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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Hudson King

Hudson King

There was no shortage of hobos in New York City during The Depression.  Along the Hudson River, there were were hobo jungles almost the full length of Manhattan.  These were some of the nation’s most dangerous camps, though not just because of hobos.  The waterfront harbored any number of criminal enterprises, of which hobos were the least menacing.  In Herbert Asbury’s Gangs of New York, the template for the Scorsese film, but far better and more historically accurate, he describes gangs, hobos and off-the-boat Irish, being conscripted to the Union Army before their legs had even adjusted to dry land.  The resentment of the Irish at being sent to war to “ostensibly” free the slaves, iginited a racial hatred so virulent it gave way to the “Draft Riots,” where drunken Irish idiots lynched Blacks all over New York City.  It is a shameful chapter in the Irish-American story.

The first hobos were  byproduct of The Civil War.  At the war’s bloody end, an estimated 300,000 men were without work and took to the rails and boats to find jobs to feed themselves.  We often think of “migrant workers” as Mexican or Latin Americans when, in fact, most of our ancestors were migrant workers, coming by boat or train, and even on foot, to find more opportunity.

A movie I saw recently (and was in) kind of summed this up.  In Steven Conrad’s wonderful, The Promotion, an eager-beaver assistant store manager, played by Sean William Scott, and a Canadian goofball, played by John C. Reilly, are competeing for the same job as manager of a new grocery store.  They undercut and connive in order to best one another for the postion.  At one point, they are sitting together, somewhat contrite over the lengths they went to in order to get this job, and Reilly looks at his co-worker and says, “We’re all just out here, trying to get some food.”   It’s that simple. . .and it’s that complicated.  What we will do in order to keep eating isn not always our better selves. It is a lesson so old, it feels new.  In this economy, we hear the echoes of hungry people from The Civil War, The Great Depression and The Dust Bowl.  Of course, we are not enduring anything like these events, but we are seeing hungry people in our cities and towns.  And in America, this is shameful.

The Orange Beast

A train is not a man, and a man is not a train. . .” George Milburn, The Hobo’s Hornbook

The Orange BeastHey–

To live outdoors during The Depression was to have a pervasive fear of animals–packs of feral dogs or pigs, cougars, bears, wolves. . .you get the idea.  Beasts.  Hobos often relayed tales of being set upon by packs of vicious dogs in rail yards and dumps.  To the dogs, hobos were merely a part of the food chain.  In many a hobo diary, the fear of “beasts” was a common thread.

I notice it now among homeless people, who are deathly afraid of my 20-pound mutt.  Whenever I walk Chooch, the homeless guys make a wide circle around him, never taking their eyes off of him.  This underlines a larger condition, which is, to be homeless is to live in fear; of police, of animals, of the weather. . .of each other.  It is a life of feeling like prey.

I always try to assure these guys that Chooch is friendly but they keep moving and back away from him, which makes him weird.  Before I got him he was a stray and mostly hungry.  He is still somewhat food aggressive, so I ply him with treats with the idea that he will one day forget he was ever hungry.  I don’t think this will ever take.  He eats every meal and treat like they won’t make dog food tomorrow.  I feel like any living thing that has ever been hungry is much the same way.

Some of you have written me back lately lamenting my “socialist” leanings.  Some of you have been asked to be taken off my list, which is fine.  I’m not really a socialist so much as one who wishes for a more compassionate government.  I think food should be considered a human right; as should education and adequate health care.  Some of you find this idea appalling and I can live with that.  Just remember the next time you see someone panhandling or asking for food. . .it could be any one of us.

Published in: on March 18, 2009 at 2:07 am  Comments (1)  
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Sister of the Road

Sister of the Road

Nobody knows if there was such a person as “Boxcar Bertha.” Dr. Ben Reitman wrote her “as told to” memoir in 1937 and the feeling is that she was a composite of several women hobos Reitman knew from his day job as the clap doctor to the poor.  Reitman is a fascinating man in his own right, an anarchist doctor; best remembered as Emma Goldman’s lover, who dispensed much needed care to the indigent and homeless.  He once served six months in prison for advocating birth control.  He was often branded as a “Red” for his strong pro-labor leanings, and one-time membership in a socialist league.  Many feel “Bertha” was an honest invention created to bring the lives of itinerant women into high relief for the reader.

