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Hobo Matters by John Hodgman

They called it the War to End All Wars. They called it the London Fire and the Trail of Tears. But they were all wrong. It was called the Great Depression, and the hoboes saw it coming.

1929, October. Black Thursday. The 24th day of October, 1929: the day the stock market crashed, instantly wiping out $30 billion in stock value. Soon after, the Bank of the United States would collapse, trapping all inside, many of them orphans. From his hover-yacht in the Caspian Sea, President Hoover reassured the panicked nation that only foreigners and the mentally feeble would suffer. But the damage was too great. After a decade of high-flying prosperity, the United States’ economy fell to earth and began tunnelling to an awful volcanic core of despair, food riots cloying folk songs, and lava. By March, 250,000 apple sellers would crowd the streets of Manhattan, desperately refusing to sell any other kind of fruit. But apples and sellers alike were easy pickings… for the hoboes.

There had been hoboes in the United Sates since there had been trains and liquor, which is to say; always. But by 1930, an estimated two million broken souls had taken to the wandering life, hopping boxcars, picking up work where they could find it, and drinking, drinking, drinking. When Prohibition reigned, the hoboes knew of secret stills and hidden lakes of moonshine. It made them strong and wilful, and it made them blind and disfigured, and it spurred them to sing strange guttural songs in croaking voices that haunted the American night.

In may ways, they were a nation unto themselves. They had their own currency in the form of “hobo nickels” – the ordinary buffalo nickels onto which they would intricately carve new words and imagines, changing the Indian head to a picture of a hobo or changing the buffalo into a large hairy man wearing a clock and fake horns. Another common craft was lint-knitting, using scraps of wool fuzz from pilled sweaters to make new sweaters, which they would then attempt to sell door to door. They had their own flag, which was identical to the flag of Barbados (this was either a coincidence or a deliberate effort to confuse).

And they devised a secret language of signs and scrawls used to alert their passing brethren to danger or opportunity. A crucifix chalked on the side of a house meant that religious talk would get you a free meal inside. A picture of a cat meant “a kind woman lives here.” But intersecting circles warned that the local sheriff carried throwing stars, while twin W’s meant a mean dog slept in the yard and would rise on two legs and whisper secrets if you slept in the bushes. On some alley walls in whistle-stop towns you might find a cryptic translation of the complete text of Tristram Shandy, as that was the hobo’s favorite novel. And a picture of an H with sunrays around it meant that the hour had come: it was time to overthrow the government of the United States.

When in the spring of 1032 great masses of unemployed veterans descended upon Washington to urge the passing of the Bonus Bill, hoboes came with them. Under the leadership of Joey Stink-Eye Smiles, they infiltrated the White House, pocketing sandwiches and replacing the Secretary of the Treasury Ogden mills with one of their own, Hobo Joe Junkpan. And Across the country they began to coordinated reign of terror: soiling featherbeds, salting the cornfields, and dancing manic, heavy-footed jigs on parlor floors while ordinary citizens looked on in horror. In Kansas City, a hobo declared himself Duke of All the West and began demanding tithes. They wanted beep beer and warm hats. They wanted bent nails and pieces of string. they demanded half barrels of swallowfeather sauce, and no one knew what they were talking about.

At his inauguration in 1933, a new, crippled president named Roosevelt addressed the nervous crowd: “The people of the United states have not failed. In their need, they have registered a mandate, that they want direct, vigorous action. And so I will kill all the hoboes, and together we will gnaw on their bones.” It was time for a comprehensive hobo Eradication Plan called “The New Deal.”

The president acted swiftly. He established the Civilian Conservation and Hobo Fighting Corps. He took the country off the gold standard, denying the hoboes the use of their precious teeth. The Works Progress Administration was created largely as a cover for Walker Evans, photographer by day, hobo hunter by night. He had only one target: Joey Stink-Eye Smiles. But Smiles was slippery, twice eluding the photographer’s poisoned darts before disappearing into a ditch or a shrub. Now it was war. The hoboes retaliated by sneaking up behind the White House and whistling very loudly. They wrote confusing, illiterate editorials. And they summoned giant dust storms that stalked the land, eroding topsoil and swallowing small towns whole.

Finally the president knew there was only one way to end the hoboes’ march across the blighted land: polio. Alone in his secret White House lab, Roosevelt created a concentrated serum of the dreaded disease that would be placed in the nation’s water supply by the Tennessee valley Authority. According to his contemporaries, Roosevelt was tortured by this decision. He knew that a certain number of non- hobo citizens would spend the rest of their lives in iron lungs as a result of his actions, but it would finally put a stop to the wandering people – starting at their feet and ending at their waists.

But then came Pearl Harbor. Some say Roosevelt knew the Japanese would attack that infamous December 7th. the truth is, he didn’t. But the hoboes did. And as the tragic war that followed put a final end to the Great Depression, so too did it put an end to the hobo war. As quickly as they had come, the hoboes mysteriously disappeared. No one knows where they went, or why. Some say they found patriotism in their hearts, joining the war against a common enemy. Others say they went to the stars or to another dimension. And still others say they live on today, moving quietly from town to town, preparing for the time when their great chicken-bone and moonshine empire will rise again. Is it possible? No, most historians agree that they almost certainly went to the stars.

