The Devil’s Handshake

The Devil's HandshakeHey–

There is a remarkable, if forgotten, film from the early 70’s called ‘Emperor of the North Pole‘ , directed by Robert Aldrich. It is about the struggle between the “King” of the hobos (played by Lee Marvin with a grizzled and cruel efficiency) and “Shack,” the sadistic and pop-eyed freight train conductor (played with malevolent abandon by the great Ernest Borgnine) whose sadism and hatred oozes from every pore.  It is a piece of filmic muckraking and its proletarian heart beats with a down-at-the-heels, Spartacus-like brio.  Marvin is, of course, the coolest hobo on this planet and his grizzled hobo, only named “A-1,” decides–more out of orneriness than anything else–that the murderous Borgnine character, Shack, has lorded his petty and murderous tyranny over him and his fellow hobos long enough. . .and wordlessly, we see this thought cross his face and eyes, “I’m going to kill this motherfucker.”  And we pull for him, because men like Shack need killing.  They become the Hitlers and the Pol-Pots–normal little nobodies who acquire 2 bucks’ worth of authority and yet acquire an astonishing amount of discretionary power over the lives of those who have nothing.  It is one my favorite movies; in part for its look at the culture of hobos (the hobo jungles in particular) and the cruelties inflicted on hobos for not having an address.

Of course hobos begged, borrowed and stole, as did many others in the height of The Depression or after the Civil War.  I’m thinking that now is not all that different than then — only now some of the hobos have cell phones — but there is a hunger among people that I’ve not noticed before– like The Depression people are losing their homes and their jobs and there is real hunger out there; not just the metaphorical kind.   In New Orleans and Chicago I’ve seen more hungry people lately than I ever remember.  You know when the homeless guys are buying tacos rather than NightTrain, it’s bad.

The hobo alphabet always fascinated me.  I used this imagery in my slate drawings 20 years ago and lately have become more and more enamored of it.  It is a lost language;  like an American Sanskrit.   It is a language of survival. There is anecdotal evidence that the hobo alphabet evolved out of cattle-brands; and I believe there may be something to that assertion (it certainly makes sense); a great many Civil War veterans and depression-era itinerants were cattlemen and ranch-hands (and perhaps rustlers), and back then an enormous amount of our population was not literate.  Education was still catch-as-catch-can and considered more of a luxury among the growing populace.

This particular image means, “Man with a gun.”  I put the arrow through it.  I don’t intend on merely looting the hobo alphabet; I’d like to change each one and further this language nobody speaks anymore.   It so relates to the bigger ideas I have about New Orleans, which was founded as a city of itinerants and restless spirits.  It, too, is comprised of idiomatic language and tongues not spoken anymore.

This one is called, “The Devil’s Handshake.”


Published in: on January 31, 2009 at 6:42 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Hobo’s Broken Rosary

The Hobo's Broken Rosary

The poetry of Kenneth Patchen often makes reference to hobo songs and tales.  Patchen is one of my favorite American poets.  His poem, The Origins of Baseball, may be my favorite poem in the world.  In it, one side of a hill is me killing other me walking home from the Civil War.  On the other side of the hil, the first baseball game is being played.  It is a marvelous and trancendent moment; a snapshot of an America caught between eras.  We often forget that baseball (its invention routinely credited to military men) was thought to be a thing that would help heal the hatred accrued between the North and South.

Another byproduct of this awful war was the culture of people who came to be known as “hobos.”  Widespread unemployment and newly homeless and restless men sought out the West and North for migrant and factory work.  A great many of these men wound up in Chicago and New Orleans.  It is no accident that one of the largest “hobo jungles” lined west Madison Street in Chicago and another lined the newly built levee system in New Orleans.  An American subculture was born in the wake of the civil War complete with its own slang-infused jargon and pictogram alphabet scrawled on buildings and trestles all over our nation.  It was a codified language spoken by the dispossessed of our country; a survival tool for hard times, not so much unlike now.

The itinerant is a long-standing figure in American art forms–musicians like Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie, Joe Hill and Boxcar Bertha–people who belong to nobody and to all of us at the same time.  In New Orleans, the ghosts of these wandering spirits and their contemporary progeny are still around.  This one is about them.

Published in: on January 31, 2009 at 1:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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