“Chicago is the greatest railway center in the United States. No one knows these facts better than the hobo. It is a fact that trains from all points of the compass are constantly entering and leaving the city over its 39 different railways. According to the Chicago City Manual, there are 2,840 miles of steam railways within the city limits. The mileage of steam railroad track in Chicago is equal to the entire railroad mileage in Switzerland and Belgium, and is greater than the steam railroad mileage found in each of the kingdoms of Denmark, Holland, Norway, and Portugal. Twenty-five through package cars leave Chicago every day for 18,000 shipping points in 44 states.”
On Hobos and Homelessness— Nels Anderson
Given that Chicago was the hub of the American railroad system, it’s not a surprise that the largest ‘”hobo jungles” were here. The area around North Dearborn Street, (Washington Square–better known as Bughouse Square) was one of the safe harbors for itinerant men and women. In the years between 1900 and 1920, much was changing in American life and this part of the city, known then as “Tower Town,” because of its proximity to the water tower. It was known as a neighborhood of bars like the Dill Pickle Club, brothels and gambling dens. It was also the center of the avant garde in Chicago. The nascent American art form of jazz could be found here, although mostly on the South side. It also had devotees among this crown of free thinkers.
The historian, Bill Savage, informs me that all manner of thinkers inhabited Bughouse Square; a place that Sandburg had read his poetry, Dr. Ben Reitman treated hobos and hookers for the clap, and where other luminaries like James Joyce, Yeats, Emma Goldman and John Reed had spoken there in favor of unionization. So Bughouse Square was more than a platform for political cranks, crack-pots and whack-jobs. It was a plain air marketplace for American ideas. Socialists, liberals, America-firsters, anarchists, and those hung for the Haymarket bombings were all habitue’s of Bughouse Square. It is where the term “soapbox” actually started; named for the platform whichever whack-job or organizer stood upon while addressing his “constituency.”
It was a fascinating place where people of all beliefs workshopped ideas about freedom and democracy, and every idealistic faction was represented. When I was a kid, there was a nutjob named Lar Daly who ran for everything from mayor to President in every election. He dressed up like Uncle Sam and was known as Lar “America First” Daly. He was the right-wing whackjob of his day and, well into the late 60’s, railed about everything from repealing civil rights bills to outlawing mini-skirts. He was as entertaining as hell, though. He had a bullhorn and an Uncle Sam hat and a sandwich board. It is no accident that his brand of politics had its roots in Bughouse Square.
Almost every hobo jungle had an “A No.1”. . .a top dog. . .a mayor of sorts. His responsibility was to adjudicate disputes between hobos and provide a plan. He would also act as a mouthpiece for the community in dealing with cops, bulls railyard dicks and other aggrieved parties.
“Never play cards with a man named Doc, never eat at a place called “Mom’s”, and never sleep with a woman who is in more trouble than you are.” —Nelson Algren
In The Man with the Golden Arm, Nelson Algren’s 1950 masterpiece, we meet Frankie Machine; junkie, aspiring jazz drummer, card-cheat non-pareil. He deals poker for the local gangsters and suckers them every time. It is this book that won the first National Book Award ever given and established Algren as Chicago’s leading literary light. It is a great, tragic, funny, and gritty novel that took place about a mile south of where I am typing this. In Algren’s prose, all manner of hobo types wander through and in Hobo culture, poker is a holy tradition. Many a hobo tale replays the coast-to-coast poker games conducted in boxcars moving across America. Mundane hour, after hour, passing while men play for cigarettes, match-sticks and pennies. A lot of hobo art sports the motifs of playing cards.
Much mythology of the American road involves card games. Wild Bill Hickok was shot playing poker. The hand he was holding, (full house, aces over eights) is forever immortalized as a “Dead Man’s Hand” The shooting of a card-cheat in Steve Earle’s “Devil’s Right Hand,” happens when a friendly card game erupts into sudden violence. Card games are loaded with underpinnings of resentment, hope, suspicion, camaraderie, and mistrust.
I play Hold’em once in a while with a bunch of guys who are all from different walks of life. It is not a good game for me because it requires patience, which is not my long suit. One of the regular players at this game is the Chicago alderman, Richard Mell; a legendary Chicago pol and the father-in-law of our former fuck-nuts governor, Rod Blagojevich.
