Man With A Gun

There is a horror implicit in the stick-figure, “Man with a Gun,” from the hobo alphabet.  Its triangle with outstretched arms hints at a fleeing figure and encourages the viewer to do the same.  Hobos were shot at, shot in earnest, and had a very real and rational fear of firearms.  More than one of them admitted it kept them from committing serious crimes.

One hundred and fifty years ago we were the most well-armed country on the planet.  We still are. Firearms were part of our contract with the idea of freedom and sadly, they still are.  If one defies the government in any meaningful way, eventually they send men with guns.

If we are honest with ourselves, we know that we’d not have a Republic without guns. As much as I hate your hardcore gun nuts (you know the ones–the psychotics who need to own five automatic weapons for “home defense”), I have to agree with them about the preservation of the Second Amendment.  Some  years ago, our own Mayor Daley defied the Constitution and banned the ownership of handguns in the city of Chicago.  Like every well-meaning big city mayor plagued by gun violence, he tried to apply the baby-sized band-aid to the gaping wound.

The Latin Kings still had guns.
The Gangster Disciples still had guns.
The 2-6 nation still had guns.

And you can bet your monkey-ass I still had one.  Far be it from me to be the only unarmed fucker in the room.  There is no percentage in bringing a knife to a gunfight.  What Daley did was to make the average citizen less safe.  The idea was that the police would protect us.

Yeah.

Fuck, the police are the ones I’m afraid of in this city.  And the politicians who tell me who should be strapped and who shouldn’t.

Every dictator, tyrant, despot and opressor throughout human history has disarmed the populace as a first step toward bankrupting those cultures of their inherent freedoms.  Dissent becomes non-existent.

I, too, was horrified when that asshole bought a loaded gun to our president’s speech a couple of years ago.  It sent a message the responsible firearms owners should have been appalled by.  I don’t hold with the crowd that wants a “concealed-carry” proviso in the law.  I do believe one should have the right to own a firearm for his home or, in some cases, his automobile.

The most responsible gun-owners are people who have a healthy revulsion for just what it is that guns do.

As long as there are humans, there will be gun violence and the toothpaste is out of the tube.  The best one can do in a society this well-armed is to protect oneself.  I would like to be able to do it with kind words.  I would like to do it with witty repartee.  I would like to be able to do it with logic.  But I can’t and neither can you.  When the asshole breaks onto your home?  Introduce him to Jesus.  The word gets around the asshole community pretty quick:  Break into my home. . .get dead fast.  When kindness fails, a nine millimeter holds 16 rounds of persuasion.

If this seems like a less-than-nuanced argument, look around.  The economy is in the shitter.  There is less opportunity and more hunger and desperation.  In Chicago’s tony Lincoln Park, there were jump-out crews working out of a van, robbing couples (and for good measure) beating the fuck out of them with bats.   Three years ago, this didn’t happen. . .and now it does.

Liberals cream their jeans for gun laws.  They love the fuckers, even though those laws do not make them one bit safer.

A great percentage of gun violence is an outgrowth of the drug trade; 15-year olds blasting away with firearms they can barely lift.  Our ongoing tragedy known as the “War on Drugs” has armed every kid in the city.  The “War” is not on drugs.  It is on the poor.  The more law enforcement dollars, the more profit margin for dealers  in drugs. . .and guns.  It is a zero-sum gain and a self-fulfilling prophesy of despair.  The minute you legalize drugs, the profit goes out of the black market.  It seems nobody remembers that we never heard the term, “bootlegger” again after the end of Prohibition.

This is what worries me about the government and the question of guns: A culture where only the government is allowed to have firearms?  This is an invitation to tyranny.  Think about everything the G is in charge of now.  That is all working out swimmingly, isn’t it?

As much as I hate to side with the gun nuts–and they are nuts–part of why to have a gun is to protect you from THEM.  I have to admit the deluded, deficient yo-yos happen to be right.  But I also have a sign.  It’s on the door.  It says, “Don’t Worry About The Dog. Beware of Me, Mother-fucker.”

Published in: on May 5, 2011 at 1:15 am  Comments (3)  
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The Blue Wound

The Blue Wound (etching)After the Civil War, a great many of the men honored for valor could not read or write.  Less than half of Americans were actually literate.  A good many of the Westpoint men died in battle–on both sides. For years, Civil War vets were tracked down by word of mouth to award them their medals, and a great many of these men refused them.  The suicide rate among veterans of the North and South was astoundingly high; more than any of our other wars.  There was no therapy.  Post traumatic stress disorder was a century away from even having a name.  The vets of the Blue and Gray called it “battle fatigue.”

