Poem for a Redhead

Redheads (fix title)Hey–

In a lot of hobo literature, there is not much mention of women or romance–one suspects that hobos didn’t get much pussy, being smelly and broke and all.  In a few hobo ditties, there are mentions of women, and almost invariably, they are redheads.  The hobo romance about redheads is peculiarly universal (one folk song attributes red hair to being akin to the devil; or the Devils daughter);  in others, it is a marker of almost angelic grace and beauty.  Redheads seem to be the most desirable of feminine prizes to the hobo.  The myth is they are temperamental.  There is the legendary New Orleans story of “Bricktop,” a nineteenth-century hooker in the Crescent City who killed as many as eight lovers.  Her story is impeccably chronicled in Herbert Asbury’s splendid history, The French Quater, published in the 20’s.  So mercurial was Bricktop’s temper, the local gendarme only approached her with weapons already drawn.  Her favorite method of dispatching those who’d displeased her was a straight razor, backed up by a long wicked hatpin; a slash and puncture kind of gal.  Failing this, she had a”Jesus gun,” a small, lady-like, two-shot Derringer, in a garter holster worn on her wrist.   She was also breathtakingly beautiful, which, according to the local lore, “made her variety of lewdness wickedly irresistible. . .even men of the cloth succumbed to her lascivious charms.”

You have to love a woman that dangerous.

Redheads are infinitely more mysterious than other women.  They tend to get right to the point and you don’t want to piss them off.  Oh no.

My mother is the most angelic of redheads, but when I displeased her, she had no trouble letting me know in not-uncertain terms that my behaviors were not acceptable; not that it did much good.

Redheads are the subject of much poetry and song-writing. . .they are walking poetry.


Published in: on February 21, 2009 at 9:14 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Quiet Dust

They scraped and planted and prayed and saved. . .then the black blizzards would come and take it all away. . .and the banks moved in like vultures.”

— Coyle Case
Child of the Dustbowl, Oklahoma

Keep QuietHey–

The “black blizzards” were, of course, dust storms; and they ravaged the Great Plains with unimaginable ferocity in the early 30’s after the stock market crashed and the farmers had no one to sell their crops to.   Acre upon acre of American farmland turned to dust.  Many children of the dust bowl rode the rails, going west to pick fruit, or South to pick cotton; many stayed hobos. . .the restless ones who took to the peripatetic life.

My friend Paul Kahan, the James Beard Award-winning chef at Chicago’s amazing Blackbird restaurant, spent some time riding the rails between here and the Pacific Northwest, only to get grabbed by some railroad dicks at the end of his ride.   He has promised to share some of these stories with me in the coming weeks.  Kahan is a fascinating chef; his food reflects a hobo-like curiosity.  Paul kind of reinvented the idea of bacon as a dish and he finds transcendent tastes in simple fresh foods.  I’ve gotten fat on his food over the years.  What Kahan can do with a pig is nothing short of a miracle–he even makes the ears taste good.  It doesn’t surprise me that Paul rode the rails.  His food reflects a curiosity about other people and places; how they eat, how they work , how they live.  People who are good at anything seem to share these curiosities.  Paul and his partners, Donnie Madia and Eduard Setein, have become dear friends of mine.  I don’t cook, so I often eat at one of their joints (the wonderful Avec or Publican) where they let me eat with my fingers.

I am lucky.  I have never been hungry in my life.  Broke. . .yeah, lots of times; but never hungry.

Something about the way I see the world has changed over the last couple of years, since New Orleans.  The sight of hungry people in our country infuriates me.  I think of food as a human right, or at least it should be.  I also think medical care should be considered a human right. . .and education.

This is the Hobo sign for “Keep Quiet.”


Published in: on February 21, 2009 at 6:11 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Town Without Mercy

This Town Is HostileHey–

In Timothy Egan’s, The Worst Hard Time, the dustbowl tragedy of the 30’s is chronicled in painstaking and heartbreaking detail.  The ‘Okies’ that Steinbeck later brought to life in the Grapes of Wrath are stranded in farms that have been blighted by drought and duststorms that turn noon into midnight.  This, combined with The Depression, sends hundreds upon thousands of teenagers to the road and the rails to itinerant and uncertain fates and entombing sadness.  Walker Evan’s photographs are a testament to the fates of our grandparents’ generation in America.

My parents were children of The Depression and my mother still remembers it viscerally.  In our house, it was unheard of to waste food; even the slop some of my sisters cooked.  My parents often cautioned us that there were starving people in the world.  As kids, we thought it was just an effort to get us to eat our meatloaf.

One of the books I constantly return to is Hard Times, Studs Terkel’s exquisite oral history of The Depression.  How fortunate we were to have Studs keeping these histories; forever preserving the human voices from a century in audio amber.  Many of these interviews are available through the Chicago Historical Museum’s website where Studs had these tapes transferred digitally so that they would last. “Vox Humana“– the human voice–is what he called this amazing archive, where he lets the American century speak to us in its own voice.

People have asked me since I started these, “What is contemporary about these?”  Maybe everything, maybe nothing. . .and it doesn’t matter.  I see hungry people in my neighborhood in the wealthiest country on earth.  The hobo alphabet is a language of hunger.  Before Studs left this world he often despaired of the collective amnesia of our culture–a”National Alzheimer'” he called it–Studs was an FDR man.  He witnessed and benefited from the New Deal; a bold plan that put Americans back to work.  A great many people didn’t like the New Deal (libertarians still lose their mind over it) but at the time, it lifted our nation out of a Depression.  It gave working people back their dignity.