But if you live near a railway track and listen as the train passes, it is almost as if you can still hear them singing- the dark and lonely wind of history still blowing from their rotted lungs.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Kevin in PA July 30, 2020, 6:11 PM

    I’m no fan of FDR. I believe he created the welfare state and sold America down the road to socialism. There is much evidence that his policies resulted in prolonging the Great Depression. I’m also no fan of PBS, run by a bunch leftists. However, I have to challenge a number of the assertions made in this piece. The following passage just does not add up and jumped off the page at me.
    “Alone in his secret White House lab, Roosevelt created a concentrated serum of the dreaded disease that would be placed in the nation’s water supply by the Tennessee valley Authority. ” Huh? and that’s just one.
    This one also; “Some say Roosevelt knew the Japanese would attack that infamous December 7th. the truth is, he didn’t. But the hoboes did.” There is historical information that indicates That Roosevelt knew. But the Hobos? WTF?

    Is this some sort of literary device? Or where can one find supporting evidence for these claims?
    Gerard, can you shed some light?

  • ghostsniper July 31, 2020, 4:51 AM

    “…together we will gnaw on their bones…”
    Where that Gnawbone Jack iz?

  • lpdbw July 31, 2020, 6:59 AM

    What did I just watch?
    And why did I watch it beginning to end?

  • Rob De Witt July 31, 2020, 7:41 AM

    This inspired lunacy just rings every bell for me. I grew up with the Illinois Central right-of-way a short distance away; the City of New Orleans passed under my bedroom window. My great-uncle was a railroad detective who carried a badge and a single-action army Colt. Playing in the open field beside the tracks I saw hobos sitting in empty boxcars as they rolled through town, ridin free on the old IC.

    When guitar-playing hit I was inundated with cloying folk-songs about the Noble Hobo and the Evil Banker. After my first marriage blew up I spent a season out in the Panhandle, in the town Woody Guthrie left for California.

    And oh yeah, I had Polio in 1952.

    I wouldn’t have missed any of this for the world, but it’s definitely funnier from a distance.

  • Jack July 31, 2020, 8:11 AM

    My paternal grand parents each worked for the ICG railroad in a tiny whistle stop in the Deep South. He managed the Depot and she was in charge of the mail and all shipping. Each retired with a small railroad check that hit the mailbox like clockwork until they passed.

    That grandfather’s younger brother, who cared not one whit about what might occur in Europe and determined to avoid WWI, took to riding the rails for a few years. He was a gentle soul, scornful of the plow and fond of the fiddle and jug, and during his 3-4 years riding the rails and seeing the country he became a wealth of information about places. More importantly, he became an amazing cook who could turn any meat or vegetable into an amazing dish and his skill as a baker was unmatched.

    All of those old guys are gone now, gone for decades, but what a pleasure it was to know them and grow up under their wings.

  • sharksauce July 31, 2020, 8:24 AM

    Hodgman is a long-time jokester: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Areas_of_My_Expertise

    The “Hobo Names” section is worth the time.

  • OneGuy July 31, 2020, 8:25 AM

    There were two aircraft carriers assigned berths in Peral harbor. Both were well outside of Pearl Harbor on Dec 7th 1941. And both were without their contingent of ships that typically accompanies them. This was unusual, very unusual. It appears that the U.S. at the highest level did know Japan would attack and they moved the carriers to protect them thinking that the battleships would be able to protect themselves and also thinking that the attack would be smaller. Why? Because the U.S. KNEW war was coming and knew that it wouldn’t be popular but if we didn’t get into it soon it might all be lost. It was a calculated move that they were sure would unite Americans to go to war. It did.

  • Dan Patterson July 31, 2020, 8:42 AM

    Who wrote that Mulligan’s Stew of pretense and stupidity? I see the PBS logo and that explains a big bite but how did it make the journey from idea to rough draft to working copy to edited to publication? And the narrator (also the author?) is not using his “Dhational Pub-a-dick Radio” whispervoice but speaks in a declarative and authoritative tone, in a sort of a Charles Kuralt and Charles Osgood approachable sternness.
    And it falls on it’s face. But not without busting it’s butt first.
    What an inglorious and unfettered piece of shit that was.

  • Dan Patterson July 31, 2020, 8:44 AM

    Thank you sharksauce for that clarification; maybe the piece was brilliant after all.

  • Callmelennie July 31, 2020, 8:54 AM

    I havent been so touched by a documentary since that groundbreaking series on the travails of the Lipids, a group of obese Serbo-Dalmatian shepherds who emigrated to America from the far East bank of the Ural Mts … only to find the same problems with diabetes an CAD as before

  • BillH July 31, 2020, 10:05 AM

    Well, I read it half way through; meant to be a compliment. Haven’t watched an internet clip in so long I can’t remember what the last one was about. Methinks the country is in a really deep funk this summer.

  • James ONeil July 31, 2020, 12:10 PM

    I hope you all realize that the power, the mastermind, the creator of NY Time’s 1619 project, Nikole Sheri Hannah-Jones, is actually John Kellogg Hodgman in blackface and drag.

    Remember there is not one picture, video tape, movie, or hobo nickle in existence of John Kellogg Hodgman and Nikole Sheri Hannah-Jones together, side by side, or one atop the other, in the same frame. A mere coincidence that her last, last name and his first name start with a “J” and that her first name and his last name both contain the letter “O”? I think not!

  • DrTedNelson July 31, 2020, 12:36 PM

    Are the YouTube commenters trolling, or is this the result of 60 years of progressive education?

  • Auntie Analogue July 31, 2020, 12:36 PM

    Ken Burns: eat your heart out!

  • Former Lurker August 4, 2020, 9:40 AM

    Actually, I thought this was pretty funny and enjoyed the read knowing that virtually none of it had any basis in reality.