After the war, many men took to the road, or the rails, hopping freights in such numbers they became a culture of people we now know as hobos.  There were 300,000 unemployed men and lots of free transportation.  Many looked for work and many more just wandered the country looking for a place to fit in, or call home.  One of the ugly byproducts of the war was men discovering they no longer had a place to go home to.
The hobo alphabet was the language these men and women cobbled together; marks, slashes, stick-figures and pictograms left on fences around railroad depots, with which to alert each other as to what was coming their way; if food could be found, if shelter was to be had, if the cops were brutal, if they would be beaten or arrested. . .or worse.

There is anecdotal evidence these symbols have their genesis in cattle brands and battlefield sketches, which would make sense.  What has always touched me about this set of symbols is how it united a culture of powerless people; how humans in any dire circumstance find a way to communicate.

As a kid, I was a ceaseless daydreamer, making doodles and odd idiosyncratic drawings while I was supposed to be paying attention in school.  They were wildly elaborate and the nuns took to referring to these leaves of absence as going to “Tony World.”  I’d make constant, ever-evolving drawings on my school papers; snakes, choppy arrow shapes, blood drops and networks of circles and airplanes and skulls– just whatever and it would make my teachers nuts.

In fourth grade, I had a miserable old bitch named Mrs. Loversky who took special umbrage and used to take my pens away when she was talking, so then I would just daydream without doodling.  One time she was running her head about fractions, “blah,blah, blah,” and I was thinking to myself,  “Why don’t you just fucking die you old bitch.”  Only I wasn’t just thinking it.  I’d actually said it without knowing it until after it was out.

Fuck.

She went mental, waving her big flabby arms over her head like a mental patient, screeching until the nuns came in and had to calm her down.  It turned out she had half a load on.  Mrs. Loversky used to go to the restaurant at lunch and power down three or four brandy drinks to get through the day.  This did not get me out of trouble.  The brides of Christ took turns in the hall kicking the holy dogshit out of me.  But they sent Mrs. Loversky to the Acorn Academy to dry out for four weeks and when she came back, she never took my pen away again.  She told me, “If drawing while I’m talking helps you to learn then go ahead.  I’m sorry I yelled at you.”  After she did that I felt bad for what I’d said.  She was much nicer to me after that and I began to kind of like her and feel bad for her.

I thought of this because of the peace I got as a kid from just drawing nothing in particular, sometimes just filling page after page of my notebook with marks and slashes and shapes and smears and continuous lines that seemed to hypnotize me while I made them.    Etching entreats that same kind of sublime feeling for me; mark-making for the joy and curiosity of mark-making, letting my subconsious out to walk around and guide me  a bit.

When I first stopped making etchings eight years ago, one of my fears was that they’d gotten a bit “pretty”–that the grit and grime had filtered out.  Not to worry here.  This one has grit and grime to burn.  I had a lot going through my head when I made it.  The hobo, the battlefield, the men without language making marks with which to communicate, the boy lost in his lines and wanting to stay lost.

This is a new 5-color etching.  It is for sale.  Let me know if you would like one.

Published in: on April 28, 2011 at 6:47 pm  Comments (2)  
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Star for a Red Bird

Last year I made a number of ‘Star’ pieces. They were the coda to a body of work I’d made about the great Indian warrior Crazy Horse. Id always loved using the shapes of stars in my work because they defied so many cultural and artistic borders. Every culture, religion, and government has the shape of a star somewhere in its visual language. In Istanbul — the Turkish flag is everywhere– it is a red field with a white crescent moon and a star–our own flag has 50 stars to designate states– and on and on.

Last year I designed a sign for Big Star, the now almost-impossible-to-get-in taqueria on Damen Avenue. I used a basic compass-rose star, very common in tattooing and once the symbol of the IWW, The Industrial Workers of the World, “the wobblies,” an organization that still exists. They helped form unions in the early part of the last century. It was a labor movement full of lefties and was often accused of harboring communists. For me, this star spoke to the history of Wicker Park, a neighborhood full of working-class Polish, Ukrainian and Hispanic people for so many years.

The star shape still holds a lot of mystery for me. Its definitions broaden and narrow with each passing generation. When one becomes famous, they are a “star.” As a young boy, on those rare occasions when my homework was correctly executed, the nun would return my paper with a red star on it. Tattooers love stars, often surrounding primary images with a field of spit-shaded stars. It is a shape that awakens something primal and positive in us. One of the great stories I’d heard about Crazy Horse out west was that he’d put a hail-stone behind his ear before entering battle, because he thought they were pieces of stars.

I had to stop making the star pieces last year in order to finish a show I was making about Crazy Horse. My idea was that his assassination was the moment the theft of our continent was a fait accompli. This body of work is part of my book, THIS TRAIN, which is about the idea of “What is home?” Why is this country our home rather than the people who first lived here, and how can we be better stewards of our home/nation/city? Oddly, there were no stars in the hobo alphabet. I didn’t notice this until I was finished with this body of work. I’d have thought surely this symbol would have worked its way into the arcana of slashed stick-figures and gestural marks that constitute this lost language, but oddly enough, in the hobo alphabet, there are no stars to be found.

