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True Stories by Steve Keely
Executive Hobos and 9/11 (Part 12) "Railroad Indicators"
In a dark corner of the Salt Lake City railroad yard we find our land legs and exit quickly to the wee-hour city streets like weary slugs under heavy shells. Wiz wheels into an all-night donut shop announcing, "I must phone my wife!" "Are the brownies finally kicking in?" I jibe. "Not that. She'll be anxious for the epiphany."
Clown and I look at each other in vexation. He stalks without further word to a private corner, so we order coffee. Later the trio, red-eyed and wrinkled after the cups and call, leaves to locate a hotel. Wiz wears along the sidewalks a Masonic Lodge shirt "To capture local sentiment", and she a T-shirt striped "Gametes Spawn or Die" to argue it.
We sleep until noon the next morning with Clown the first to rise and trampoline on Wiz's hotel bed. He flings oaths, and she walks up and down my sleeping bag on the floor. "Let's go eat," she prompts us. We check out the hotel and proceed toward the city center where Clown pauses in a thrift shop doorway saying, "I need to outfit for the trip," and ducks in.
The "Goodies and Sallies", or Goodwill and Salvation Army thrift stores, are favorite haunts for Wiz and me too. He scrounges computer parts and I look for "Railroad Indicators". Moreover, the shops are ports of call for all train hoppers who score free clothes vouchers from the local mission to trade for threads at these stores. The Utah Goodies and Sallies are rich digs for tramps because Mormons waste not. "Someone could make a fortune buying this thrift stuff for pennies and selling it for dollars on e-Bay," perceives Wiz, strolling the hard goods aisle of racks of old plates, utensils, salt shakers, and archaic computers.
Clown breaks down in the bedding section and explains why she arrived in Aspen so ill-equipped for the hobo trip. "A year ago, I crossed from Canada into the USA with a newspaper clipping on immigration with circled items and comments in the margins for a standup comedy skit on why borders shouldn't exist. U.S. Immigration found it, put me in the computer, and makes it tough to enter since. I must bring just a small suitcase indicating a short stay.
"Also, the matter of no sleeping bag," she blushes. In the rush to catch the bus out of Aspen, she'd left behind a green bag kindly donated by the favorite mule-riding candidate for U.S. Representative of Colorado (since elected), Wes McKinley, who had it wrapped around buffalo meat in the trunk of his sedan at Eris. Now in the SLC thrift store we unearth a five-buck sleeping bag to replace the dirty little blanket that's been binding her white suitcase and keeping her warm nights.
She dons skinny sunglasses and sashays the clothes aisle looking like Hunter Thompson's hip daughter. "There's so much I'd like to take to change into, but so little room to carry it." Miss Thompson finally settles on the sleeping bag and one purple bandana. The latter is strategic for a buck that, with a quick knot, draws all those rainbow dreadlocks safely underneath.
I scrutinize every aisle in the store for economic indicators. Speculator Victor Niederhoffer and I formulated the first RR Indicators in the late 80's when Victor termed them "Low-Life Indicators". The gist of the system is that business is always moving between high and low, and lower currents may determine the whole. Everywhere fish flip their tails and flick their fins. Can economic tides be predicted by observing the fishes' behavior? We thought so.
Some of the RR Indicators include: The length and frequency of freight trains, the flux of the hobo population plus the hobo (worker):tramp (non-worker) ratio, the length of discarded cigarette butts (in the worst economic times smoked to the bitter end), and at the bottom of the Low-Life Indicators is the price and activity of prostitutes. Freight loads are qualified and quantified such as coal and autos (sticker price on the windows) to determine specific markets. The downtown "slave markets" (agencies that place temp workers) have stretched queues during rising unemployment.
So, I monitor and every so often relay these and other indicators to Victor who directs his computer staff to factor in sophisticated analysis to determine if there's an investment edge. If so, he buys, as he once nationally cited, Turkish bonds on the tip of an explosion of non-smoking, English-speaking youths in the business sector, and Brazilian stocks on the increasing prevalence of long butts on the ground.
Likewise, in thrift stores one discerns for indications the amount and wear of apparel donated to the institutions during economic shifts, as well as the numbers and types of patrons. Hobos shop smart for clothes more comfortable than those they wear from former busy owners who stretched them out of shape. Clown offers new angles to all citizens to beware of endeavors that require the purchase of new clothes. Moreover, she claims, personality can improve by outfitting yourself in someone's discarded clothes. "The proper way to advance as a new man among great men who look past the exterior is through a person's internal makeup. Most socialized people are cowards on this point." We three would like to buy additional clothes this morning but the pack space is limited, and we reject the street people style of wearing their entire wardrobes layered - second-hands from the Sally and all too large - in the dead of summer.
The executive trio strolls out the thrift store to nearby Pioneer Park, an oasis of freshly-cut grass on the only square block in Salt Lake City without a parking lot. The park predated the first transcontinental rail as a campsite and later was an early employment center for trucks to pick up day laborers. It's easy to envision century-old tramps recently fallen from the freights and resting here for the next job, sandwich or ride along the nearby track. Dozens of vagabonds today sprawl in little knots of their own types under uncaring trees. Clown pulls lobes off a fallen maple leaf on the lawn and asks, "Who is the traditional American hobo?"
I wave feverishly. "You see a few of them with water jugs and packs in this park. Look closer at their calloused hands, quick eyes and sturdy feet. The escort of American expansion through history has been the working stiffs carrying bindles. They built the nation's roads, canals and railroads, felled lumber, drilled oil, dug mines, harvested wheat and ice, and picked crops everywhere. Their mobility on freights answered periodic manpower demands where no other existed. Each train rider often carried his tools, per one derivation of the name from "hoe-boy". The traditional 'bo was homeless, unmarried and unburdened with cares, ready to hop a freight at the drop of a hat to a rumor of a job. Between services, he was a freeloader at city street corners and was seen in the soup lines next to non-working bums. He was an American product who rode the freights into history books and music, half slave-worker, half adventure hero that's conjured every time a food line forms or train whistle blows."
We heft our packs from the park to places at the end of a block-long food line in front of a square pink building across the street. "This is Mormon Town," I promise. "They won't run out of chow." A food line is worth careful study for the following treasures: Erect men with semi-clenched fists and hard stares, unwed mothers with one on the hand and another at the breast, drug crazies who don't cotton to insults, rubber legged "stew bums", Mexican laborers straight from the fields of toil and sleep, a handful of introspective train hoppers, awkward businessmen who've shed ties and wristwatches for the noon hour, and a sprinkling of street people with so much time on their hands.
The savvy 'bo has a junkyard dog's set of eyes for their dress, body language, mannerisms and accents from places afar. Most look down at the pavement, so the trick is to catch rare individuals who do the same thing - look up, catch eyes, and devise excuses to talk. Though we are quickly tagged in line as "Gentlemen (and woman) of the Road" - hobos who show signs of having worn the white collar - Clown sparks a dialogue with two Mexican laborers who speak hardly a lick of English and grin sheepishly at her torn Spanish... "How did you cross the border? Did you ride the freight train here? Is work easy to get in this town?"
We learn that Mexican illegals in great daily volumes cross the border by foot. Some continue within the USA by bus, but those familiar with freight riding (widespread in Mexico) take the rails to uncounted American destinations and secure false drivers licenses (about $100) to get hired to assorted jobs. The lion's share of their paychecks are often sent home to pueblos to sponsor more mushrooming illegals. The Mexicans tend to club together within the USA working and sleeping in the agriculture fields, and are bad-mouthed by "native" white workers for stooping for lower wages.
The food line offers more economic indicators than fleas on a dog tail. The length is an historic dial with short ones meaning good times. Soup lines absurdly offer indices of food stamps too, plus their cash street price (hovering at half-face value). Dumpster diving increases in better times with nicer food and articles tossed and rescued therein.
The mission door crack enlarges and all other thoughts drop as our team prematurely sniffs the air. The porter admits groups of ten from the line with no ID check until, finally, we enter a spacious dining hall where 150 people chat amicably while devouring a five-course meal at picnic tables. It's smorgasbord style, as usual, with drinks served by church volunteers wearing ever-sincere smiles. The few residual women diners, given earlier front line preference, finish pears for desert just as men return for entree seconds, indicating a bounty.
The execs gobble salad, chicken, mashed potatoes and peas, and rise for seconds also but Wiz returns without the trendy cookies. He seats and justifies, "These sugar cookies, according to my Cub Scout campfire test, burn brighter than anything but baby diapers. I advise everyone here not to eat them." Those within earshot push the cookies away.
Except Boxcar Clown. "Being with a lady changes the whole hobo complexion," I explain to our table as she grinds another. There are a hundred examples along the way: Yard workers are freer with information, the bull is appeased, outside tramps don't pick as many fights unless they're envious, hitchhiking is a breeze, homeless shelters admit you solo or with a spouse, and food lines lead with women. There's no end to the advantages of having an extra X chromosome on the road. However, try to get a gal to admit it and get your face slapped. "Or worse!" jokes Wiz.
Clown stops chewing to pay him a sharp look. "When I was in Guatemala I climbed the jungle hills daily to practice hand-to-hand combat with guerrillas..." Suddenly she lunges from her chair for Wiz's throat with a guerrilla death grip that just misses the Adam's apple. He rises in defense. "Just kidding," she apologizes.
For clear security reasons, a buxom lady wearing a nametag "Counselor" looms near to ask Clown and me, as a presumed couple, if we need assistance. "Yes", and I speak for the two of us on the further ease of traveling with a female companion. The lady cuts me off wagging a finger in my face. "You shouldn't waste the time others could use if you don't have domestic problems." However, she winks at Wiz on leaving.
We three remain at the picnic table. Wiz sighs, "I loved today's meal, clientele and conversation. By contrast, $500-a-plate dinners are unappetizing. The portions are small and look odd. The speeches are long and boring compared to a mission sermon. But it's true the other man's bread is sweeter, plus I'm hungrier coming off the rails.
"I'm ambivalent on American welfare," he continues. "On one hand, people have to eat and simply cannot afford it otherwise; on the other hand it's abused. In San Francisco a guy can get two, three hundred a month plus food stamps for having an address under an overpass. The more wily ones ride freights around using different ID's to collect more welfare in different places. One brute had 20 welfare accounts across the country and a book to keep them straight, murdering people for their ID's until he was caught. The pity is most of these "circle tramps" spend the extra money on booze and drugs. There should be a way to stop the bilking of the system of tens of millions of dollars while spending tens of thousands keeping the deserving fed.
"I'm not for welfare," he restates, "But these missions bring progress to many lives. There's a fine line between sanctioning a victim and helping a deserving guy get on his feet. A fellow who's down and out through no fault of his own can get clean, fed and on his feet again for a job interview. Nine out of ten won't, but one will. I've seen enough to know it's a judgment call, but I don't have time to go around being the nice guy to individuals. I reckon certain missions do better jobs than others, so when I enter one and get a free meal or shower, I give back. That keeps it simple."
Clown crinkles her face into an intellectual vent and leans forward. He concludes, "I've weighed both sides of the welfare question until I can't stand looking at the fulcrum any more. People don't advance in life with handouts. On the other hand, some people cannot get necessities otherwise. I throw my philanthropy where it's absolutely needed."
He spots the Counselor, rises with a pleased look, and chases her across the room. After a short huddle he returns grinning. "What happened," asks Clown with an upturned lip. "Oh, I got the address of this place. I didn't get a date, but she'll be happy with what comes in the mail." He clarifies, "As a matter of fact, since making "big money" some years ago I've been sending a check for a grand to each mission that treats me well across the country. Some things come against the grain, but don't have to be taken that way."
I tell them of a predecessor philanthropist Eads How, dubbed in the early 1900's "The Millionaire Hobo" for donating much of the family fortune made from the St. Louis Railroad to sponsor hobo colleges and conventions. Now that's faith with action.
We walk out the mission door and across the road to Pioneer Park. It's a clear, sunny afternoon for sharing secrets on the grass, even among a habitual incommunicado trio each holding the key to his heart. I suggest we sit and digest in the shade of a tree.
"A lump has kept me up nights," I confess, and reach around the back of my bib overalls to release a safety pin securing a hidden pocket sewn in the small of the back. "Pull out the wallet," I direct Wiz. He does, and I yank it with frustration. I open it and finger the uncounted hundreds, thinking back to the discovery in Aspen. "One bill can block out the sun if you hold it close enough, even distract you to lose a billfold", I offer lowering one. "I have a story to tell..."
"I'm sitting in the Aspen Lodge reading a glossy magazine waiting for you two to come downstairs for the bus to Grand Junction. I sink into a cushion and scan the lounge to justify my sense of disaffiliation. I like to think I'm what Roger Miller sings, "A man of means by no means - King of the Road". Yet, here I sit among "bums on the plush", the idle rich. These vacationers will soon check out and return to homes and high-paying jobs and try to match pace with each other in the workworld. I glance under a couch and reach for a dropped "puke", a leather wallet. I crack it and see the New Mexico driver's license, Sports Illustrated staff card and, in the back fold, a sheaf of crisp 100-dollar bills. I quit counting them at eight hundred with tears in my eyes, knowing I must find and return the billfold to the rightful owner.
"I pocket the wallet and pace to the hotel front desk to discover he's gone home. The hobo bus is ready. So, I safety pin the wallet inside a secret pocket in my overalls and try to forget it. But I'm disaffiliated, you see. A funny spiritual snobbery on the road rationalizes that people can get by with sum little money. A person is rich or poor according to what he has accomplished and is as a human. This wallet has been an irritating bump on my back for 600 miles since Aspen."
"What are you going to do?" asks Clown. "Go back and give it to the mission," proposes Wiz. "The moral issue is secondary;" I respond. "What do I tell a bull down the line who searches and finds two ID's and all that cash... 'Son, here's a free Go-to-Jail ticket'. Hell, let's discuss it on the way to the post office."
In line at the P.O., the other patrons must think our yak zany. "There's a labyrinth of options," I gather. "We can splurge part or all of it; climb a tree in Pioneer Park and drop the bills like leaves to the needy, or return the intact billfold to the owner."
As the queue progresses I enter a solitude of thoughts, listening to echoes of my father, mother, scoutmasters, teachers, past businessmen, and road partners. Their verdict is that dishonesty digs a hole where habit's the spade. When you get deep enough in people discern you. Now, any option with the wallet is correct but individual honesty recognizes another in all reaches of life and I'm still a young man.
"Virtue is a slow path!" I explode. But no one in line seems to understand except Wiz and Clown. "My conclusion is to take $20 for postage and handling, and another $20 for our trouble and supper. I think recklessness should be punished, not rewarded. Mail the rest back... That's my decision!"
There's no peep except Wiz volunteers to call the owner at the number on the Sports Illustrated staff card. He returns from that call as I reach the front of the queue, saying, "I spoke to the man who is very anxious to get the wallet. The driver's license address is confirmed and he prefers priority mail. He offered no reward but many hearty thanks."
I drop the puke into the priority envelope, seal it and sigh relief.
Outside the Salt Lake post office, Wiz backs up against the sun-baked concrete and tugs his earlobe. He's been sidetracked for some time. "We've had a wonderful day," he opens. "A day of surprises. And now I want to reveal what I told my wife last night." We lean toward him at the hot wall. "Honey," I yelled on the cell. "I've reached an epiphany... I'll see you tonight!"
"But she's in San Francisco," Clown protests. "Days away," I add, but he talks on between deaf ears.
"Yesterday I had an epiphany," he continues solemnly. "First, there was a hot flashback while crossing the desert. My life before hoboing had been narrow and sheltered. Fifteen years ago, I rode my first freight after taking Doc's hobo course. l jumped a dozen trains since and saw so many new things in tasting the hobo life without grasping it. Each trip ended with an itch for more. Each unfolding scenario made me a better qualified human. One angle I learned was that a person with ingenuity can work just three months out of the year and put money in the bank to travel. One tramp I met worked odd jobs until he squirreled $200, and then took $100 of it and rode the rails for six months, ending back in California to start the cycle over with the other $100. My thought is that the best executive takes a drastic pay cut to delegate authority to a few trusted colleagues and evolves his life on other fronts except for those three working months each year. The difference between the best tramp and executive is a few zeros in their bank accounts.
"Then, yesterday, came the second part of my big change of heart. I love the adrenalin flush when we catch out and the relaxation of the ride that follows. But I don't like the heat and sleepless nights. I'm used to the job stress of a $40 million budget with 130 employees; and freight hopping is supposed to cut that like a holiday. The itch to ride - I'm not sure why - quit yesterday after I scrambled for an hour glimpsing mileposts, flipping timetables and listening to the scanner while you guys rode stranded on the tanker. I was worried as hell. When you arrived safely back it zinged me: Hopping freights doesn't move me anymore. The sightseeing and subculture studies are a watershed behind yesterday's tanker bumper. So, we arrived last night in SLC and I went into the donut shop and first called the airport and then my wife. I've milked the hobo experience to a point of diminishing return, I notified her. I deeply conclude that I know Hobo Life in America. I don't need to ride again. Excuse me, I'm flying to San Francisco later today."
His radiant face is transformed. Our jaws drop like anvils. This is Wiz's longest speech, and the most sincere ever. "We'll miss you," sobs Clown with a big hug. "And your devices," I shake his hand. So Wiz turns on a dime commemorating a moment's insight is worth a life's exploration, and walks off. He has done the whole Pacific to Colorado run like Pronto and Big Apple, only in two segments.
He calls an airport limo from the post office for the 6pm plane. Yet, I suspect, watching him step into the stretch limo, once a train tramp always a tramp as long as the freights run. Each person has a unique set of values and reacts to them. For now, he waves at us through the back window taking away all the electronics.
Now we are two.
(Continued in Part 13)
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