Wednesday, May 30, 2012

700 Hoboes: No-Shoulders Smalltooth Jones

Many of the hoboes took very descriptive names that were wholly-inaccurate or, in some cases, completely contrary to reality - like a 300-pound man calling himself "Tiny."  No-Shoulders Smalltooth Jones was not one of those hoboes.  

He had no shoulders, and one of his front teeth was exceedingly small.  His arms disappeared into his sides at the fifth rib.  Heavy lifting was out of the question, as was throwing like anything but a Tyrannosaurus, but otherwise Jones' arms were fully-functional.  In fact, he was an accomplished artist by the time he dropped out and hit the rails as one of those hoboes who chose the wanderer's life.  His chalk hobo signs and drawings were the stuff of legend, renown for their crisp, sharp lines.  They were also recognizable by their height.  With no shoulders, Jones couldn't lift his arms above where-most-people's-shoulders-are height, so his drawings were generally about four feet off the ground.

The small tooth, it was said, was a baby tooth that never fell out.  Instead, its permanent replacement erupted next to it.  The result was a gap between his upper incisors with a tiny tooth making an earnest attempt to fill it.  Its appearance never much bothered No-Shoulders Smalltooth Jones, but it did cause him to lisp and whistle as he spoke.  His hobo brethren adored listening to his imitations of tea kettles and steam engines.  He could replicate the signature sounds of little 0-6-0 switchers, geared Shay locomotives, streamlined J-Class 4-8-4's and everything in between.  He could also whistle "Dixie" like no other.

He rode the rails, drew his pictographs - and the occasional "hobo portrait," a chalk or charcoal silhouette of a fellow drifter patient enough to stand still whilst his shadow fell on a wall or pole long enough (and at the proper height) for Jones to trace it - and he whistled, wandered and stayed out of trouble.  Another truly unusual fact about the life of this man is that he had no enemies.  He was one of very few hoboes who was actually happy.  He chose his path, embraced his physical deformities and walked on the sunny side of the tracks.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Day I Turned Seven And Stabbed A Bully In The Neck

I remember the day I turned seven.  I had the flu, and had gotten in big trouble for stabbing that kid with a nail file at recess.  In my defense, he had been bullying me relentlessly for months.  

It shouldn't have been that bad.  I brought a nail clipper to school, and Paul Crapass (all these years later, I don't remember his last name, but it sounded like Crapass, and that's what his victims called him behind his back) happened upon me as I was brandishing the tiny fold-out file, fooling around with my friends.  He startled me, and I wheeled around and jammed the miniature blade into the boy's neck, scoring a near-direct hit on the external jugular vein.  The file didn't sever the vein, but it put a small hole in it, and Crapass started to bleed out pretty quickly.

The problem - for me - was that almost no blood emerged from the small neck wound and apparently it didn't hurt enough to do much more than enrage the bully.  This was also a problem for Crapass, as it enabled him to focus more on beating my ass than on seeking much-needed medical attention.  

My older brother, a couple of grades ahead of me, had been very good at keeping an eye on me at recess without letting it seem like he was keeping an eye on me, but this incident had spurred him to action.  He was at my side in a flash, and he was just as big as Crapass.  I think they were in the same grade.  He had never been a fan of violence, but he was on that bully like a pissed-off Mohammad Ali.

I got my bearings and looked around.  The playground lady had help, that day.  Mr. Wayne, the coolest teacher ever, was on the playground.  Both of them were running toward us.  I yelled for big brother to stop murdering Crapass, whose neck was clearly turning a sickening dark purple.  He heeded me not, and continued to pummel the kid.

One of Crapass' lackeys leapt onto my brother's back, enabling the bully to get away.  A bunch of my fellow first-graders, materializing as if from nowhere, formed a wall between Crapass and my brother.  Some big sixth-graders pulled my bro and the lackey apart, but as they did, each combatant swung wildly and managed to punch a couple of them.  Within seconds, as the playground lady and Mr. Wayne's shouted admonitions of cease and desist were completely drowned out by screaming grade-schoolers, we had ourselves a full-scale riot.