I was bummed back then, that I had to move on to other work. I’d always promised myself that one day I would do a whole exhibition of stars or moths or birds, only. . .inevitably, to get distracted or curious about something else. So I figure from now until the first of the year, I have a little time to indulge this curiosity and I think I’ll make and meditate a little bit about the shapes of stars.

Last week, FireCat opened. After a year of planning, financial restructuring and furious footwork, we opened to the public and man did you guys ever show up! First, we are grateful for your support and hope that you’ll like and continue to check out our program. This place was built for artists. After years of hearing myself whine about there not being a place where worthy artists could show their work without being financially butt-surfed, I decided to shut up and open one. The inaugural show was my own for one reason. It was a way of saying “goodbye” to the place and neighborhood I’d worked for 17 years. If that seemed self-serving to some, so be it. It was the best strategy we had at the moment. Of all of the artists we had scheduled, I was the best known here in Chicago and we thought it would better our chances to draw a crowd and support. Also, I’d earned it. After 17 years of working there, I wanted a chance to say goodbye to my friends and neighbors.

I’d have not ever been able to keep such a lovely place going without the help of my landlord and good friend, Walter Aque. All over the art world you hear horror stories about landlords pricing artists out of their neighborhoods. Walter did not do this. He made it possible for us to stay there and became our friend and supporter and collector. He is a rare and fine person and we’ve been lucky to have him in our corner.

My friends at Three Floyds have been my collectors and beer sponsors for years now and they have also contributed much to our success. Lincoln, Barnaby and Nick have made every event we’ve had even more special with their generosity of spirit and beer and their unflagging goodwill.

While I have all of the organizational skill of a rabid ape, my partner, Stan Klein, is cool, measured and always about what is possible. He has kept this project between the ditches and moving forward. Our crew, Tanya Galin, Ashkon, Glenn, John, Michael and Tony and Lauren helped keep all of the balls in the air and I’m grateful.

It was unusual seeing this place change from an always chaotic and messy studio to an exhibition place. I’d never seen the joint so clean. When it was a print shop we could only spiffy it up so much. Now it’s. . .elegant. Who’d a thunk?

Published in: on November 24, 2010 at 1:15 am  Leave a Comment  

The Bruised Village

The Bruised VillageI live in Ukrainian village in Chicago.  A great many of my neighbors don’t even speak English.  They like being among themselves. They are suspicious, clannish, and at times, paranoid and unfriendly.  This doesn’t surprise me.  A great many of my neighbors are from the Ukraine and lived under harsh totalitarian regimes, under a czar or a dictator.  Many of them are old enough to remember the scourge of communism in their lives.  They don’t much like strangers; this is Chicago, a city of tribes and bone-deep grudges.

My neighbors have begun to thaw a bit.  One lady brought me a sack of beets from her garden and, noticing that I had several bird feeders in my yard, told me the secret to attracting hummingbirds–red flowers and sugar-water.  She told me that only she had hummingbirds in this neighborhood even though the city “is lousy with them– you have to know how to attract them.”

My other neighbor, the old Ukrainian lady, gives me the evil eye and pretends to dislike me more than she actually does.  She calls me Mr. Big Shot and follows me when I walk Chooch (my mutt) to make sure I clean up after him.  I also think she just wants someone to talk to as well.  She calls my work, “crazy-man pictures,” but she always asks me about them.  She also walks her old biddy friends by my place and points saying, “Famous big shot artist lives here; four doors from me.”

There are gorgeous gardens in my neighborhood.  My neighbors work hard on these and from my back porch, it is a different city. . . explosions of color from yard to yard and giant sunflowers in some of them.  There are also all manner of tulips and roses, columbine and wandering vine, weeping cherry and plum trees.  It is an amazing thing to see in late spring and summer.  It occurs to me that this is how people who have lived hardscrabble lives add beauty to their world.

They come from hard places in the world and now they are free and they guard that freedom with alacrity and a fierce sense of boundary.

In Chicago, property is the cornerstone of what one has in the world and in my neighborhood it is relished and lovingly adorned.  My neighbors are under siege by people like me who move in and don’t understand the contract that they silently have with one another.  Don’t play your music loud.  Don’t have big parties.  Don’t let your kids or dog run wild.  Don’t let your dog shit on my lawn–or my tree-lawn.  If you have an old person next door, you shovel their walk and if there is a blackout, you look in on them.  If you see an old lady struggling with her groceries, you carry them for her.  And when she makes you a cup of tea for your kindness, you sit your ass down and drink it and listen to her while she explains things to you.  Who knows; you might learn how to attract hummingbirds.  Know that you are talking to someone who comes from a hard place in the world where there wasn’t much to trust.

