Friday, December 30, 2011

700 Hoboes: Jack Skunk's New Year

Jack Skunk wasn't the worst-smelling hobo. He wasn't the second-worst-smelling hobo. Jack wasn't even in the top eleven worst-smelling hoboes. Such was the magnitude of the hobo stenches with which he had to compete. And yet, the man had a stink about him. Riot-police-grade, eyeball-melting, gag-inducing fumes emanated from his wiry frame at all times. He had few friends.

Somehow - and no one who knew him was quite sure how - he had a son, about fifteen years his junior. He didn't smell at all. At least, when in the company of his father, the boy didn't seem to have any odor. He was a Skunk, however, and his smelliness was assumed. They called him Jack Skunk Fils.

It is a well-known fact that many, if not most, hoboes embraced their meager and difficult lives as penniless drifters. Some of them, before the hobo wars, even chose to drop out and ride the rails and sleep under the stars. Jack Skunk was not such a hobo. Jack had returned from The Great War after surviving two years in the mud and blood of France, only to find that his job at Walton's Hinge Pin Factory in Evanston, IL was no more. He had held a half-dozen jobs across the Midwest over the following year, before finally losing his home, his wife and his hope, and taking to the rails with three-year old Jack Junior.

By 1931, Skunk and son were expert hoboes, not merely surviving, but thriving along the high steel of the Grand Trunk Railway, the Chicago and Northwestern and the Detroit, Toledo and Ironton. So at home as railroad vagrants were they that the onset of the Great Depression had taken them months to notice. They had gradually realized that there were more hoboes, and that the ones who could stand the elder Jack's stench long enough to converse with them had stories of bread lines and massive unemployment in the cities.

Jack Fils was about twelve years old as 1931 drew to a close, and his father was annoying him. It had become an odd tradition for Jack to annoy his son at the end of each year. Between the hobo Christmas parties to which they were never invited and the hobo New Year's parties to which they were never invited, Jack Senior moved the two of them as far east as he could, working along the Pennsylvania Railroad - sometimes even the Baltimore and Ohio - until December 31st. This New Year's Eve found them in the woods near a Pennsy yard in Wilmington, Delaware.

"Are you happy, Pop? Delaware. I don't think we could get any farther east without taking that miserable short line to Atlantic City - and we'd probably have to walk the last fifty miles." Jack Skunk Fils poked at the campfire as it struggled against a mixture of snow and sleet.

"It'll do, son. It'll do." the old man of 27 years sighed. "You gonna stay up this year, or should I wake you?"

Jack the younger grunted. "Can't I just sleep in? Or better yet - just freeze to death and be done with this stupid life?"

"Don't talk like that, boy. This is the one thing - the one thing - I ask of you each year. I've never made you eat a vegetable - ever. I let you stay up late. You've been drinking hobo beer for two years, already! Stay up with me."

"Come on, Pop. Why? Every year you drag us east on these railroads we don't know. Every year we get our rear ends beaten. We get chased by yard cops. Last year, we got arrested and held for six hours. And for what? So you can freeze us nearly to death all night, trying to stay awake for the 'first light of 1932' or whatever you call it. Why? What's the big deal?"

Jack Skunk shook his head sadly. "Never mind, son. Go to sleep."

Jack Fils happily complied, crawling under their tattered, leaking tent, wrapping himself in shreds of burlap and disintegrating Army blankets and passing out almost immediately. He slept for no more than half-hour stretches for the rest of the night, as the sleet changed to rain and eventually ended. Each time he woke, he peered outside the tent to confirm that his father was, indeed, still clinging tenaciously to consciousness, drinking hobo coffee, slapping himself or just letting the cold rain drench his face.

Eventually, the black sky turned to indigo, then to purple and finally it began to glow. Jack Junior grudgingly joined his old man by the fire and watched the sun creep over the horizon, painting the thinning clouds in blazing pink and orange as it rose. He watched his father, watching the sunrise. He had done this every January 1st for nearly a decade, but had never fully understood it - until now. This year, having been a hobo adult for three years already, he saw it. It was obvious, now. He started the declaration that his pop usually uttered, "We are very likely the first hoboes to see the dawn of 1932..."

Jack Skunk looked at his son for a moment, then smiled at the morning sky. "...Anything is possible," he concluded.

Young Jack was connected now to his strange, annoying father, united in a single emotion. It was in the man's eyes at every New Year's dawn. It was hope, and this was the one moment each year when it dared show itself. The world was born again. There was hope. The hardships and struggle of the road could end, and it could happen in this new year. A job, medicine, food, a home, a stink-free life - it was all possible.

"Anything is possible, Pop," he repeated.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

700 Hoboes: Holden The Expert Dreamtwister Bothers The Rza

Holden The Expert Dreamtwister raced from the hobo camp, chased by a stick-wielding and enraged The Rza. "Take it easy, Rza! I didn't touch you or your stuff!"

"You know what you did, you dreamtwisting little sorcerer. I told you if you did it again I was gonna kill you - now you gonna die!"

"I didn't do it, this time! I swear! Back off, man."
Holden had done it this time. He felt bad for swearing that he hadn't. He was in no immediate danger, as The Rza was not built for extended foot pursuits, what with his ingrown foot, and all.

