starving people and grocery stores full of food. The hobo alphabet speaks to me more and more as a language of hunger–when men roamed the country just trying to get some food. It is that kind of America again.
My friend, Eric Doyle, the great tattooer, just put some hobo alphabet tattoos on me. I thank him for reminding me of the primacy of these images and re-igniting my interest in them. The more time I spend with these, the more they relate to New Orleans for me. It too, is a city of old languages revivified anew– jazz, Creole, Gospel, R&B, and Cajun. It is a city of secrets and codes and puzzling paradox. The melding of this old language and this city seems natural to me.
It feels like a kind of Jazz.