Shut up and listen, Mr. Big Shot.

This one is called “The Bruised Village”  It is the hobo symbol for “Go.”

Published in: on February 13, 2010 at 11:07 pm  Comments (3)  

The Red Rain

The Red Rain

I just finished my run of performances of This Train. It was fun to be back on a stage again and also edifying to learn more about the hobo alphabet†and make more of these pieces.  I learned that this alphabet also existed in Europe, especially Sweden and that the symbolism was not all that different from ours here in America.

It was interesting performing a show about this.  A great percentage of the audience didn’t know much, or anything, about the hobo alphabet and the show wound up being about a lot more than just that.  It, in the end, is about finding a home, or leaving one and trying to make another.  The piece wound up being an emotional experience in that I used all that I’ve learned in the last two or three years about homelessness, poverty and hunger, and discovered none of us are as inoculated from this subject as we would like to think.

In my show I talked a lot about the homeless guys in my neighborhood here on Damen and what I’ve learned from and about them.  These lessons have been in turn funny, heartbreaking, joyous and unfathomably sad. I’ve also learned that the common man is about as fragile as a nail.  Some of these women and men have had to be tough sons-of-bitches to survive living on these streets.  This city can be cruel beyond measure, and often is.

This last city election I couldn’t bring myself to vote for all of the Rotarian promises and catch phrases don’t mean a fucking thing to me anymore.  We live in a city of dispossession and hunger. The Greater Chicago Food Depository feeds more and more people every day.  I feel that food should be considered a human right.

The other day, the night before the election of the latest round of dipshits and moral cowards, nowhere was the issue of the hunger of our fellow citizens even discussed.  Fuck.  Are they blind?  Do they not see the men and women panhandling at the bottom of the off-ramps?  Walking the streets, hungry and filthy, and sleeping under the expressway?  Why aren’t these citizens part of the conversation regarding what needs to change in our country?

I’m not voting for anyone who doesn’t include the poor in the bigger picture.  I’ve got your vote, Fucko . . . swinging.

This piece is called The Red Rain.  It means, “Food, but not money, can be found here.”

Published in: on February 5, 2010 at 10:20 am  Leave a Comment  

The King of August

He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds. –Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, Wallace Stevens

August Blackbird

Twenty-five years ago, when I was a bartender, a man named Mr. Fowler used to come in everyday and drink draft beer and quietly watch the ball game in the afternoon.  He would doodle on napkins making symbols from the hobo alphabet.  He had ridden the rails in the ’30’s and ’40’s and he was the one who introduced me to the hobo alphabet. He had some amazing stories about what he had seen in those years during The Depression.   One of the more resonant stories was one about him and his fellow travelers being run out of town and forced to sleep in the meadow in the August heat.  He remembered the music of the field birds being the only thing he could enjoy and he and the other jobless men,  filthy and hungry, sitting for what seemed like hours in the field, listening to songbirds until they felt like they, themselves, could take flight.  It was an amazing story, backed up by Mr. Fowler’s uncanny ability to imitate bird calls.  He could identify birds by sound and mimic them, even well into his seventies.  I think riding trains was maybe the only way people who had nothing could take flight.

My friend, Steve Earle, and I have talked about red-winged blackbirds before.  Many years ago, I was making etchings of birds and I’d done a red-wing and just for the hell of it, I sent him one, and he called me a little while later and told me that the red-winged blackbird was the first thing he had ever killed.  When we are kids, at some point we realize the horrible power we have over other living things.  Steve won’t even kill bugs anymore.  When he goes fishing,  he is content to merely humiliate the trout.  He throws them back now.  I think we reach a certain state of grace when we tire of extinguishing life, no matter how seemingly insignificant. I used to kill spiders and now I just chase the fuckers out of the house with a newspaper.

Published in: on July 1, 2009 at 6:10 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Devil’s Scarecrow

The Devil's Scarecrow

Going where I list, my own master total and absolute,
Listening to others, considering well what they say,
Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,
Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.” — Walt Whitman

Hey–

Mr. Whitman believed that to travel the  open road freely was one’s birthright as an American. Seasoned hobos took great issue with Mr. Whitman’s democratic vision in that they knew every American place they landed their sorry asses was owned by somebody.   The real culmination of the America we now know was the idea of “private property.”  Gone are the wide open spaces of Whitman’s lovely and idealistic poems; it is all private property now.  The idea of a “common land” was  disposed of  in the crucible of the Civil War.  “Us” and “them” became just “Us.”