"Liar! One second, I'm on the beach at Fort Lauderdale, untying Elizabeth Banks' string bikini. Next thing I know, I'm being tried for high treason, and the judge is a six-headed hamster..."

"It's not my doing, Rza. You got weird dreams. Some kind of issues with y'all's subconscious, I bet."

"You go to hell, you evil wizard! I know it was you. My dreams never do that. I get the girl. Every time. You done twisted that dream and you know it. I mean, those six heads. What was that? Laraine Newman? Falcor? Dean Rusk? Jack Pardee? Wendie Jo Sperber? And Judge Judy - how nice. You're the one with issues, you dream-ruining freak of nature."

"Okay, okay, okay. I'm sorry. I twisted your dream. I heard you mumbling in your sleep about 'the back door' and I lost it. I can't help it. It's not like I do it on purpose. I really am kind of out-of-body when it happens." Holden stopped and held up his hands in surrender.

The Rza paused, but kept the stick raised, ready to do some serious braining at a moment's notice. "You got memory problems, bro. You already told me how you do it. You even told me why you do it. Last year, at the Hobo Christmas Sing-along, Rhea Perlman Lookalike Contest and Lint-swap? You got drunk on hobo wine and told a bunch of us all about it. About how you can't dream for yourself, so you mess up everyone else's dreams, on account of how you can't stand to see anyone have a good dream. You told us how you pitch your voice just so and talk all low and clear and gentle-yet-authoritative into the ear of some poor shlub who's at just the right stage of shuteye. About planting characters or settings or plot devices into whatever the guy is dreaming. Any of this ringing a bell?"

"No," Holden lied. "No it's not."

"Liar! You gave us a demonstration! You found that yard cop in Cumberland, asleep in his chair, and you went up and said all your hokus pokus in his ear, and he woke up thinking he was being buried alive in Betty Boop dolls by all the US Presidents of the 20th century as Stooges and Marx Brothers. When he regained his wits, he said he had been dreaming about Betty Grable and his mother's apple crisp. You goddamn told us, man! I'm sick of it. Leave my dreams alone! They are all that I have."

"I'm sorry, Rza. I won't let it happen again," he lied. "I promise."

Over the following two and a half years, The Rza's path and Holden The Expert Dreamtwister's did not again cross. When at last they did, at a small hobo encampment outside of Gary, Indiana, Holden once more succumbed to his dreamtwisting impulse, turned The Rza's nocturnal vision of boozy hotel saloons and chorus girls into some wretched nightmare involving pickles, a dental drill and Ovaltine, and promptly died of a crushed skull.

The Rza had resumed his slumber before Holden's body was cold.

Friday, December 2, 2011

700 Hoboes: Cholly The Yegg

[Note: This is the second of what may or may not eventually be seven hundred stories, tidbits and interesting facts about author (and professional writer) John Hodgman's 700 hoboes. The list comes from his hilarious, completely inaccurate almanac, "The Areas Of My Expertise," and I do not have his permission to use them. I'd like to think he'd be cool with the idea, but let's not tell him yet - I'd like to get through a few more names, first.]

Cholly the Yegg
cracked his first safe when he was nine years old. His father, the manager of the Topeka Bank and Trust, Textiles and Feed Company, locked Cholly with a basket of bread and a quart of bourbon in the bank's vault one Friday afternoon, closed up shop and disappeared forever. Young Cholly (given name: Chollendrical Abernathy Section) was discovered Monday morning by the bank's president and caricaturist, Howling Jim Steeb, but not in the vault. Cholly had managed to defeat the locking mechanism on the vault door, and he had passed out on a desk full of bread crumbs in his father's office. Mr. Steeb promptly adopted him.

The boy didn't know much, but he quickly realized that he could not live with Jim's howling, so after a month, off he went, riding the rails in the direction of Santa Fe. He lived by his wits, moving from town to town, ingratiating himself to suckers for free meals and the occasional real bed, and stealing. He took pride in his pilfering. He made sure he stole at least one thing in every town. By his sixteenth birthday, he had mastered defeating safes and vaults from the outside, and found himself in the employ of a band of train-robbers. He plied his trade with great skill, but unfortunately for him and his mates, it was the 1920s. Trains had become well-guarded fortresses. Train robbing was a thing of the past. Cholly was obsolete.

It took getting shot by a US Marshall, captured and spending seven years in Leavenworth Prison for him to accept that those days were gone. Three days after his release, he successfully emptied the vault of the largest bank in St. Louis, making off with nearly $100,000 in cash and bearer bonds. He hit the rails again, at first as a paying passenger, and later as a penniless hobo.

The hobo years were Cholly's happiest. He was revered by most members of Hobo Nation, not merely for his thieving past - most hoboes had thieving pasts - but for the fact that he had stolen from The Man. Like most hoboes, Cholly spent much of his time alone, but when they gathered in groups, he was King Hobo, and was given the large can of beans and extra moonshine. The only other significant skill Cholly ever picked up was only useful at Christmastime. He made the best hobo eggnog anyone on the Santa Fe Railroad had ever tasted. They called it Yeggnog.

He lived to be at least ninety - a rare feat for a hobo - but no one knows his final age. He walked off into the woods outside Kansas City one fall day, and was never heard from again.