Mell is an exquisite poker player. his face never betrays what he’s holding and he is as endlessly patient as an alligator waiting on the edge of a swamp. At the end of the night, he is always there. I imagine 36 years as a Chicago alderman has taught him a thing or two about judicious gambling. He is viewed by some as a villain, by others, a stalwart crusader for his ward, and still others, a symbol of white racism for his opposition to Harold Washington. The truth is, he may be all of those things and none of them at the same time. He is a bit of a political sphinx in that you can never really tell what he will be interested in. He’s kept the press and his fellow politicians guessing for his tenure as alderman. He is not interested in money; he was already rich when he became alderman. He is also not as interested in power as one might think. He has had many opportunities to seek higher office and hasn’t. He is an enigmatic figure in Chicago politics in that he is not predictable in the least. One year he will be the bête noire of liberals, the next, he will be championed by them. He is the best natural poker payer I’ve ever watched.
Gambling is a big part of hobo culture. Any chance at bettering one’s lot was welcomed. A great number of hobos settled around Las Vegas, before the boom of casinos, because of the legal gambling and sawdust joints (or “grind” joints) that had low-stakes poker and blackjack. It is the eternal optimist’s tramp-dream to “break the house'”and retire. Needless to say, this almost never happens.
Birds are the hobo symbol for talking on the phone.
In the exqiusite Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Ironweed, author William Kennedy introduces us to Francis Phelan, former star pitcher, and now-dissolute, wandering drunk. Phelan is driven from his family by the tragic death of his infant son who slips out of a dirty diaper and dies. Francis cannot live with the guilt over his drunken role in his son’s death and takes to wandering, accompanied by the raggedy-ass Rudy, and Helen, the woman wino he doesn’t so much love as feel he deserves. Throughout the book, Phelan encounters the ghosts of the dead, including a man he killed in a labor riot, who still sports the wound in his head where Phelan struck him with a rock. Francis cannot escape the entombing ennui of his past and is haunted at every juncture. And no matter where he wanders to, he cannot escape it and eventually realizes he must return home to the family that still loves and hates him. It is a towering novel that was the coda to the Albany Trilogy Kennedy wrote in the 80’s. the other two books, Legs (a fictional account of the rise and fall of the brutal and oddly soulful “Legs” Diamond) and Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game (an account of Francis’s son Bill a pool-room hustler and gambler who gets mixed up in the kidnapping of a bookie) are also well worth reading. These are, for me, the high-water marks in American literature of the 1980’s, along with Louise Erdrich’s, Love Medicine.
While Frrancis Phelan is not a hobo per se, he sure acts a lot like one; hopping freights and aimlessly wandering to find something like peace or a place in the world. There are many reasons for men being driven out into the world without a rudder. Shame is a recurring theme in much of the literature that involves those we know as “hobos.”
William Kennedy has since written other novels set in Albany with some of the same characters. Very Old Bones is also a shimmering achievment and Roscoe, a tale of a corrupt yet infinitely likable lawyer, are also well-worth your time.
I think part of what has drawn me to Kennedy’s novels all of these years is that they are set among the Albany Irish, and we’re not all that different after many generations. We are still easily shamed by improprieties, real and imagined; we love our mothers and we are the most vengeful, grudge-carrying, motherfuckers on earth. The deep well of bitterness wired into our history of being the conquered has imbued into our DNA a gallows humor so black and yet so funny, it makes people think we are a cheery bunch of happy assholes. We’re not. When crossed, our hearts are as deeply black as the North Atlantic Ocean and when untethered, we wander the earth looking for grace.
This is the hobo symbol for “Tramps here.”
“Boys caught in freight yards were summarily beaten by notorious railroad bulls like Texas Slim, who ruled the yards at Longview, Texas. Denver Bob was reputed to have shoved trespassers under the wheels of moving trains. . .”