In almost every text about hobos and homelessness, there is some mention of “the scarecrow.” These farmland apparitions were not only meant to scare off  birds, but other people as well.   It seems every hobo is chilled by these seemingly harmless symbols.  Many hobow feared that if they died on the road, some rube would truss them up to the nearest cross-piece and bandy  their corpse about to public curiosity.  I’ve read this more than once.

Scarecrows have their origins in warfare in that ancient tribes (Mayans, Aztecs, and many European cultures) would truss up the corpses of their enemies as an object lesson to invading interlopers.  Many hobos feared they would become scarecrows.  They would compare their level of hunger to that of becoming a scarecrow; a talisman of bad luck and dissolution.  In the South, after the Civil War, scarecrow faces were painted and rendered into brutal stereotypes of African-Americans.  In fact, Nathan Bedford Forrest, the founder of the Ku Klux Klan, insisted that his marauders dress in white sheets so that newly freed slaves would believe that they were the ghosts of Confederate soldiers, rather than the cowardly thugs they were.

Scarecrows intrigue me.  I’ve only seen a few in real life, but the ones I’ve seen were spooky; burlap faces and button eyes, carved tin for teeth in the more elaborate ones, or animal skulls for a head and surrounded by tattered rags blowing in the wind.  They are deathly totems that stay with you.  They are still, yet full of evil intention and ill-will.  They are the human…disappearing.

Tony

Published in: on May 7, 2009 at 2:10 am  Comments (1)  
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The Healer

The Healer

In a  conversation I had years ago with the late, great bluesman John Lee Hooker, I asked him about his song, The Healer.  He cocked his head and  smiled that rattlesnake smile he had and said it was about a traveling  man; a hobo who rode box-cars and sold snake oil and spoke to the fire.  Hooker recalled as a young boy seeing this man speak to a burn victim of a grease fire.  Hook said that the man didn’t do any of that bullshit of laying on of hands or speaking in tongues–the standard carny-Christian handjob they usually do.   He said that the “healer” spoke right to the fire, whispered in the man’s ear and spoke to the fire itself.   John Lee Hooker said the “healer,” “blew cool air into the man’s ear and blew the heat out of the burn, but when he spoke, in a nasty whisper, he spoke to the fire.”

Hook smiled and told me he thought it  was probably bullshit–that the  burned man chose to believe in the “healer”  and therefore chose to ignore the pain.

This was a shuck common to hobos.  Selling snake oil is as old as pimping religion or any other feel-good bromide.  It’s been around for centuries  and people still buy into it.  I always found  “healers,” “clairvoyants,” “psychics,” and other spiritualists among the most loathsome of matchstick types.  They do real damage to people who ought to be, instead,  getting medical or psychological help.  They exploit the pain of sad people for profit.  Most hobo con men were harmless enough.  During the beginning of The Depression, lots of them wound up in the boot-legging business, especially those who were on the bum around the waterways of the Northeast.

The selling of moonshine and other spirits was often couched in “medicinal” curatives and such, but throughout the country there were “healers,” especially during The Depression.  They would show up in the Dust Bowl in great numbers, or in Texas after floods in Galveston, or in mining towns, after a  mine would cave in.  Anywhere there was tragedy, miraculously, the “healers” would appear.  In the Dust Bowl, they called themselves “rainmakers” and  swindled poor people out of their money or other meager assets, by promising to make it rain and playing to their most dire fears of prolonged drought; much like politicians do now.

This is the hobo symbol for, “You can get medical attention here.”

Published in: on May 2, 2009 at 12:17 am  Leave a Comment  
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Tony Fitzpatrick at Dieu Donne, New York City

Published in: on April 28, 2009 at 4:03 pm  Leave a Comment  
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A No. 1

“Chicago is the greatest railway center in the United States. No one knows these facts better than the hobo. It is a fact that trains from all points of the compass are constantly entering and leaving the city over its 39 different railways. According to the Chicago City Manual, there are 2,840 miles of steam railways within the city limits. The mileage of steam railroad track in Chicago is equal to the entire railroad mileage in Switzerland and Belgium, and is greater than the steam railroad mileage found in each of the kingdoms of Denmark, Holland, Norway, and Portugal. Twenty-five through package cars leave Chicago every day for 18,000 shipping points in 44 states.”

On Hobos and Homelessness– Nels Anderson

A No. 1

Given that Chicago was the hub of the American railroad system, it’s not a surprise that the largest ‘”hobo jungles” were here. The area around North Dearborn Street, (Washington Square–better known as Bughouse Square) was one of the safe harbors for itinerant men and women.  In the years between 1900 and 1920, much was changing in American life and this part of the city, known then as “Tower Town,” because of its proximity to the water tower.  It was known as a neighborhood of bars like the Dill Pickle Club, brothels and gambling dens.  It was also the center of the avant garde in Chicago.  The nascent American art form of jazz could be found here, although mostly on the South side.  It also had devotees among this crown of free thinkers.

