Thursday, November 1, 2012

Tarnose Cohen Saves The Day

For all that we have learned about America's hoboes, they are still a people shrouded in mystery, their ways often hiding behind misconceptions, myths and outright lies.  One widely-held belief was that hobo nation was comprised entirely of men who had been kicked out of civilized society, booted from jobs, families or homes.  Not necessarily.  Not all hoboes were forced against their will into lives of destitute homeless wandering and a lint-based economy.  Some, as we have already seen, actually chose the hobo life, willingly walking away from job, home, family and friends alike.  

Obviously, some walked away more willingly than others.  Among the voluntary subset of hobo nation, there were a few who happily RAN from their old lives, who had always dreamed of becoming hoboes, who loved the lifestyle and wouldn't think of ever returning to civilized society.

Another popular misconception is that our hoboes did all their hoboing during the Great Depression.  Not true.  There were hoboes before the first train left the first station, and they still exist today (although in very small numbers, and arguably bearing little resemblance to the drifters of yore).

Tarnose Cohen is an example of both of these exceptions.  He ran away from his home in Philadelphia at sixteen, as soon as he learned what a hobo was.  Also, he was known to wander track-side from 1943, well into the 60s.

He loved the rails.  Loved the trains and the men who worked them.  Loved camping under bridges and in the woods.  He even loved his fellow vagabonds, although none of them cared much for a hobo with love in his heart.  Above all else, though, he loved smelling things.  He smelled everything - big things and small, near things and far.   

Naturally, this is what led him to be called Tarnose Cohen.  Tarnose, because he frequently put dirty things - or simply dirt - to his nose in order to get a real good whiff, and one day he had done this with a tarry glob of the creosote used to coat and preserve wooden railroad ties, and it never completely came off.  He ended up with Cohen - his given name was Morgan - because his nose was exceptionally large and to the first few hoboes he had met, it "looked Jewish."  This never seemed to Tarnose to be a racist thing - it was simply descriptive and, he had to admit, rather accurate.  The few Jewish hoboes he met along the tracks always seemed a little disappointed when he told them he was a Methodist, born and raised.

 Like most hoboes, Tarnose had few real friends, but he did enjoy a strange notoriety as a human bloodhound.  When a dispute arose among his comrades - something that could only be resolved by way of an acute sense of smell - he would be called upon to investigate, and sometimes to mediate.  

Sometimes it was simple.  He would be asked to identify types of dead birds or stolen meat or hash or liquor.  Occasionally, if a group traveling together came upon a junction with which they were not familiar, they relied on Tarnose to identify the intersecting railroad by the smell of its ballast or ties or even its steel.

Other incidents called not so much for his odor-identifying prowess, but his incredible olfactory sensitivity. 
When Huge Crybaby McWeepy had camped one night with Poo-Knickers Elias, only to wake the next morning alone and missing everything but the shirt on his back, Tarnose was called to track down the thief.  It took him all of an hour to locate the dirty pants and their master, hiding in a small cave in a hillside near the Schuykill River, about a half-mile from the railroad.

Tarnose Cohen's greatest day, and the day that brought him, however briefly, closest to rejoining the real world, was in 1951, when the Webster baby went missing on a family picnic at Lake Altoona, near the famous Horseshoe Curve on the Pennsylvania mainline.  To be fair, he wasn't so much a baby as an active two-year old toddler, but folks back then called children babies until they were upwards of five years old.

The town of Altoona had only one police dog, and she had a cold and would have had trouble identifying a steak held before her clogged nose.  There were plenty of other dogs in town, and they and their owners earnestly tried to track the child, but they could not agree on a scent, scattering in a dozen directions and wandering aimlessly for an hour, finding nothing.  Tarnose was roused from his nap under a tree near the curve, and offered a one hundred dollar reward for locating the kid in one piece.

It was a windy fall day, and it had rained the night before, so for a  half-hour he could smell nothing but wet leaves.  Eventually, he found the tracks of all of the dogs who had crisscrossed the hills earlier.  He was about to give up when his big tar-stained nose caught a whiff of licorice.  The boy had been eating the stuff.  Done.  Within minutes, the Webster family was whole again.  The kid had been hiding in a tree, scared by all the dogs and the commotion.  The family reneged on the reward offer, however, on account of Tarnose Cohen's status as a dirty filthy stinking vagrant who would surely drink the reward as fast as he possibly could.

Tarnose was fine with that.  He and his golden sniffer had done something good, something worthwhile.  Also, the incident served to reaffirm his lifestyle choice.  He was all that he wanted to be.  All, of course, except drunk.  He absolutely would have drunk every cent of that reward money.

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