“Boxcar Bertha,” in his telling, was a spirited, highly sexual, free spirit who wandered the country consorting with Labor organizers, criminals, among other rounders. She took lovers freely and dispensed with them just as freely.  In the movie Boxcar Bertha, made by the young Martin Scorsese, she is played by the young Barbara Hershey who spends a great deal of the movie in various states of undress.  Thank you, Martin Scorsese.  No woman ever looked better naked than the lithe and pert and perfect Barbara Hershey.  It isn’t much of a movie, but it implanted the young and naked Barbara Hershey in my brain and for this I am truly grateful.  In the movie, Bertha is a hottie.  In real life, women hobos often had only the most ephemeral relationship with soap and water, and like other hobos, were often ridden with lice and rashes.

Dr. Reitman cared for many of them, mostly free of charge, and often plying his practice in “Bughouse Square,” the lovely park in front of the Newberry Library in Chicago. It is actually called Washington Square — but to all who inhabited that magical patch of American subversion for almost 100 years knew it as “Bughouse Square;” named so because every political crank, whack-job, poet, pontificator, hobo, whore, and union activist treated this park as the open-air marketplace of American ideas.  It was here that the young Studs Terkel began to observe and listen to the human comedy.  A lot of the talk was about labor and birth control and the venality of capitalism.  It was this heady brew of ideas that informed the young Terkel and provided the beginnings of his world view.  In his marvelous Touch and Go, his autobiography, he talks a lot about Bughouse Square and the people who inhabited this lively discourse. It is here that Studs became the witness to a century.

We lost Studs on Halloween. There were memorials, including one at Steppenwolf, hosted by the great Rick Kogan.  In this memorial, actors from Steppenwolf voiced the roles of some of Stud’s most memorable interviews.  I started the hobo pieces as a way to honor Studs–I couldn’t think of anything to write that would be adequate. Lots of artists have influences; Picasso, Van Gogh, Johns. . .mine was Terkel.  I learned to look at the world around me from listening to and reading him.  The important word in that sentence is listen.  Studs was a marvelous storyteller and every morning I’d tune to WFMT to hear him continue those stories.  But his real gift was for listening …and hearing the thing said, or not said. So much of the history I’ve unearthed in making the hobo pieces intersects with Studs’ Hard Times, the indispensable oral history of The Great Depression.  So much of it mirrors the hunger and desperation we now see in 2009 America.  He, in the last years of his life, was more prescient than ever.  We’d collectively lost our memory; what Terkel called a “National Alzheimer’s.”  While the greed and idiocy of the Bush years ran away with our country’s better self, Terkel dissented, long and loud.  Bless him.

The Crucifix is the hobo symbol for, “Talk religious for food.”

The Last Ride

The Last RideHey–

In George Milburn’s, The Hobo’s Hornbook, a 1930 collection of hobo balladry and poems and songs, he draws a distinction between hobos and tramps; a distinction pointed out to him by hobos themselves.   Hobos considered themselves migratory workers, where tramps depended on other sources of revenue; the tramps given more to the criminal class than hobos.  Mr. Milburn’s collection is, by his own admission, not definitive, but it is indispensable in any discussion of hobo music or poems.  They were musical and a great many of their songs harshly satirical.  A great many of them were written by Joe Hill, the IWW organizer and hobo martyr who was executed for a murder he did not commit.  Hill is one of the heroes of labor union history and was framed and executed by firing squad in 1915 in Utah.