The historian, Bill Savage, informs me that all manner of thinkers inhabited Bughouse Square; a place that Sandburg had read his poetry, Dr. Ben Reitman treated hobos and hookers for the clap, and where other luminaries like James Joyce, Yeats, Emma Goldman and John Reed had spoken there in favor of unionization.  So Bughouse Square was more than a platform for political cranks, crack-pots and whack-jobs.  It was a plain air marketplace for American ideas.  Socialists, liberals, America-firsters, anarchists, and those hung for the Haymarket bombings were all habitue’s of Bughouse Square.  It is where the term “soapbox” actually started; named for the platform whichever whack-job or organizer stood upon while addressing his “constituency.”

It was a fascinating place where people of all beliefs workshopped ideas about freedom and democracy, and every idealistic faction was represented. When I was a kid, there was a nutjob named Lar Daly who ran for everything from mayor to President in every election.  He dressed up like Uncle Sam and was known as Lar “America First” Daly.  He was the right-wing whackjob of his day and, well into the late 60’s, railed about everything from repealing civil rights bills to outlawing mini-skirts.  He was as entertaining as hell, though.  He had a bullhorn and an Uncle Sam hat and a sandwich board.  It is no accident that his brand of politics had its roots in Bughouse Square.

Almost every hobo jungle had an “A No.1″. . .a top dog. . .a mayor of sorts.  His responsibility was to adjudicate disputes between hobos and provide a plan.  He would also act as a mouthpiece for the community in dealing with cops, bulls railyard dicks and other aggrieved parties.

Published in: on April 25, 2009 at 3:08 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Penny Poker Bird

“Never play cards with a man named Doc, never eat at a place called “Mom’s”, and never sleep with a woman who is in more trouble than you are.”Nelson Algren

The Penny Poker BirdIn The Man with the Golden Arm, Nelson Algren’s 1950 masterpiece, we meet Frankie Machine; junkie, aspiring jazz drummer, card-cheat non-pareil.  He deals poker for the local gangsters and suckers them every time.  It is this book that won the first National Book Award ever given and established Algren as Chicago’s leading literary light.  It is a great, tragic, funny, and gritty novel that took place about a mile south of where I am typing this.  In Algren’s prose, all manner of hobo types wander through and in Hobo culture, poker is a holy tradition.  Many a hobo tale replays the coast-to-coast poker games conducted in boxcars moving across America.  Mundane hour, after hour, passing while men play for cigarettes, match-sticks and pennies.  A lot of hobo art sports the motifs of playing cards.

Much mythology of the American road involves card games. Wild Bill Hickok was shot playing poker.  The hand he was holding, (full house, aces over eights) is forever immortalized as a “Dead Man’s Hand”  The shooting of a card-cheat in Steve Earle’sDevil’s Right Hand,” happens when a friendly card game erupts into sudden violence.  Card games are loaded with underpinnings of resentment, hope, suspicion, camaraderie, and mistrust.

I play Hold’em once in a while with a bunch of guys who are all from different walks of life.  It is not a good game for me because it requires patience, which is not my long suit.  One of the regular players at this game is the Chicago alderman, Richard Mell; a legendary Chicago pol and the father-in-law of our former fuck-nuts governor, Rod Blagojevich.

Mell is an exquisite poker player.  his face never betrays what he’s holding and he is as endlessly patient as an alligator waiting on the edge of a swamp.  At the end of the night, he is always there.   I imagine 36 years as a Chicago alderman has taught him a thing or two about judicious gambling.  He is viewed by some as a villain, by others, a stalwart crusader for his ward, and still others, a symbol of white racism for his opposition to Harold Washington.  The truth is, he may be all of those things and none of them at the same time.  He is a bit of a political sphinx in that you can never really tell what he will be interested in.  He’s kept the press and his fellow politicians guessing for his tenure as alderman.  He is not interested in money; he was already rich when he became alderman.  He is also not as interested in power as one might think.  He has had many opportunities to seek higher office and hasn’t.  He is an enigmatic figure in Chicago politics in that he is not predictable in the least.  One year he will be the bête noire of liberals, the next, he will be championed by them.  He is the best natural poker payer I’ve ever watched.

Gambling is a big part of hobo culture.  Any chance at bettering one’s lot was welcomed.  A great number of hobos settled around Las Vegas, before the boom of casinos, because of the legal gambling and sawdust joints (or “grind” joints) that had low-stakes poker and blackjack. It is the eternal optimist’s tramp-dream to “break the house'”and retire.  Needless to say, this almost never happens.

Birds are the hobo symbol for talking on the phone.

