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True Stories by Steve Keely
Executive Hobos and 9/11 (Part 8) "Eris"
This Executive Hobo Trip was born two months earlier when a casual email to a friend that I was planning a freight trip from the Pacific to Colorado for the Eris Society was posted on a speculator's website www.dailyspeculations.com. Surprisingly, eight contributors asked if seats were available. They didn't quite grasp the hobo pageant. Three execs, Wiz, Pronto, and Apple, actually showed at the San Francisco catch-out as the rest, two-hundred speculators and three million monthly "hits" at the website, followed our progress via satellite emails from the rail cars until we lost Wiz in the Great Basin. Then, on the day when Apple, Pronto and I arrived in Denver, there was a scurry to get each of us to different vital destinations. Big Apple had priority to catch a flight from the Denver airport back to New York.
I shake his hand at the departure lounge noting with mitigated sadness that Apple's soul has opened like a rose; he'll carry the experience to benefit myriad avenues. "I wonder what my father will think?" he asks. I reply firmly, "You'll be the curiosity and mock of everyone you left behind. Dabbling in alternative lifestyles sifts your friends, and now the right few will pick you. The family will think you less crazy with each step further from the womb, and in the future your dad will push you out the door in order to receive more postcards and exciting yarns." He steps back and smiles. "You have the right answer to everything even if it isn't accurate. I'm ready for the next trip before this one's over. I'm going to leave my girl. Freights are better. Thanks for the satori, Doc."
Next stop is the Burlington Northern Santa Fe yard. Pronto wants to try a new railroad company solo out of Denver through Montana and back to San Francisco. Union Pacific's chief competitor is the Burlington Santa Fe Railway. Both UP and BNSF cover the central and western USA "Open Road", the system of railroads that can take you anywhere you like. He puts on a yellow bandana inside the yard. "It was a thrilling expedition, but I want to try the rails alone. The freedom is amazing: No appointments, no phone, no plans. Just the open road, and, of course, thinking about the next meal. I don't remember a time when I saw so much new and extreme data while getting my muscles so sore. I'm rough and ready like in the rodeo days, able to get up at 5am day-after-day to face another brute or train."
A hot spot in Denver is the BNSF yard about a half-mile south of Coor's Field where citizens may stroll wide sidewalks to a viaduct to watch freights 24-hours a day pull in and out. The locals refer to this spot as the Mouse Trap. This particular evening some observe one stocky tramp in a yellow headband separate from two other men in a Jeep. He looks like a worker and enters a brick building for train information. Finding no one, he returns to the vehicle and pulls out a fireman's pack. The BNSF locomotive color scheme all about is forest green, orange, and yellow. Depending on the freight he boards, Pronto could end up in Omaha or Cheyenne.
"I don't care," enthuses Pronto at the send-off. "I just want to ride out my vacation." We shake hands and I counsel, "There's nothing more I can tell you about hoboing that you haven't heard with your damn perfect memory except to keep practicing contingencies." Pronto is relatively unchanged by the outbound trip, just more certain of what he was sure he was before the onset - "blowed-in-the-glass", born to be a hobo. "I've kept a logbook of the yards and missions, and prefer the low-tech style of travel - no walkie-talkie, scanner or cell phone - just the logbook and railroad map. Oh yeah! I'll ride again. Always!" He saunters like Hercules between a string of cars and waves back, "Lessons gleaned for a lifetime. Thanks Doc Bo!"
Mark Mahoney, webmaster of www.greatspeculations.com, and I drive from the BNSF yard to the Denver Greyhound station. He toasts me with ginger ale at the step to the Aspen bus. "Before you leave, what is the reaction of the ship's captain, Doc Bo?" I grin and speak shyly in third-person, "Doc Bo is nauseatingly thorough in his instruction and drill. He always has one or more contingency plans for any situation on the road. He thinks so far ahead it sometimes amazes me. He's aims to raise green tramps to ride a freight alone across the country."
I catch the bus to Aspen in the heart of the Rockies for Eris and to pick up a fresh batch of executives for the run back to the West Coast.
The mid-point and turnaround of the overall rail trip is Aspen, Colorado where each August the Eris Society convenes. Eris is my perennial siding, a unique group - if a society of individualists is possible - since it is without a formal structure. It is neither incorporated, partnership, nor owned by anyone. There are no dues, bylaws or voting. Rather, it belongs annually to the invitees. Eris began in 1981 when Doug Casey, a best-selling financial writer and daredevil, decided to invite a few of his friends to a party at his Aspen home to exchange ideas in the spirit of Ben Franklin's Junto. In subsequent years, the original invitees expanded the gathering by inviting other individualists to share ideas on a wide range of topics.
Eris draws a broad spectrum of people who have distinguished themselves in their fields, and over fifty percent are published authors. There are scientists, film producers, doctors, historians, artists, philosophers, educators, multimillionaires, swamis and even hobos. The three-day weekend conference is hourly presentations by individuals or panels with ample Q-&-A's after each. A discordant, non-mainstream bent is maintained throughout the weekend in the spirit of Eris, the Greek goddess of discord whose golden apple marked "To the fairest" was thrown into a party that sparked the jealousy that started the Trojan War.
