Indian Plume (For Crazy Horse)

Indian Plume for Crazy HorseCrazy Horse stole his first wife.  Black Buffalo Woman was married to another  man named No Water.  Crazy Horse just up and stole her and, in time, she broke his heart. This theft of the heart led to no small amount of acrimony in the tribe, with both Crazy Horse and No Water making repeated attempts on the other’s life.  Finally the Chief stepped in and made Crazy Horse give No Water two horses, and in time, Black Buffalo woman dumped him.  She was the first of  his three wives, all of which he would lose to death or abandonment.

When one drives through the Badlands, the history of that place–or places–seems to lay in wait.  In the high desert, there are plants called Indian Paintbrushes, that I’d always thought were cactus of some kind.  Evidently, they’re not.  I actually don’t really know what the hell they are, other than beautiful.

I think I keep thinking about Crazy Horse because of  the  sad trajectory of his life.  He’d lost his wives, his brother, his father and his dearest friend, Hump; and in his lifetime, he would also lose the ferocious landscape of the Badlands to the white man and the railroads.  His was a life of furious loss, despite fighting mightily to hang onto some semblance of his history and ancestry.  These things too, were lost to him.

His only solace was in nature.  Being on the wrong end of history’s loaded gun, relegated him and millions of other Indians to the shameful footnote of white America’s own  genocidal manifest destiny.

I guess the idea of belonging to a place is something I’ve always considered an idea worth fighting for.  If you’ve ever been to a country that has just lost a war, you know what I mean.  I visited Haiti in the ’80s and early ’90s and there was this despair that hung over  the place like a shawl of angry shadows.

Friends of mine from eastern Europe have told me what it’s like for your country to suddenly lose its borders.  You don’t have to travel to have this discussion; talk to any homeless person about how it feels to no longer have a tether, or a place…or a home.

In our country, we find ourselves in an economic climate where people are just trying to hang onto what they have.  The economic safety nets have proven mythic and there is a hunger in  our cities, the like of which we’ve not seen  since the Great Depression.  The difference now is that there is less continuity of community.  In the 1930s whole neighborhoods pulled together to grow gardens, and conserve rags, tin, fat,rubber and other scrap just to make it by.

It is not so different than what Crazy Horse faced.   History was moving faster than he could hope to; the wealthy taking what they want and sending men with guns to eliminate anyone that stood in the way.

This piece is called,  “Indian Plume.”

Published in: on March 27, 2010 at 6:27 pm  Comments (3)  
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The Healer

The Healer

In a  conversation I had years ago with the late, great bluesman John Lee Hooker, I asked him about his song, The Healer.  He cocked his head and  smiled that rattlesnake smile he had and said it was about a traveling  man; a hobo who rode box-cars and sold snake oil and spoke to the fire.  Hooker recalled as a young boy seeing this man speak to a burn victim of a grease fire.  Hook said that the man didn’t do any of that bullshit of laying on of hands or speaking in tongues–the standard carny-Christian handjob they usually do.   He said that the “healer” spoke right to the fire, whispered in the man’s ear and spoke to the fire itself.   John Lee Hooker said the “healer,” “blew cool air into the man’s ear and blew the heat out of the burn, but when he spoke, in a nasty whisper, he spoke to the fire.”

Hook smiled and told me he thought it  was probably bullshit–that the  burned man chose to believe in the “healer”  and therefore chose to ignore the pain.

This was a shuck common to hobos.  Selling snake oil is as old as pimping religion or any other feel-good bromide.  It’s been around for centuries  and people still buy into it.  I always found  “healers,” “clairvoyants,” “psychics,” and other spiritualists among the most loathsome of matchstick types.  They do real damage to people who ought to be, instead,  getting medical or psychological help.  They exploit the pain of sad people for profit.  Most hobo con men were harmless enough.  During the beginning of The Depression, lots of them wound up in the boot-legging business, especially those who were on the bum around the waterways of the Northeast.

The selling of moonshine and other spirits was often couched in “medicinal” curatives and such, but throughout the country there were “healers,” especially during The Depression.  They would show up in the Dust Bowl in great numbers, or in Texas after floods in Galveston, or in mining towns, after a  mine would cave in.  Anywhere there was tragedy, miraculously, the “healers” would appear.  In the Dust Bowl, they called themselves “rainmakers” and  swindled poor people out of their money or other meager assets, by promising to make it rain and playing to their most dire fears of prolonged drought; much like politicians do now.

This is the hobo symbol for, “You can get medical attention here.”

Published in: on May 2, 2009 at 12:17 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 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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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.”


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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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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