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True Stories by Steve Keely
Rail Indicators, (original report 1994)
The best rail maxim concerns the hobo and The Wall Street Journal. The difference between a hobo and tramp is the former rides the freight from place to place in search of work, where the latter rides without working. Of course, both use the Journal regularly, including me. I take it a page at a time, crumple, and stuff under pants and shirt. The fine difference between a hobo and tramp is both use The Wall Street Journal for insulation, but a hobo reads it first. The more Journals found along the rails, the higher the employment.
A reliable indicator of country economy is cigarette butts. A bundle stiff has an eagle eye for them in hobo jungles, freight yards and city streets. He collect tobacco left in the butts to blend and hand-roll into a smoke. The longer the gathered butts, the better the economy. In poor times people smoke to the bitter end, but when the next is affordable they toss it early.
As I return year after year to the red light areas of America to gather signs, I come across the same sidewalk princesses plying their wares. It doesn’t take a bo with a thin wallet long to establish a correlation between the times and the cost of the cookie. The fluctuations are wild and evident, however, I’ve never been able to figure the lead time of the indicator. That’s your department.
Food lines, mobile chow carts and soup kitchens are consequential to any disembarking hobo. The longer the lines, the worse the times. Carts overflow in flourishing periods. The more coat-and-ties in the soup kitchens, the higher the unemployment..
Begging on the streets is called “throwing your feet” and I’ve profited from it’s study, usually giving away the profits. It’s plain the more panhandlers, the worse the times. Balance this with the higher the take the bigger the boom. My advice is don’t reach for a beggar without scrutiny, whatever the times. Are you surprised that a pro makes more per hour than you pay me? Have a heart, but beware of ruses like “Unemployed veteran”, “Baby needs milk”, a white cane and sunglasses hiding seeing eyes, or a guy in a wheelchair who runs with your money. Nonetheless, I contributed to a man with no hands and a plaque, “Change needed to buy drumsticks”. Then there’s the calamity of a region being “bummed out”. One year, I hopped off in Salt Lake City, usually tramp heaven because of Mormon charity, and saw tight mouths up and down the streets. “The city’s bummed out,” they claimed. “Why?” I wondered. “The Bishop’s givin’ eats.” The Bishop was rewarding sacks of groceries to anyone who worked an hour. The news spread like fleas up and down the rails to bring a great flux, until supply-demand forced the immigrants to throw their feet. Community benevolence sagged and the beggar take dropped faster than the Titanic. Salt lake was bummed out and took weeks to recover. Don’t worry, people inexplicably approach to hand me green even when I’m not in your clothes. “Looks like you can use this,” they say. In truth, I prefer to travel with twenties in my boots and hundreds in the overall seams. Times are personally good since I’m standing tall, but don’t pass this on soon.
Economic signals are easily viewed from a freight across the States, or a bus rolling through any city of the world. Consider the number and speed of automobiles on the roads, the pedestrians and pace on sidewalks, condition of their tires and shoes, numbers of pets and tail wags, cinema audience size and applause, and new constructions. There’s a web of hints out there that give an edge to the keen investor.
The most venerated index to the country’s condition is the number and type of rail riders. This is best studied each spring, especially west of the Mississippi, when thousands blacken the tracks like bugs at a barbeque. There are more during doldrums, fewer in fruitful times. The caste of bo’s must be examined to fine-tune this indicator. They include the hobo, tramp and bum in degenerating order. The first two are travelers, who shun the bum’s slothfulness that pins him in towns. Freight riders include migrating workers, divorcees, Vietnam vets, mental institution releasees, aimless wanderers, and boxcar vacationers like myself. The current of the unemployed increases in seasons of discontent, and I’ve freighted with taxi drivers to computer programmers sifting the cities for any job. Of course, there will always be freight riders as long as trains run thru bad times and good.
One fascinating sub-category is the circle tramp - those who ride from city to city to collect food stamps. What isn’t eaten up is sold off at half-face value, the revenue going for booze or other staples. Uncle Sam’s pockets have big holes that cost taxpayers tons. The more drunken hobos around the jungle, fire, the more welfare with a predictable domino affect.
The “slave market” is another way to judge how the going is going. This downtown agency places men on temp jobs each morning. Stretching queues means more joblessness, and I saw one nearly a block long. There are unofficial versions near rail yards where men wait for hirers. The arrangement is a practical mix of specific talent on first-come-first-serve basis. For example, if you need house painters, drive up, case the lot, and take some. I witnessed an able bodied assembly in the shade of the Las Vegas trestle repeatedly rush whenever pickups swung by. Mexico City has a square where dozens of men with tools sit in rows by trade – masons with hammer and chisel, carpenters with tool boxes, plumbers with snakes and so on. This worthy system should be emulated.
The choice dumpster to the hungry hobo is as your best eatery. If you think there’s competition for seats at Howard Johnson’s, don’t invade dumpster territory without a stick. The market correlation is the slimmer the pickins, the worse the times. Grocery stores hold onto their lettuce heads longer, fast food joints release sandwiches cooler, and donut shop bins are a hole in depression. On the other hand, residential dumpsters brim with treasures in fiscal ups and divers take on predatory faces. My oft-road partner Iowa Blackie has a verbal contract with Dannon Yogurt in his hometown to be informed first of the discard day, and to tip him of interlopers. In return, the insect problem stays low and good stories are had as follows. One afternoon we fished fifty cartons in flavor varieties, then were hustled to the smiling vice-president’s office to tell tales of the road.
There are Sallies and Willies – Salvation Armies and Goodwills. When a bo slides into town he first inquires of these, and I’ve visited hundreds. Clothes and paperbacks are dirt-cheap, even free if you go through the channels. The higher the stacks the more the donations, so the better the nation’s wealth. I could be wearing the president’s underwear without knowing it.
It’s been pleasant visiting you as a former technical analyst turned to the rails. I hope u make a “Niederhoffer” ($1,000,000 in one day) based on Rail Indicators.
Sincerely, Doc Bo.
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