Published in: on April 18, 2009 at 2:16 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Crying Map

The Crying Map

In the exqiusite Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Ironweed, author William Kennedy introduces us to Francis Phelan, former star pitcher, and now-dissolute, wandering drunk.  Phelan is driven from his family by the tragic death of his infant son who slips out of a dirty diaper and dies.  Francis cannot live with the guilt over his drunken role in his son’s death and takes to wandering, accompanied by the raggedy-ass Rudy, and Helen, the woman wino he doesn’t so much love as feel he deserves.  Throughout the book, Phelan encounters the ghosts of the dead, including a man he killed in a labor riot, who still sports the wound in his head where Phelan struck him with a rock. Francis cannot escape the entombing ennui of his past and is haunted at every juncture.  And no matter where he wanders to, he cannot escape it and eventually realizes he must return home to the family that still loves and hates him.  It is a towering novel that was the coda to the Albany Trilogy Kennedy wrote in the 80’s.  the other two books, Legs (a fictional account of the rise and fall of the brutal and oddly soulful “Legs” Diamond) and Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game (an account of Francis’s son Bill a pool-room hustler and gambler who gets mixed up in the kidnapping of a bookie) are also well worth reading.  These are, for me, the high-water marks in American literature of the 1980’s, along with Louise Erdrich’s, Love Medicine.

While Frrancis Phelan is not a hobo per se, he sure acts a lot like one; hopping freights and aimlessly wandering to find something like peace or a place in the world.  There are many reasons for men being driven out into the world without a rudder.  Shame is a recurring theme in much of the literature that involves those we know as “hobos.”

William Kennedy has since written other novels set in Albany with some of the same characters.  Very Old Bones is also a shimmering achievment and Roscoe, a tale of a corrupt yet infinitely likable lawyer, are also well-worth your time.

I think part of what has drawn me to Kennedy’s novels all of these years is that they are set among the Albany Irish, and we’re not all that different after many generations.  We are still easily shamed by improprieties, real and imagined; we love our mothers and we are the most vengeful, grudge-carrying, motherfuckers on earth. The deep well of bitterness wired into our history of being the conquered has imbued into our DNA a gallows humor so black and yet so funny, it makes people think we are a cheery bunch of happy assholes.  We’re not.  When crossed, our hearts are as deeply black as the North Atlantic Ocean and when untethered, we wander the earth looking for grace.

This is the hobo symbol for “Tramps here.”

Published in: on April 13, 2009 at 1:28 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Blue Wound

“Boys caught in freight yards were summarily beaten by notorious railroad bulls like Texas Slim, who ruled the yards at Longview, Texas.  Denver Bob was reputed to have shoved trespassers under the wheels of moving trains. . .”

Riding the Rails, Errol Lincoln Uys

The Blue Wound

The more I read about hobos and the privations suffered by them for the crime of being poor, the more I notice an indifference and callousness visited upon the poor in this city.  Some years ago, a wine-soaked acquaintance of mine named Tony came to my studio door around 2 in the morning, soaking wet.  He used to sleep up under the highway bridge around the corner from my studio, under the Kennedy Expressway.  Evidently, a firetruck had come by and opened fire with hoses to get the homeless guys out of there.  Nine or ten guys used bunk up under the highway in order to stay out of the rain.  They were mostly there during the summer and spring months and as far as I know, had never bothered anyone.  You’d often see them having little trash fires and cooking hot-dogs over them. From what Tony told me, the city did this quite often and when they did it it would wipe out his blanket and clothing and whatever other meager supplies he had.  They have since fenced this off and it is no longer accessible as a place to flop. I remember at the time not giving it much thought, and now I feel guilty about it.  I could have picked up the phone and called the alderman, or city hall or a reporter, but I didn’t.  I just didn’t think much about it.  I gave Tony a few bucks and continued to hire him to shovel the snow, or wash the windows or sweep up once in a while. In short, I didn’t do anything.

Our alderman at the time was a self-satisfied douchebag named Terry Gabinski who was smug, above-it-all and had been on the city tit for most of his working life.  It was almost assuredly on his order that this fire-hosing of homeless men occurred; and it was because he could get away with it.  They weren’t voters and had no political voice, as is often the case with the poor.  This does not absolve me; abuses of power occur when people stand by and do nothing.  Indifference and pain happen because we allow it to.  I haven’t seen Tony in a long time; a year or two, at least.  I hope where ever he is now, he has found some kindness.

This is the hobo symbol for” Fake illness to get food.”

