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 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  
Tags: , , , , ,

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.”


%d bloggers like this: