Herbert Stangle, either 98 or 100 years old, told me a little bit about his life. I was wearing a t-shirt bearing the sleeping cat logo of the Chessie System Railroad, and he brightened considerably when he saw me. At first, I assumed that that was because he was mistaking me for a loved one, perhaps one of his grandsons, but after five solid minutes of TRAINS, TRAINS, TRAINS, I knew better.
"You know what a hobo is?" he asked me, his voice strong, but full of either 98 or 100 years of grit and gravel.
HA! Do I know what a hobo is.
"I dropped out of high school and left home in 1931, and I became a hobo..."
"Uh oh," I interrupted. "Your parents?"
"What about 'em?" he coughed.
"Were they, you know, alive when you left?"
He looked at me as if I might have been one of those therapy dogs that frequently visited him. "Alive? Of course they were alive - well, my ma was. What's wrong with you, son?"
"Nothing. I just... I've heard some stories about hoboes, and their parents often meet the most awful fates."
"Mine didn't. My pop died of a heart attack when I was a baby, and my ma raised me. She worked hard, and gave me and my sister a fine childhood. She was my hero."
"Sorry," I said. "I shouldn't have assumed. So, why did you leave, then?"
"Yes. Pop was in the ice box in the garage, and when it broke down and Ma couldn't afford to get it fixed, I tell you, he stunk like hell on earth. I couldn't stand to live there for another minute."
I nodded sympathetically. "Of course."
He continued. "Out on the road, some fellas survived by their wits, some by their brawn, others by sheer luck."
"How did you survive?"
"By sleight of hand, mostly," he sighed. "I did magic tricks - cards and shell game stuff - and a lot of pickpocket work. They called me Ambidextrous Stang, I was so good."
"Are you ambidextrous?"
"Nope. Just really, really good at misdirection. I tried to only steal what I needed, but it was a kind of addiction. After a while, I couldn't stop. I stole watches and lint and wallets, pocket change, cigarettes - you name it. One time, I lifted a hundred-ounce can of kidney beans from a hobo's bindle. Got away clean, too."
"That's impressive. How'd you do it?"
The old man got quiet and stared at the arm of his wheelchair for so long, I was sure he had passed away, right there in front of me. Then, he drew a long, rattly, 98- or 100-year old breath. "The trick is to make your mark's brain focus somewhere else - away from the item you're trying to lift from him. I put my hand on his shoulder and left it there - too long to be polite - and squeezed it too much. He never knew what hit him."
"Wow. Did you ever get caught?"
"Oh, young man - I got busted all the time. It was just part of the game. In the 30s and 40s, it was easy. A night in the clink, a shower, a hot meal, and off you went. It started to change in the 50s. The hoboes were dying off, or going back to the world, and people got less... tolerant." His voice trailed off.
I sensed that he was tired, but maybe too polite or too lonely to stop, but I was searching for some sort of conclusion to his tale. "So, did you stop with the pickpocket stuff? Go back to the real world, or what?"
"I did not. I tried to. Got a job building the Class J's for the Norfolk and Western - most elegant locomotives this country ever produced - but I couldn't break the habit. In Roanoke one night, I stole a man's jeweled wristwatch, got busted, and spent the next twenty-five years in and out of prison. The hobo life was a breeze, compared to those years. I got out for good in 1975, and got a job doing card tricks on the boardwalk in Ocean City, Maryland. Then the 80s and those video game arcades came along - and that damnable Ripley's Believe It Or Not, and I sort of just... gave up. Been in this dump ever since - going on thirty years, now. I think they're mad at me for living this long."
I didn't know what to say, so I said nothing for a few minutes. After a while, I thanked him for sharing his story. I stood up and shook his frail 98- or 100-year old hand. He smiled kindly and chuckled to himself as I turned to leave.
"Young man?" he said. "Is this your lint?"
I turned back and found him grinning happily, holding my iPhone in a trembling hand.
"Thanks," I said, fighting the urge to be annoyed, and patting my wallet in its pocket, just to be sure.
"No, no, son. Thank you!" he said.
|N&W Class J #611 - Photo by Joe Scott, 1992|
Another prompted story, thanks to John Hodgman and his marvelous hobo names, and STUDIO 30-PLUS, and their "sleight of hand" prompt.