Eris free-thinkers seek out speakers with unconventional or controversial ideas they are willing to defend in front of two hundred excellent listeners and skeptics. I first arrived by freight in 1985 to speak about the freight underground and hobos. After the talk, I issued an open invitation to ride the rails with me. One stepped forward, the Eris founder Doug Casey. He had raced cars, parachuted, globe-trotted, even tried to buy a country, and this year thrilled to ride the freight train from Denver to Portland, Ore. to examine investment opportunities in gold mines and zeppelins. "I ride freights to be reminded of another reality," avows the world's richest hobo.
Casey must drop from this year's trip for personal reasons, however, a similar invitation to the 2001 Eris Society bears Toronto stockbroker and professional comic Bryce Bradley, who quickly announces, "I want to find myself on the rails, baby!" She will become history's first executive hoboette.
Wiz also dashes up after speaking at Eris frothing for the freights. "Good to see you! I'm sorry I had to get off that unstable car in the desert on the rail trip out. It was creating harmonics that wracked me. I checked into a hotel and woke up the next morning refreshed. So I struck solo southwest through Nevada checking out the mines and Area 51. I discovered no aliens but did eat lunch with some businessmen a mile underground in a silver mine. Now I'm ready to ride the rails again!"
On August 4, 2001, the Eris Society adjourns in Aspen, and now we are three - Wiz, Clown and Doc Bo. We huddle in an Aspen underground pizza parlor to await the bus to Grand Junction, Co. for the freight catchout. Here we attempt to hit upon camaraderie, but first the "fish", or green hoboette, retrieves lunch per the hobo custom.
We watch Clown, a slight blonde with an anatomically correct walk and cheerleader glow, weave the patrons leaving a wake of smiles and laughs back to our table. "She plays the field like a pro," remarks Wiz. Surely, the Canadian Libertarian comic shows aggression, asks the right questions, has the correct answers, and raises everyone's spirit. "She thinks she's Eris," I groan. "But, Wiz questions, "Can she carry it off in the railroad yard with that nail polish and city-girl smile?" She prances to the table with the pizza-to-go in case the bus is premature. "Boxy but hot, boys. Dig in!"
Wiz and I wear standard overalls and flannels while Clown sports embroidered jeans with halter top and a head of two-foot rainbow dreadlocks. "This undertaking won't be easy," I forewarn as we chew. "The outbound execs last week rode hard metal, slept in the dirt, and loved it after it was all over." She leans forward and blows pizza breath, "Do it the right way even if it's the hard way, right?" "Clown," I rejoin, "That crayon-box on your head will fetch information on the rails, but can get caught in moving machinery. Tie the dreads up and double-knot those platform tennis shoes before we reach the Grand Junction yard." She eyes me evenly, "I'll do fine on the railroad, Doc. You'll see."
The basement cafe is not a hobo jungle but there is the sense of the same, breaking bread and talking while awaiting the catchout. We swap stories for an hour that reveal character and traits that will serve and may save each other on the rails. These experiences, if quantified, are worth millions.
Bryce "Clown" Bradley discloses a personal history of achievement and rebellion. She won high school honors and math prizes, but after graduation submerged into the Toronto street life. "I was a born rebel out of high school. I slept places you wouldn't pee in and did things you might not imagine. There were many fights and I once got nicked in the tummy by a knife; is my face marred? I ultimately quit the street scene because of bad grammar. My constant corrections to peers produced fights like punctuation marks. I was surrounded one day for a "her to she" redress, and six filthy-mouthed girls pounded the crap outa me."
She matriculated from the tough streets to college for a Bachelor's in Clinical Psychology - because she liked mice. She then earned a Masters in English while studying French in Paris. Back again to Canada, she became a stock broker with a side-interest in Libertarianism. "The most recent pivotal day in my life was one year ago when I rose from my market desk and quit to move to Guatemala. I learned Spanish there and self-defense from the jungle guerrillas. I chucked everything Latin three months ago to go to comedy school in Toronto. I want humor to be a part of the rest of my life.
"I had a pet pig once. We lived in an apartment above my Toronto leather shop. He was jealous of customers and defecated on the top step when they entered, pushing little balls off with its nose. Business declined and the relationship grew strained, so I gave him to my boyfriend's mother."
"If there's time, I want to sample every lifestyle including hobos. Maybe I'm gathering pieces of a puzzle about myself. I grew up the middle-class daughter of a Toronto construction foreman, lived with skinheads, did the gold thing with the Royal Bank, studied in Paris, lived with Guatemalan peasants, and ultimately chose comedy for the dividends of investing in people. The only group I identify with are the Erisians because they're individualists, and rationalism turns a good girl on."
She expresses herself with clarity and charm under the colorful if chaotic hair. "The hairdo is part of an experiment to study people's reactions to facade and to set the comedy stage. There's nothing like having an edge," and she glances at Wiz's throat as he clears it to speak.
