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.”