Part of the hatred of hobos was intertwined with the rise of the nascent labor movement.  Cops, Pinkertons, and railroad “Bulls” were well-aware a great many union organizers traveled with the hobos riding the rails and boxcars, in order to organize coal-miners, cattlemen, fruit-pickers, and all other manner of working people.  Often the Bulls laid in wait for the hobos and issued severe beatings; killings were commonplace and your average Bull was much like the mental defectives who cannot become cops or jail guards.  It was a perilous life and your seasoned hobos knew to jump off the trains before it reached the rail yards.

Many of the organizers who rode the rails were branded as “Reds” and in fact, many were socialists of the Eugene Debs mold and believed only the unions could protect them and provide work.  A great many hobos became, or were, former railroad men and unionization did not come easily to the railroads.  One of the bloodiest strikes was right here in Chicago; the Pullman strike; which inflamed racial hatred and killed 13 strikers, but in that case the union held.  Until the Feds came in and broke the strike with troops claiming that the strike interfered with the U.S. mail, a great many hobos passed stories of the Pullman strike back and forth generations later and to a man, were pretty much union men.

This one is for the men who took the beatings– it’s called, ‘The Last Ride.”

This is the hobo symbol for, “Be ready to defend yourself.”


Published in: on March 11, 2009 at 10:05 am  Leave a Comment  
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The Road Hawk

Get Off the Rails--Go to the RoadsHey–

In Timothy Egan’s, The Worst Hard Time, a riveting account of the horrors of the dustbowl and The Great Depression, dust storms are rendered as viscerally real, tragic occurrences.  I never knew how utterly devastating they actually were.  I thought everything just got dirty.  Truth be told, this was the least of it.  People died from breathing the dust, in particular, children.  The infant mortality rate skyrocketed, not to mention the pounding farmland took.

I now better understand The Grapes of Wrath and the courage of the Joads and the countless other “Okies” and “Arkies” and others from the Great Plains who endured these privations.

History is an odd word, in that we think of it as something that happened a long time ago, sometimes not realizing that we are part of its ongoing embroidery–it is happening now.  The election maybe made people aware of it a bit more, considering the huge implications of Barack Obama’s presidency.  He inherited the worst economy since FDR and a war to boot.  Wall street has plummeted, giving pigs like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity the opportunity to scapegoat Obama for this, when we know that this death spiral was set in motion long before the current president even announced his candidacy.  The republicans and Wall Street stole this country blind for eight years and now they want to lay it at Obama’s door.  If we are, in fact,  in another Depression, it is the funding of a wrong-headed and immoral war that put us there, and the collective greed of Wall Street and the real estate industries that put us there.  In other words, we let them do it.  We had two opportunities to 86 Bush and we blew it.  This is not to say that the democrats are any better–there is plenty of dirty dealing on that side of the aisle as well.  I hold out hope that Obama is better than the rest of them, even his own party.   hope Obama, the idealist, remains and the politician Obama can always find his better self amid the sewage of the two-party system.

My point is that a lot of this country isn’t being lead, and hasn’t. . .maybe ever.  To be poor in America is to be in exile.  History teaches this over and over.  In the 30’s and 40’s law officers in Arizona and California had “shooting parties” in rail-yards.  They shot hobos as they jumped off of trains–with impunity.  You could get away with killing poor people back then and sadly, you still can.  Now we just starve them.

This is the Hobo symbol for” Get off the rails–go to the roads.”


The Red Road

The Red RoadHey–

I elected not to go to the art fairs in New York this week.  I actually haven’t been going to them for a while now and I don’t miss them.  I think as recently as 10 years ago, I still enjoyed them.  It was thrilling to see work I’d not seen before and art that excited me.  And then a curious thing happened–the art market became a beast unto itself and the lines between art and fashion became irrevocably blurred.  It became high school with money.  Some will argue that this was always the case and they would be wrong; before art fairs became a growth industry, there was actually something kind of innocence about them.  They had a wonderful capacity to surprise you and weren’t inhabited by as many “advisers,””consultants,” and “freelance curators”–the fleas and ticks of the art world.  There weren’t jaded, wall-street types building hedge-funds comprised of art objects; or at least as many.  What we made was Art.  Not Product.  This was how we entered the world in a meaningful way.  This was our definition.