I saw real knives, aluminum softball bats, nunchuks, throwing stars - and I'm pretty sure someone had a cricket bat.  There was blood and mud and shrieks and language one can only hear on an elementary school playground.  I kept my arms up around my parka-covered head and made my way to Crapass, who by now was on all fours and woozy.  He hissed at me to leave him alone, then vomited.  I pushed him over onto his back and screamed at him to hold still because he was really hurt.  He resisted, but he was weak.  I didn't know what else to do, but I was pretty sure I had once seen John and Roy on "Emergency!" put pressure on a gunshot wound, so that's what I did.  I pushed down on his neck as hard as I could, while all around me children were beating the piss out of each other.  Mr. Wayne fought his way to us, and took over.  

I got sent home.  The Principal said the only reason she wasn't suspending me was because Mr. Wayne had told her that, in the midst of all that mayhem and miniaturized violence, I had saved Paul Crapass' life.  Now I know, blood is thicker than water, but all the tea in China could not have kept me out of that mess. 

[This was an exercise in which a friend and I provided each other with first and last sentences and one hour in which to fill in the rest.  Fun!  Here's what she did with the two sentences I gave her.]

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Silver Jacket Man's Gift

There were not many hoboes who could accurately be described as beloved.  Rarer still were the hoboes of African descent who were  beloved equally by both whites and blacks.  The Silver Jacket Man was such a hobo.  

His funeral in October of 1931 was attended by nearly a hundred of his fellow drifters, which was remarkable if for no other reason than the difficulty of getting the news out to that many solitary, widely-dispersed vagrants.  The hoboes had long used simple hieroglyphs, usually in chalk or charcoal, to leave each other messages, but The Silver Jacket Man's friends knew that that alone would not cut it.  Luckily, even the railroad cops, yardmasters and tower operators had come to know this man.  So his friends came up with a simple pictograph of an empty, horizontal jacket, a cross, a date and the letters "MX."  The tower operator at Viaduct Junction in Cumberland agreed to telegraph a description of the symbols to other towers.  The news spread, nearly coast-to-coast, overnight.  The operators scrawled the message on the outside walls of their towers.  Translated, it basically said "The Silver Jacket Man has died.  Funeral on Sunday behind the Mexico tower, Cumberland."

The Silver Jacket Man was widely-known and yes, he wore a silver jacket.  It was technically white, but he had meticulously sewn dozens of tiny rows of fish scales to it, resulting in a silvery shine.  He was one of the oldest known hoboes when he died, aged well into his seventies.  He was the only son of a freed slave.  He was a serene, peaceful man, and his good nature toward his fellow hobo knew no color.  In that, he was decades ahead of his time.  He was also quite gifted.

Rufus Caboose gave the eulogy.

"Friends, Brothers, we have gathered here in the shadow of Mexico tower on this cold autumn afternoon to bid a fond farewell to our dearest friend, The Silver Jacket Man.  It's a hard word, 'farewell.'  Sticks in your throat.  Don't want to say it.  But I say take heart, brethren, for today we celebrate.  Yes, we celebrate the life of this beautiful man.  We are here to thank him for the time he was with us, and for the gift he brought to us - surely from God Almighty His Own Self!  Yes, we are sad.  But so too should we be glad.

My apologies, brothers and sisters.  I am not here to preach at you.  I know that many of you are sure that God has long forgotten us, and some of you have darker thoughts still.  I have been without a home for so long now, I cannot even argue with you.  But surely The Silver Jacket Man was proof that there is still some good in this world, and maybe a few drips of that goodness trickled here - through him - from the next world. 

How else can you explain a colored hobo who had nothing but love for all men?  Looking out at all of your faces, I got to say I had no idea there were so many colored hoboes.  I kind of always thought The Silver Jacket Man and I were the only ones.  I bet it makes him real happy today to see his white friends mixing with his friends of color.  I know it might be hard to tell which is which, under all the grime, but he knows.

I think we all know that his father spent the best years of his life as a slave on a Georgia farm.  Most of us probably know that his father could not let go of his bitterness, even years after being freed.  What The Silver Jacket Man didn't like to talk about was how he fought every day to forgive his father's anger, and how he wished and prayed and worked to make his own way, free of hate.  He believed that no one could hate him without cause, and that the darkness of his skin was not such cause.  He wasn't always right, but he always told me he was right more often than not.

I never heard a man say 'peace' - and mean it - more than The Silver Jacket Man.  And we all know he'd give a stranger his last scoop of beans without even thinking about it.  But that ain't his greatest gift.  I know some of you young folks out there never got to see it, but I bet you've heard about it.  

The Silver Jacket Man was our only barber.  No one else could cut a hobo's rough and terrible hair like he could.  Didn't matter who you were - colored, white, whatever - he knew how to cut through the dirt and the twigs and tangles and years, and make you feel human again.  I don't know how he did it.  No one knows how he did it.  They say he just picked up some old rusty shears one day and taught himself.  He probably saved some of us from deadly infections from the scalp crabs and whatnot.  It was his gift, and he gave it freely, never asking nothing in return.

I know it gave him great joy to be able to give something of value, something unique, to his wandering brothers.  These last few years, his fingers betrayed him, went stiff and sore on him, but he just kept cutting.  Fought through the pain, he did.  He told me once that a good haircut was all he really had to offer, and he swore he'd keep doin' it til his last day on earth.  I think he did that, but I respectfully disagree with him on one thing.

I don't believe cutting our nasty hair was his only gift.  I believe that everything about this man was a gift.  And we who knew him in life are surely blessed.  I will miss him.  I know I'll really miss him, come time for my next haircut.  Farewell, my brother.  I hope I see you again someday."

Friday, May 11, 2012

My Best Friend Growing Up Was Snagglepuss

I was a child of the 80s.  Late-70s and early 80s, actually.  It's not exactly earth-shatteringly original to feel that everything was better during one's formative years, but everything was better during my formative years.  Music was awesome, as disco withered and died, punk was born, and the new wave approached.  Movies were becoming great again, thanks in no small part to George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.  Video games were just taking off.  Kids could still play outside, blocks from home, without fear.

And, despite having only three TV networks and a couple of unaffiliated local channels, we never wanted for something to watch after school.  Fortunately, this was a time before parents started paying too much attention to the content of kid TV programming.  They just trusted the TV people to keep us entertained while not showing us anything inappropriate.  Their faith was justified - mostly.

Most of our best friends in the 3:00-6:00 time slot were harmless.  Bugs Bunny and friends kept us amused and taught us countless catchphrases and some grown-up pranks.  Tom and Jerry beat the living snot out of each other, but were otherwise pretty innocent.  Popeye ate his spinach and saved his friends from a bully.  Scooby Doo and Shaggy were always stoned out of their minds and hallucinating wildly about g-g-g-ghosts, but we were blissfully unaware.  The Pink Panther taught us jazz, and how to be cool under pressure.  He wasn't the only big pink cat, either.  Snagglepuss was the tinted mountain lion equivalent of Bugs Bunny, crackin' wise and getting into all manner of shenanigans.

But some of my favorite shows were the ones that would be considered completely inappropriate, today. The old Little Rascals/Our Gang - full of stereotypes and racism.  Strangely, we were, again, blissfully unaware of most of it.  Still, it did have a strange vibe.  But Heckle and Jeckle, a pair of talking magpies, were incredibly racist - and of questionable sexual orientation.  I was aware that something was up, and I was ten years old and probably didn't know what "gay" meant.  And of course, in terms of cartoon entertainment, it did not make me or my friends uncomfortable, as they weren't really in-your-face with it.  We were busy laughing at the gags and wondering how they could get away with the racist stuff.

I miss those old shows, in spite of their flaws.  Funny is funny, and they taught us nothing, which was EXACTLY what we wanted.  

Join us next time, when we completely over-analyze Sigmund The Sea Monster.

Friday, May 4, 2012

700 Hoboes: Hobo Zero and DDT

There wasn't much that could scare a hobo.  They had hard lives without home or hearth, safety or love.  They were shunned by polite society, chased from any comfort or rest they found - usually by cruel policemen and mean, barking dogs.  When they weren't running for their miserable little lives, they could often be found starving, or dying of rickets or poison ivy.  Death itself didn't frighten most hoboes.  But there was one thing that did:  Hobo Zero.

