Real Live Hobos, Continued

In case you missed it, in a previous post I described picking up four hobos, honest to God hobos, the kind that usually ride on, you know, trains. They were traveling with their two dogs. This post describes some of the wisdom that I was able to glean from my conversation with the woman I call Matriarch, who rode in the front seat with me. You might go back (or scroll down) and read that first. But if you don’t want to go back and read that, suffice it to say that it would be informative and relevant to know that, that this group wreaked heavily of body odor and noticeably of urine.


One tip Matriarch had for traveling on the cheap was about how to get free showers (though she clearly had not had one in a while). Sure, you can pay ten bucks for a shower at a truck stop, but truckers get free showers when they fill up, and they fill up much more often than they have time to shower. They recursive card that is good for a shower, but it is good only for a week, and they are more than happy to give away the free showers, as they would rather have someone use them than have them go to waste. She went on to say that she had never had to ask more than two truckers for a shower to get a free shower. She punctuated this bit of advice with “So a shower is just one more thing I won’t pay for.”

One might think that when traveling on the cheap, and doing a fair amount of it on freight trains, a dog would be a considerable hindrance, but there are usually food scraps for the dog. If you’re sleeping in strange places, having a dog to keep an eye out for strangers approaching your area is very valuable. She said that she sleeps much better knowing that her dog is there keeping watch.

About this time Interstate 10 passed near a train yard. The conversation stopped as someone called attention to the yard. They all looked longingly at the trains and someone said “Oh, guys! Look at all of those bo-o-ox-cars!”

I asked about just how one goes about getting onto a moving train, especially with a dog. “You never get on a moving train! It’s too dangerous.” The thing to do is to get on a stopped train, usually in a yard. I did not quite understand exactly what the system is, but apparently there is some indicator that lets you know whether the train is going North or South. Once they found a train headed the right direction, they would just get on the car they chose and wait, often for hours, for the train to start moving. They would sometimes open a box car to see if was empty. They would not consider getting on a loaded box car.

You definitely want to avoid the “bulls,” or Railroad Cops, but in general, other train workers pretty much ignore travelers like my new friends. Usually the engineers are fairly amenable to travelers on board; they just remind people to be safe. Box cars are the best, the “Cadillac” of freight trains, Matriarch said. Some of the coal hoppers are pretty good too, though. Some of theme have nowhere to sit, “suicides,” in the vernacular, but others have a wire mesh to sit on and there is a spot that you can stash your gear in. It’s a pretty good ride there, but you get really dirty, on account of all the coal dust. This is one more reason that we need to push for clean coal, I thought.

A friend who I once worked with claimed to have become fairly familiar with those in the hobo community. One thing that he told me about hobos, or “tramps” as they are sometimes known, is that they are not homeless, in any sense. Just as I choose to live in a camper, they choose to live on the road. They move around from place to place, set up camp and live a pretty good life, sure, it’s a life that involves significantly lower standards of personal hygiene than most people have come to expect, but it is a pretty good life, nonetheless. You can get a little bit of a taste at this Hobo News site.

I asked about how they financed their travels. Sometimes they go to day labor places where they can earn fifty to eighty dollars in a day. Sometimes they panhandle. Sometimes they busk. In New Orleans the only time that you can busk without a license is during Jazz Fest, so that’s a great time to play harmonica to get a little cash. Matriarch explained that her harmonica was now broken.

I wondered about cash flow, though. When you’re dumpster diving for food, getting free showers (however infrequently), and stealth camping, how much does it cost to live? About forty dollars a day, for the four of them, though it would be less than ten if they didn’t all smoke. That’s right. Tobacco comprises something like three quarters of their outgoing cash flow. And I was worried about people who spend more than half of their income on housing. Of course these guys spend considerably less than the recommended 25% of their income on housing. They will sometimes rent a hotel room for a day or two.

By about this time we had passed from Texas into Louisiana. There was a place that they had been to on a previous trip that had boudin balls that were “ridiculous,” a word that she frequently used as a superlative. I might say that it was ridiculous how often she used the word “ridiculous.” I was getting a bit peckish at this point, and though I wasn’t sure that I had eaten boudin balls before, I am a fan of the sausage made with rice and pork, so I was interested. I suggested that we go to the boudin place, but she explained that they didn’t have any cash, and it would take several hours to get enough money for boudin balls. I said that I would slip them a twenty so that we could all enjoy some boudin balls. We pulled up to the Cajun Kwik Mart in Iowa, Louisiana. I was somewhat confused that the “ridiculous” boudin balls were prepared at a rippy mart, but then I realized that I should not have been surprised, not only because boudin is peasant food but also because I got the tip from a hobo. If you’re interested in boudin balls, but don’t want to go to a convenience store in Louisiana, you can find a recipe in Saveur and a recipe for boudin is available from Emeril.

Inside, Matriarch bought some chicken fingers for the young’uns and boudin balls for us. For some reason she knew that they would prefer chicken fingers to boudin balls. We had to wait because the balls had just been dropped into a vat of hot oil when we ordered them. That’s right, boudin balls are deep fried. A deep fried mixture of pork, rice, and tasty goodness. We waited outside for the food to be prepared while my wayfarers frantically filled their lungs with carcinogens.

When we got our tasty balls they were too hot to eat, so we loaded up and resumed our eastward journey. In spite of their provenance, this was some mighty fine boudin. Soon after the pork and rice were consumed, Matriarch said that she needed to go to the bathroom. Now. She was very apologetic. Apparently the boudin did not agree with her. I rushed to the next exit where we found a restroom. While she was inside, I looked for my Immodium. I was pretty sure that I had two bottles of them, but neither showed up. I did find that I had two harmonicas in the key of E, so I gave the extra one to Matriarch when she returned from the water closet. It was as if I had given her the moon, and she started showing off her prowess right away.

Matriarch had mentioned that she was really in to Janis Joplin, so I found “Greatest Hits” in my collection and played it. Matriarch was elated. I too like Joplin, and playing her had the added benefit of putting an end to the harmonica concerto. I have to admit, having heard Matriarch talk about trains, the line “waiting for a train” took on new meaning.

In the next installment, I’ll tell you more about what I learned about their life on the road.

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4 Responses to Real Live Hobos, Continued

  1. Ken says:

    Jay, your a prince!

    After spending a week working at a homeless shelter, I can commiserate with the body odor.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences with us!

  2. Katie says:

    I know you have other things to deal with, but COME ON. Part 3, let’s go. Some of us are living vicariously through you, and I am dying to know if they ever shower and get clean!

  3. helen says:

    ‘Matriarch’ just seems to me still to have a gorgeous face and glow. I don’t know. There is something about her…

  4. Pingback: Dropping Off the Hobos | |

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