Arthur "Wiz" Tyde III is an egghead on a strapping frame with an eager walk. "You carry less physical and emotional baggage if you live each day as though it were the last. More is almost always preferable to not enough. Never underestimate the stimulating value of eccentricity." He doesn't smile below the eyes when he talks but the corners of his mouth twitch speedily with each understanding, and he is an excellent listener. Today, in rare animation, he breaks the yolk of his youth to reveal how he became a self-made nerd.
"My parents nearly dropped me off on the doorstep when I was twelve. A little bastard named Jimmy next door taunted me so in a fit of revenge I invented Pooh Juice. I took a bushel basket and scooped the neighborhood dog and cat poop. I slid it into a big steel pot and put on a layer of Brewer's Yeast, then added water. I then wired the pot to the backyard transformer to ferment for a month. One morning, I carefully transported the pot to evil Jimmy's doorstep so he would get the blame, lifted the lid, and ran. In a matter of minutes, all the pet dogs and cats in the neighborhood started choking because the Pooh Juice is slightly heavier than air. People ran screaming from their homes and the police yellow taped off a square-block. My parents found out and grounded me for a month in the basement, a mistake because it was my workshop."
"I developed an early collective consciousness with robots. I built a fleet to help my parents with chores. A maid named Red cleaned the basement for mom. It was built from a vacuum cleaner, car battery, electric eye, ice pick and waste basket. It patrolled the basement whirring and blinked when it spotted trash. Then the pick went up-and-down with a tenacity I hadn't imagined possible until it stuck the trash and tossed it over its shoulder into a basket. One day mother went into the basement in bright high heels and the power went out. She apparently locked the door. The robot chased her high heels with the pick for five minutes until the lights went back on. Those were robotic grandchildren a father could be proud of."
"With dad, it was ball lightning that chased him from the basement office." I fabricated a ball lightning generator in my downstairs laboratory that rivaled nature. It's a luminous sphere appearing out of nowhere that moves parallel to the ground but jumps and can enter a nonmetallic opening before disappearing into thin air. In nature, it's normally only a foot in diameter but I beefed up my generator to prove that the greater the size the longer the duration. I went outside to mow the lawn, a chore I disliked, and must have left the dynamo on. Dad was in the basement office doing taxes when the four-foot ball entered the door sealing the exit. I heard father scream my name over and over and the basement windows began to shudder. I looked in and there was a blue-orange ball traveling around the basement and my dad dodging it. After I ran down and turned off the dynamo and opened the windows to dissipate the ball, he made me dismantle it and promise never to do it again."
"Those were mistakes a kid makes, and no one can blame me for trying. My hobo life also has deep roots. As a kid in Texas, I had a tree house that was my retreat from the world. There was a library of Playboy and other girlie magazines up there that I viewed to unwind. I still remember the 1979 Penthouse spread on hobos. (Peter Spielmann, "Hobos", pp. 138-45, Penthouse, May 1979.) The sturdy hobos carrying water bottles were making their way across the nation's rails to Brit, Iowa for the National Hobo Convention. It was incredible! The article got dog-eared and hobos were the only thing that pulled me away from the foldouts."
"I grew up thinking about it and went to university at Michigan State. In the senior year, I saw a yellow flier on a phone pole advertising a course "Hobo Life in America" and enrolled. After the final exam I promised myself I'd ride boxcars cross-country without a cent in my pockets, and to that end went in Doc Bo's office for advice. You encouraged me but said it was illegal and to be careful getting on and off moving freights. I did it and discovered a new America!"
"My big break at Eris was at the 1985 kickoff party when the robot that served drinks went on the blink. I tinkered with my screwdriver in its back for a few minutes until it served again to everyone's delight. After Eris that year, Doug Casey, you (Doc Bo) and I rode the rails west that opened new life windows. With eventual financial success I still hopped freights. Nowadays, I love the high-tech aspect of hoboing. What could be better than waltzing into a yard with a timetable, pre-programmed scanner to listen to the engineers and bulls, cell phone to call the yardmaster for departures, walkie-talkies to talk to buddies, night vision goggles for the real hobo hour, and satellite contact to post trip updates at a website?"
"I recently bought an airplane and leaflet Doc Bo's desert digs by air since he's become hard to get hold of for an outing. Incidentally, you were right not to tell my parents about the early hobo trips. You advised me to report instead uplifting stories after the quest. But I think their biggest worry would have been when I hopped my first freight with you after taking your sociology class."
A pause follows around the table to digest Wiz's spicy biography. "In contrast," I then tell the pair, "I was raised slowly in Idaho where kids were released from family and school one week annually for potato picking vacation that kept the state economy going. I was uncommonly bookish and coordinated, and worked summer jobs including cleaning dog kennels, factory work, winter construction, and on to veterinarian, publisher, pro jock, world adventurer and, for the past two years, a desert hermit in a burrow. My philosophy is that life is not a dress rehearsal."
The table is cleared. In final preparations, Wiz sorts his collection of hobo-tech instruments. Clown crams leftover pizza into her white suitcase, and I observe with ambivalence the arrival of the Sunday afternoon bus. Aspen disappears behind us like an overdue sigh.
(Continued in Part 9)
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