The mere mention of his name struck fear in the hearts of hoboes from Delaware to California.  Well, not his given name, which was Grover.  Grover is not scary.  Hobo Zero.  That name made the average hobo lose control of his bladder.  This doesn't say much, since the average hobo didn't have particularly good command of his bladder to begin with, but the point is that this man was profoundly frightening.  He was terrifying not for what he was, but for what he was not.  What he was not, according to legend, was alive.

It is widely believed by the hoboes that Grover froze to death in 1927, while sleeping under the trestle that carried the B&O over Wills Creek at Hyndman, Pennsylvania.  They say he rose a day and a half later and continued tramping about the rails from Baltimore to Chicago for the next ten years as a walking corpse.  Hobo Zero, they say, was a zombie.  

Most hoboes had never seen a movie, let alone a 1920s-era horror flick, and many had never heard the word "zombie," but it they knew that a man rising from the dead and staggering about as a reanimated vagabond was surely an abomination.  Creepy stories began to circulate, but almost all of them were second- or third-hand accounts, at best.  All except two.

The first was told by the only witnesses of Hobo Zero's rise from the dead.  The McTavish brothers lived in Hyndman, and played on and around the railroad tracks often, even during the cold Pennsylvania winter.  Henry and James, six-year old twins, had been dropping rocks from the trestle onto the frozen creek below when they spotted the corpse, visible through the railroad ties under the west end of the bridge.  Being boys, and recognizing that it was a hobo, they first hurled a few rocks at the bum and called him names.  When he did not so much as flinch - even after several direct hits - they climbed down the steep embankment and approached  the body, poking it several times with a stick.  He was as gray as ash, and clearly dead.

The twins ran home to fetch their 13-year old brother Thomas, and the three of them returned to the bridge a half-hour later.  The body was not there.  They easily followed its freshly-laid tracks through the snow, along the bank of Wills Creek to a small cave, known to the local kids as "the cave."  Thomas went in first.  They had no torch to light the way, so they stopped about fifteen feet into the cave and waited for their eyes to adjust, straining to see by the ambient light from outside. That's when they heard it.  It couldn't have been but a foot in front of poor Thomas.  Labored, slurping, gurgling breaths.  He turned to accuse his little brothers of putting him on, but the wide-eyed horror on their faces told him that was not the case.  When Thomas turned back to face the sound, the pale dead face of Hobo Zero emerged from the blackness, gasped and growled and lunged forward, all eleven of its teeth reaching for the boy's face.

The McTavish brothers' screams brought the town to life, first the mothers, then the fathers.  Led by the local Constable, all the men in Hyndman - and their dogs - tracked the undead hobo for days, but never found him.

The other credible eyewitness account of a Hobo Zero sighting came some four years later, in the summer of 1931, when hobo Dan'l Dinsmore Tackadoo ran afoul of the wandering dead man in a track-side garbage dump near Cincinnati.  Dan'l Dinsmore Tackadoo's testimony is considered solid on account of his reputation for honesty.  He described - consistently and repeatedly over several decades - hearing a dog barking, then yelping, then crying near the Pennsylvania RR freight yard.  He told of following the waning whimpers into the adjacent trash dump until he came upon a particularly raggedy hobo, hunched over the eviscerated remains of a fat Saint Bernard.  

Tackadoo reported vomiting before he could say a word to the man, who lurched to his feet and turned, bloody canine entrails dangling from his rotting mouth, and snarled at him, sounding like a grizzly bear.  Hobo Zero lunged at him, but Tackadoo swore he landed a mighty right hook on the dead man's left cheek.  He said his fist went through Zero's face, taking his lower jawbone with it, but the zombie only paused to stare at his wayward bone for a moment, then came at him again.  Dan'l turned and ran, found a group of men at the yard's east tower, eventually convinced them that his story was worth investigating and returned to the dump with them, the yard inspector and a city cop.

They found most of the dog and a trail of bloody footprints, and again a search was launched, complete with a pack of hounds with vengeance on their minds.  Again, Hobo Zero was not found.

By then, the zombie tramp's legend was commonly known among the hoboes, so they had no problem believing Tackadoo.  "Why would I lie about something like that?" he would ask, and they would nod in agreement.  Indeed, why would he?