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.