Most of you know that for the last two years,  I’ve spent a lot of time in New Orleans; a lot of time around people at the other end of the economic scale, and it’s been something of an epiphany.  I’ve watched an art community down there hold each other up in the face of economic calamity and horrific tragedy. They made art out of whatever they could scavenge, borrow, find, afford, with no promise of anyone ever buying it.  They made art to add meaning to their lives, and to them it was absolutely necessary.  They weren’t thinking about “careers.”  They were doing this because they hadn’t a choice about whether to create or not.  It was a powerful lesson, and one that I am grateful for.  I like to think that this was the place where I reclaimed my purpose as an artist.

I started making these hobo pieces as a way to honor the memory of Studs Terkel.  I’ve recently reread his towering oral history of The Great Depression, Hard Times, and this text seems to go hand in hand with some of the thoughts I began to have in New Orleans about the nature of class and poverty; how powerfully people without political or economic advantage are compelled to create.  Blues and jazz have their genesis in grinding poverty; so does quilting and carving.  Hobos even had their own art form, referred to colloquially as “Tramp Art.”  I’m not sure where all of this will lead me, but it’s a journey I am glad to take.  It has changed the way I move in the world.

This one is the hobo symbol for “Religious People in this town.”‘

It’s called, “The Red Road.”

Published in: on March 7, 2009 at 9:19 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Hobo King

The Hobo KingHey–

I had an odd experience the other day.  I had accepted an invitation to be a speaker at the SEA (Self-Employment in the Arts) conference out in Naperville, in part because I think it is a good idea to teach younger artists how to make a living and give them some ideas about how to best achieve this.  They paid me well and in the speech I found myself enjoying the audience–they were young and it was all in front of them.  I gave them some strategy that has worked for me and also made remarks about the current show I was working on–The Hobo pieces–and lamented the presence of so much hunger in America; particularly urban America.  I also said that the last election proved out the equity of the American dream; that your Dad could be from Kenya and your Mom from Nebraska, and you, too, could become the President.

All in all the talk went really well and the kids were great.  I also got to meet and spend some time with Brian Dettmer, (who is one of my heroes in this business) a really great artist , whose work I’ve admired for years.  In the course of my speech I had also mentioned that these young artists were to be mindful of the political “dark ages” they’d just grown up with; the eight years of greed, blood and stupidity that comprised the Bush presidency.  It had been a good talk and afterward I met with a bunch really wonderful young artists who were all about doing as much for themselves as possible.  Everything was ducky.

Before the conference, they’d given an award to an older gentleman who’d sponsored the whole deal and was all about self-employment.   I’d not really heard his remarks because I was working on my notes for my talk.  He was 82 years old and evidently had taken umbrage at some of the remarks I’d made during my speech about Bush and the collection of dildos he surrounded himself with.  He pulled me aside afterward “to have a private word with me,” but mostly to attempt to take me to the woodshed.  This older guy started shaking as he told me how I’d no idea what The Great Depression was like.   I told him that the fact that I was 50 years old attested to this–I was not alive during The Depression.  I also told him that both of my parents were children of The Depression and had remembered it viscerally.  This wasn’t good enough for him,  and I sensed he was actually pissed about something else–and then he outed with it, still shaking.  “I’m a George Bush supporter. . .and you’re shilling for that thug, Obama.”  Before I could even think about deferring to his age and being polite, t was out of my mouth: “Then you’re a stupid motherfucker,” and then it was off to the races.  I’d tried to be polite and failed, and I can tell you that at 50 years old I no longer have any patience for old, rich, white guys telling me how tough they had it.  Every one of these motherfuckers has a Horatio Alger spiel to spin, and I’ve grown tired of it, because at the end of each of these tales is a tough-love bromide about how the poor should “help themselves;” as if we all start in the same place in life.  Blow me.

This one is called “The Hobo King.”

Published in: on March 3, 2009 at 11:17 am  Comments (1)  
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