Published in: on April 10, 2009 at 1:02 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Tiger Weeds

Tiger Weeds

In almost all of the hobo lore I’ve read, plants are a prominent theme.  Plants that are edible.  Plants that are poisonous.  Plants that get you high.  Hobos were well-acquainted with ‘shrooms and peyote, as well as many other plants that acted as home-cures for everything from rashes to tooth-aches; aloe and oil of clove.  For stomach disorders hobos often ate dandelion greens, among other herbs.  Plants were the hobo’s best friend. Sadly, many hobos would commit suicide with Jim Pye weed and other poisonous plants.  In many of the texts I’ve read, hobos spent long hours laying in the tall weeds waiting for trains slow enough to hop.  Often times, trains would “cannonball,” meaning they would run at top speed in order to discourage unwanted passengers and train robbers.  Hobos had to be canny and live by their wits in order to read the minds of train engineers coming out of the yards.   Seasoned hobos knew to stay away from the railyards and the “bulls” who guarded them, in order to avoid beatings and jail.  Mostly they would wait in an area outside of the yard with some cover to hide in and hope for a slow-coming train.

Last week my New York show, Big Rock Candy Mountain, opened; the first of three shows about the hobos and the hobo alphabet.  The second show, The Devil’s Handshake, will open in New Orleans at Ammo Gallery in October.  The third and final hobo show, The Ticket to Canaan, will open in January at my home gallery, the mighty Pierogi in Brooklyn, in January.

I had a great time in New York at my show. Dieu Donné could not be better hosts or friends.  The women who work there cooked pies for my opening.  Catherine Cox and Rachel Gladfelter labored a whole weekend making Shoo-fly pies, lemon meringue, blueberry and other pies.  It was lovely of them and I was deeply moved by their generosity.  Nick Floyd and Barnaby Struve drove the especially hand-brewed “Hobo” beer from Chicago to New York.  They are the best.  Though I can no longer drink beer, everyone was happy with their amazing brew.  It was kind of them and I am fortunate to have such great friends.  Jenny Scobel and Ted Utley hosted me and Mike at their beautiful home in Harlem and spoiled us rotten with homemade lasagna and bread and pastries.  They also hosted a gathering for me the night before my opening and my friends were kind enough to come out for it.  It was really lovely.

My opening could not have been more fun.  It was full of so many artists whom I greatly admire; Jane Hammond, Leslie Dill, Rico Gatson, the incomparable Deborah Kass (Mommy, I would love to dance), Fred Tomaselli, Martin Wilner, Eric Doyle, Joe Amrhein, Polly Apfelbaum, Jenny Scobel, Walter Robinson and the great Lou Reed.  It was edifying to be celebrated by people this talented; I am touched and grateful.  Thank you to all of you.

Tony

Coal City Cockfighter

Coal City Cockfighter

In the 1974 Monte Hellman film, Cockfighter, the late, great Warren Oates plays a miserable sonofabitch named Frank Mansfield who, in the film’s beginning, bets his trailer, girlfriend and all of his money on his prize cock, whose beak he cracks intentionally before the fight in an effort to increase the action against him.  This, of course, backfires and he loses everything; because of the cracked beak, ironically.  From this moment on, he decides he will not utter a word until he becomes the number one cockfighter.  This film is based on Charles Willeford’s novel, who wrote wonderful, bitter, biting novels mostly set in his native Florida.  His best known books are the Hoke Moseley novels, Miami Blues being one of them, which was also turned into a film by George Armitage and starred Fred Ward and Alec Baldwin in a comic-psycho role that cemented his reputation as a solid comic actor. Cockfighter is one of those underground classics because of Oates, whose silence speaks more eloquently than most Shakespeare.  He is a taciturn, embittered American with a lot to prove through the ritual of blood sport.  It is a fascinating and uncommon film which was banned in England for cruelty to animals.  It is a necessary film in that it underlines the madness that failure entreats in men.  It shook me.

It is probably not a suprise that Cockfighting was big with hobos, as was dog-fighting and bear-baiting.  That economically disenfranchised people visit cruelties upon animals is not news.  Oddly though, cockfighting throughout much of the South and in the Caribbean is considered a gentry sport.  Many wealthy men (and it is almost exclusively men) raise and fight gamecocks.

When I first moved to North Damen Avenue, there was a little bodega down the street.  It was run by a friendly older Peurto Rican guy I knew as Popi,  who raised fighting cocks.  He often shook his head at me when I mentioned the cruelty of it.  He said, “You gringos get so upset about chickens fighting… but you still eat the McNuggets and wings and barbeque. . .reelly vato.  What the fuck?  At least the fighting cock has a 50-50 shot, you know?”  I had to admit he had a point.   I’ll eat a plate of wings without pitching any boo-hoo for the chickens.  I guess it is where you are in life that constitutes what cruelies you can live with, what blood you’ll willingly shed; what and who’s pain is negotiable.

Published in: on March 24, 2009 at 11:03 am  Leave a Comment  
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