This one is the hobo sign for ‘This town is hostile.”


Toward a Glowing Light

Toward A Glowing LightHey–

After my last hobo missive, my friend Paul Sanchez, the marvelous New Orleans songwriter and historian, gave me the lowdown on a song called The Big Rock Candy Mountain, which has its roots in hobo culture.  It is often passed off as a gospel song and the Coen brothers used it to great effect in O Brother Where Art Thou? It is thought of as one of those musical gems culled from the hard lessons of The Depression.  It was first recorded by Harry McClintock, whose hobo name was Haywire Mac,  sometime around 1930, and it describes a land of plenty for bums; complete with cigarette-trees and rivers of whiskey, wooden-legged policemen and jails with tin bars.  There is also a darker and more unseemly verse which is never sung, which deals with older “wolves” or “jockers”  (road-hardened hobos of a deviant make-up), who seduce a young hobo with tales of a “glowing light” and the “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” only to lure him into the woods and “bugger” him.  “Bugger” is never a good word for a song, particularly a sing-a-long song.

The incidents of hobo-rape are well documented in the book Riding the Rails by Errol Lincoln Uys, which tracked teenagers riding the rails during The Great Depression.  Many teenage boys fell prey to the “Yeggs,” which is slang for the master rail-tramps of a criminal bent.  These young men referred to themselves as “bindle-stiffs” and learned quickly to travel in groups as to avoid the approach of older, creepy hobos.   They followed the migration west to get jobs as cattlemen or fruit-pickers or even railroad workers.  It was a rootless existence that held little security and these young men learned how to blow around the country via rail wherever there was a rumor of work.  They could count on little hospitality, particularly in the south and the west, where hobo ass-kickings were considered sport.

I’ll not ever be abnle to hear The Big Rock Candy Mountain again without thinking of its darker and more desperate undercurrents.

This piece is the Hobo symbol for “Go.”  It’s called “Toward a Glowing Light.”


The Night Table (Safe Camp)

Safe CampHey–

A re-reading of Woody Guthrie’s Bound for Glory gives vivid descriptions of “hobo jungles.”  They were actually camps, and from camp to camp there were hierarchies and power structures (meaning somebody was in charge; as hap-hazard as they looked.   Hobo societies were like any other; there were rules and order to preserve.  Part of the function of the hobo alphabet was to warn other fellow travelers as to what they could expect; it was a silent whistle, of sorts.   The most welcome symbol was this one, depicted in the new piece which meant “safe camp,” which meant everything.

When the police would raid hobo jungles (they thought nothing of unleashing dogs and using clubs), these raids were brutal affairs and the killing of hobos was commonplace.  Hobo jungles were thought to be warrens of criminals and it’d be naive to think that there were not criminal elements hiding among the itinerant populations.   Still, the police would come in great numbers and inflict violence with impunity.  It brings to mind something the writer Andre Gide once wrote:  “There is nothing one man will not do to another.”


Published in: on February 8, 2009 at 7:06 pm  Comments (1)  
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Oh, Canaan Land

Add TitleHey —

In the Hebrew bible, Canaan is the land that gives shelter to the thieves and heretics, not unlike a hobo jungle.  People keep asking me why this “hobo alphabet” is relevant.   The short answer is that this is a language of dispossession and hunger, and those things have not gone away.  I’m also intrigued with the idea that they are “pictures”of a sort; or more accurately, pictograms.   They are not so different than hieroglyphs or Sanskrit, or the cave paintings at Lascaux.  They put forth the idea that pictures were our first language; the way, or one of the ways, we chose to communicate.  The hobo alphabet is brilliant in its visual short-hand and, at times, moving in its definition.

In Ted Conover’s brilliant Rolling Nowhere, an old hobo describes himself as a “Free Range” human being.   He also underlines the fact that there were hobos of choice and volition and hobos made by economic and social strife;  human by-products of the Civil War and the Great Depression.  His book is a quixotic attempt at recreating the life of a hobo.  By the time it was written  in 1981, most of hobo culture was long gone, though Mr. Conover met many still-active hobos.   In his writing he is aware that they are the last of a romantic itinerant class.

They are replaced by the people we started referring to as “homeless” and with the coming of the Reagan years there were many, many more of them.  One of the first things Reagan did was to slash funding for community mental-health centers, and soon the streets of urban America were brimming with the mentally ill, who had nowhere to go.  I remember thinking, as I watched Reagan’s big gooey send-off on CNN, that they should really stop this funeral procession just long enough to flip open the presidential coffin and drive a stake through the cocksucker’s heart.

If this seems like a nasty sentiment, I’ll remind you that the dearth of American compassion for those less fortunate (at least in my lifetime) started with this asshole.  In Reagan’s America, the greatest transgression was to be poor.  The rah-rah , Go-Go 80’s was a culture of acquisition and abandonment of the social contracts a government has with its own citizens.  Greed is good.  Ollie North.  Might makes right.  Dumb hair.  Duran Duran. . .if the 80’s were a horse, they’d have shot it.

One need not look far to see where the seeds of the Bush presidencies found their grounding; it started with Reagan and the collection of dildos that surrounded him.

I say this because while we are nowhere near the desperation of The Depression, I do notice more hungry people, more homeless. . .more despair.  I remind myself that it costs nothing to extend a kindness to those less fortunate–a smile, a “hello,” and affirmation that they are there.


Published in: on February 7, 2009 at 9:01 pm  Leave a Comment  
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A Blue-Eyed Story


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.


Published in: on February 7, 2009 at 8:00 pm  Comments (1)  
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