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True Stories by Steve Keely
The Hobo Network, (original report 1997).
Yesterday, I gave thought to your request about the hobo network – people and how I stay in contact.
There’s a loose Los Angeles club with a newsletter called the Hobo Times that forms the central nervous system of yuppie hobos. The membership includes actors, attorneys and others who are getting national publicity right up to Time magazine. I consult the hobo editors for general rail news, and they keep tabs on the whereabouts of the “celebrity bo’s” including the national hobo king, the conventions, and superior cross-country rides. Particularly good is an article, “Ten most scenic rides in America”, half of which I’ve taken.
Personal contact provides more information to the network. Minneapolis businessman “Adman” Todd Waters runs a sizeable advertising agency, while nurturing a boxcar wanderlust. He flies to business meetings around the country and freights home. He gives special consideration to hiring former freight riders because, “They’re tough and won’t steal your boots. “. Adman’s my source for nuts-n-bolts info such as timetable changes on the Burlington Northern and which Sante Fe yards are “hot” with bulls. I’ve been stranded on remote railroads and phoned him to map a way out. Another pro is Railroad Doc, a New England based nurse who’s the riding encyclopaedia of the rails. I met him at a hobo hoedown in Mt. Shasta, Ca. and found him knowledgeable and dedicated. He wrote and self-published a guide that lists every major route, crew change town, and catch-out point in America, plus an appendix on the sophisticated techniques of freight catching and riding. You once skimmed it and remarked, “This is a good one”.
Steamtrain Maury Graham, the perennial hobo king before stepping down to let others wear the crown, lives in Toledo. Last visit he gave me a card with his picture, autograph and a note begging bulls that the holder is a good bo, so don’t arrest him.
Hobo Herb, is another hub of the road. I called often on him and wife “Dirty Face” Josie in Denver, but they’ve shifted to a little house on the Southern Pacific line in Ogden. His warnings of where gangs ride to roll unsuspecting tramps, or yards where bulls are in heat have guided my travels. One year, Herb suggested I get a tattoo from the Denver artist who covered his skin. I selected a small mouse with a smile and a teardrop, to display balance in life, on my left deltoid. The next night he suggested I go to the jail’s drunk tank to find interesting people and economic pointers. “I don’t drink. How do I get in?” He said, “Go to the bar and gargle a drink, then spill it on yourself. Fall on the floor & shout, ‘Someone slipped me a ‘mickey’. Call the cops!’ You’ll get free delivery to the drunk tank.” I headed to the bar but remembered the tattoo forbid the prerequisite drunk tank shower, so I’ll have to meet that lot another night. However, the tattoo, as with other bos and theirs, is promotion. We scratch our monikers and tattoos on freight cars, and thousands rattle about America today.
The graduates of my ‘85 college course “Hobo Life in America” established a letter network, and one August a van-full made a post-grad road trip to the Brit, Iowa National Hobo Convention. Since the early 1900’s, hobos have tracked annually there for a week of festive reunion. I’ve attended five times, but quit going when spectators began out-numbering bo’s 100 to 1.
Networking in the steam train days (pre-‘50’s) was via the water tank. These towered in each yard to water the engines and many remain standing today with early signs. I’ve left some myself. The method is to identify by moniker (e.g. “Doc Bo” or a drawing of the mouse), draw an arrow tin the direction of travel, with the date. Passers-through check the tower or other surfaces as a matter of course if they want to trace somebody. It’s a variation of sailors chalking notes on prominent rocks before shipping on.
Hobo “symbols” establish a veritable picto-language and were widespread until a few decades ago. On a cross-country trip I may encounter only a half-dozen. This code allows information to be passed among fellow knights of the rail. The symbols are scratched with chalk, coal or a sharp edge onto a fence, building, sidewalk, tower or trestle. I’ve shown you examples: A simple circle means “Nothing to gain here”, a cat drawing is “Kind lady lives within”, a circle with inner X represents “Place to get a handout”, and a squared U is “Good place to camp”.
Be sure to check for the hobo signs on your home and office, keep your pockets clean, and may this report bring you a container of money.
Yours truly, Doc Bo, the boxcar investor.
Nowadays, the hobo network uses the computer web, emails, cell phones, scanners…. without losing the hobo dash. I believe my ’01 executive hobo trip yielded the first email sent from a moving boxcar - from entrepreneur Art Tyde to publisher Pam Van Geesan. There’s a “Hobo Corner” of stories at www.dailyspeculations.com, and a budding website with live coverage of the present adventure via an eyeglass camera and satellites. I still say coming events casts backward shadows, and hope to broadcast them.
Niederhoffer’s follow-up book, “Practical Speculation”, arrives soon with booksellers already clearing the shelves. Risk and survival are strong currents, and the story compels as usual. Expect what you wouldn’t think of.
Our indicators began in the 80’s as ordinary observations and became attention-grabbing tools in the market. I’m gratified, but maintain they are training devices toward sharp observation and hard thinking. The brain’s a marvelous organ that, when fit with exercise, offers understanding of the world about and within. Niederhoffer and I think it’s the best indicator of all.
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