Riding the Rails, Errol Lincoln Uys
The more I read about hobos and the privations suffered by them for the crime of being poor, the more I notice an indifference and callousness visited upon the poor in this city. Some years ago, a wine-soaked acquaintance of mine named Tony came to my studio door around 2 in the morning, soaking wet. He used to sleep up under the highway bridge around the corner from my studio, under the Kennedy Expressway. Evidently, a firetruck had come by and opened fire with hoses to get the homeless guys out of there. Nine or ten guys used bunk up under the highway in order to stay out of the rain. They were mostly there during the summer and spring months and as far as I know, had never bothered anyone. You’d often see them having little trash fires and cooking hot-dogs over them. From what Tony told me, the city did this quite often and when they did it it would wipe out his blanket and clothing and whatever other meager supplies he had. They have since fenced this off and it is no longer accessible as a place to flop. I remember at the time not giving it much thought, and now I feel guilty about it. I could have picked up the phone and called the alderman, or city hall or a reporter, but I didn’t. I just didn’t think much about it. I gave Tony a few bucks and continued to hire him to shovel the snow, or wash the windows or sweep up once in a while. In short, I didn’t do anything.
Our alderman at the time was a self-satisfied douchebag named Terry Gabinski who was smug, above-it-all and had been on the city tit for most of his working life. It was almost assuredly on his order that this fire-hosing of homeless men occurred; and it was because he could get away with it. They weren’t voters and had no political voice, as is often the case with the poor. This does not absolve me; abuses of power occur when people stand by and do nothing. Indifference and pain happen because we allow it to. I haven’t seen Tony in a long time; a year or two, at least. I hope where ever he is now, he has found some kindness.
This is the hobo symbol for” Fake illness to get food.”
In almost all of the hobo lore I’ve read, plants are a prominent theme. Plants that are edible. Plants that are poisonous. Plants that get you high. Hobos were well-acquainted with ‘shrooms and peyote, as well as many other plants that acted as home-cures for everything from rashes to tooth-aches; aloe and oil of clove. For stomach disorders hobos often ate dandelion greens, among other herbs. Plants were the hobo’s best friend. Sadly, many hobos would commit suicide with Jim Pye weed and other poisonous plants. In many of the texts I’ve read, hobos spent long hours laying in the tall weeds waiting for trains slow enough to hop. Often times, trains would “cannonball,” meaning they would run at top speed in order to discourage unwanted passengers and train robbers. Hobos had to be canny and live by their wits in order to read the minds of train engineers coming out of the yards. Seasoned hobos knew to stay away from the railyards and the “bulls” who guarded them, in order to avoid beatings and jail. Mostly they would wait in an area outside of the yard with some cover to hide in and hope for a slow-coming train.
Last week my New York show, Big Rock Candy Mountain, opened; the first of three shows about the hobos and the hobo alphabet. The second show, The Devil’s Handshake, will open in New Orleans at Ammo Gallery in October. The third and final hobo show, The Ticket to Canaan, will open in January at my home gallery, the mighty Pierogi in Brooklyn, in January.
I had a great time in New York at my show. Dieu Donné could not be better hosts or friends. The women who work there cooked pies for my opening. Catherine Cox and Rachel Gladfelter labored a whole weekend making Shoo-fly pies, lemon meringue, blueberry and other pies. It was lovely of them and I was deeply moved by their generosity. Nick Floyd and Barnaby Struve drove the especially hand-brewed “Hobo” beer from Chicago to New York. They are the best. Though I can no longer drink beer, everyone was happy with their amazing brew. It was kind of them and I am fortunate to have such great friends. Jenny Scobel and Ted Utley hosted me and Mike at their beautiful home in Harlem and spoiled us rotten with homemade lasagna and bread and pastries. They also hosted a gathering for me the night before my opening and my friends were kind enough to come out for it. It was really lovely.
My opening could not have been more fun. It was full of so many artists whom I greatly admire; Jane Hammond, Leslie Dill, Rico Gatson, the incomparable Deborah Kass (Mommy, I would love to dance), Fred Tomaselli, Martin Wilner, Eric Doyle, Joe Amrhein, Polly Apfelbaum, Jenny Scobel, Walter Robinson and the great Lou Reed. It was edifying to be celebrated by people this talented; I am touched and grateful. Thank you to all of you.