The Devil’s Scarecrow

The Devil's Scarecrow

Going where I list, my own master total and absolute,
Listening to others, considering well what they say,
Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,
Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.” — Walt Whitman


Mr. Whitman believed that to travel the  open road freely was one’s birthright as an American. Seasoned hobos took great issue with Mr. Whitman’s democratic vision in that they knew every American place they landed their sorry asses was owned by somebody.   The real culmination of the America we now know was the idea of “private property.”  Gone are the wide open spaces of Whitman’s lovely and idealistic poems; it is all private property now.  The idea of a “common land” was  disposed of  in the crucible of the Civil War.  “Us” and “them” became just “Us.”

In almost every text about hobos and homelessness, there is some mention of “the scarecrow.” These farmland apparitions were not only meant to scare off  birds, but other people as well.   It seems every hobo is chilled by these seemingly harmless symbols.  Many hobow feared that if they died on the road, some rube would truss them up to the nearest cross-piece and bandy  their corpse about to public curiosity.  I’ve read this more than once.

Scarecrows have their origins in warfare in that ancient tribes (Mayans, Aztecs, and many European cultures) would truss up the corpses of their enemies as an object lesson to invading interlopers.  Many hobos feared they would become scarecrows.  They would compare their level of hunger to that of becoming a scarecrow; a talisman of bad luck and dissolution.  In the South, after the Civil War, scarecrow faces were painted and rendered into brutal stereotypes of African-Americans.  In fact, Nathan Bedford Forrest, the founder of the Ku Klux Klan, insisted that his marauders dress in white sheets so that newly freed slaves would believe that they were the ghosts of Confederate soldiers, rather than the cowardly thugs they were.

Scarecrows intrigue me.  I’ve only seen a few in real life, but the ones I’ve seen were spooky; burlap faces and button eyes, carved tin for teeth in the more elaborate ones, or animal skulls for a head and surrounded by tattered rags blowing in the wind.  They are deathly totems that stay with you.  They are still, yet full of evil intention and ill-will.  They are the human…disappearing.


Published in: on May 7, 2009 at 2:10 am  Comments (1)  
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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 Devil’s Handshake

The Devil's HandshakeHey–

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.”


Published in: on January 31, 2009 at 6:42 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Hobo’s Broken Rosary

The Hobo's Broken Rosary

The poetry of Kenneth Patchen often makes reference to hobo songs and tales.  Patchen is one of my favorite American poets.  His poem, The Origins of Baseball, may be my favorite poem in the world.  In it, one side of a hill is me killing other me walking home from the Civil War.  On the other side of the hil, the first baseball game is being played.  It is a marvelous and trancendent moment; a snapshot of an America caught between eras.  We often forget that baseball (its invention routinely credited to military men) was thought to be a thing that would help heal the hatred accrued between the North and South.

Another byproduct of this awful war was the culture of people who came to be known as “hobos.”  Widespread unemployment and newly homeless and restless men sought out the West and North for migrant and factory work.  A great many of these men wound up in Chicago and New Orleans.  It is no accident that one of the largest “hobo jungles” lined west Madison Street in Chicago and another lined the newly built levee system in New Orleans.  An American subculture was born in the wake of the civil War complete with its own slang-infused jargon and pictogram alphabet scrawled on buildings and trestles all over our nation.  It was a codified language spoken by the dispossessed of our country; a survival tool for hard times, not so much unlike now.

The itinerant is a long-standing figure in American art forms–musicians like Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie, Joe Hill and Boxcar Bertha–people who belong to nobody and to all of us at the same time.  In New Orleans, the ghosts of these wandering spirits and their contemporary progeny are still around.  This one is about them.

Published in: on January 31, 2009 at 1:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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