Thursday, July 5, 2012

From The Pen Of Joshua Lawrence Breslin- “Down And Out In America-Part II”

Click on the headline to link to a YouTube film clip of Hazel Dickens performing Bob Dylan’s Only A Hobo.

Only A Hobo by Bob Dylan


As I was out walking on a corner one day
I spied an old hobo, in a doorway he lay
His face was all grounded in the cold sidewalk floor
And I guess he’d been there for the whole night or more

Only a hobo, but one more is gone
Leavin’ nobody to sing his sad song
Leavin’ nobody to carry him home
Only a hobo, but one more is gone

A blanket of newspaper covered his head
As the curb was his pillow, the street was his bed
One look at his face showed the hard road he’d come
And a fistful of coins showed the money he bummed

Only a hobo, but one more is gone
Leavin’ nobody to sing his sad song
Leavin’ nobody to carry him home
Only a hobo, but one more is gone

Does it take much of a man to see his whole life go down
To look up on the world from a hole in the ground
To wait for your future like a horse that’s gone lame
To lie in the gutter and die with no name?

Only a hobo, but one more is gone
Leavin’ nobody to sing his sad song
Leavin’ nobody to carry him home
Only a hobo, but one more is gone

Copyright © 1963, 1968 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1991, 1996 by Special Rider Music

I woke with a start that dreary late October night, early morning really from the look of the lightened sky, last cold night or so, before drifting south then heading west to warmer climes for “winter camp.” Yes, I had the routine down pretty pat back then. Summering in the Cambridges and then wintering in the Keys, or in some Pancho Villa bandito arroyo in desert California, maybe Joshua Tree. But just that minute my summer was interrupted by a loud sound of snoring and short breathe coughing from some fellow resident who had parked himself about twenty feet from my exclusive turf.

Hell, I didn’t mean to tease you about my itinerary (although the gist of schedule was real enough, damn real), or about my mayfair swell digs. The fact is that back then I had been in kind of a bad streak and so sweet home Eliot Bridge right next to the Charles River, but not too next to Harvard Square had been my “home” of late then while I prepared for those sunnier climes just mentioned. Those last few previous months have been tough though, first losing that swell paying job “diving for pearls” at Elsie’s, then losing my apartment when the landlord decided, legally decided, that six months arrears was all that he could take, and then losing Janie over some spat, and getting so mad I “took” a couple of hundred dollars from her pocketbook as I went out the not-coming-back door that last time. So there I was at “home” waiting it out.

I had a pretty good set-up under the bridge, I thought. Far enough away from the Square so that the druggies and drunks wouldn’t dream of seeking shelter so far from their base. But close enough for me to try to panhandle a stake to head west with in rich folks Harvard Square (although apparently the rich those days preferred to tithe in other ways than to part with their spare change to, uh, itinerants). And, moreover, the bridge provided some protection against the chilly elements, and a stray nosey cop or two ready to run a stray itinerant in order to fill his or her quota on the run-in sheet.

All that precious planning had gone for naught though because some snoring be-draggled newspaper strewn hobo had enough courage to head a few hundred yards up river and disturb my home. There and then I decided I had better see what the guy looked like, see if he was dangerous, and see if I could get him the hell out of there so I could get back to sleep for a couple more hours before the damn work-a-day world traffic made this spot too noisy to sleep in. Besides, as is the nature of such things on the down and out American road (and in other less exotic locales as well), he might have other companions just ready to put down stakes here before I am ready to head west.

I unfolded my own newspaper covering, folded up my extra shirt pillow and put it in my make-shift ruck-sack, and rolled (rolled for the umpteenth time) my ground covering and placed it next to my ruck-sack. No morning ablutions to brighten breath and face were necessary this early, not in this zip code. I was thus ready for guests. I ambled over to the newspaper pile where the snoring had come from and tapped the papers with a stick that I had picked up along the way (never, never use your hand or you might lose your life if the rustling newspaper causes an unseen knife-hand to cut you six ways to Sunday. Don’t laugh it almost happened to me once, and only once.).

He stirred, stirred again, and then opened his eyes saying “Howdy, my name is Boulder Shorty, what’s yours?” (He later told me he that he had never been to Boulder, could not have picked it out on a map if he was given ten chances, and was six feet two inches tall so go figure on monikers. The way they got hanged on a guy was always good for a story in some desolate railroad fireside camp before I got wise enough to stay away from those sites, far away.) I told him mine, my road moniker, “Be-Bop Benny.” He laughed, muttering about beatniks and faux kid hobos in thrall of some Jack London or Jack Kerouac or something vision between short, violent coughs.

Funny about different tramps, hobos, and bums (and there are differences, recognized differences just like in regular society. We, Boulder Shorty and I, were hobos, the kings of the river, ravine, and railroad trestle.). Some start out gruff, tough and mean, street hard mean. Other like Shorty, kings, just go with the flow. And that go with the flow for a little while anyway (a little while being very long in hobo company) kept us together for a while, a few weeks while before that short violent cough caught up with old Shorty (you didn’t have to know medicine, or much else, to know that was the small echo of the death-rattle coming up).

In those few weeks Boulder Shorty taught me more about ‘bo-ing, more about natural things, more about how to take life one day at a time than anybody else, my father included. About staying away from bums and tramps, the guys who talked all day about this and that scan they pulled in about 1958 and hadn’t gotten over it yet. About guys who took your money, your clothes, hell, and your newspaper covering in the dead of night just to do it, especially to young hobo kings. And staying alone, staying away from the railroad, river, ravine camps that everybody talked about being the last refuge for the wayward but were just full of disease, drunks and dips. (I let him talk on about that although that was one thing I was already hip to, a river camp was where I almost got my throat handed back to me by some quick knife tramp that I mentioned before about disturbing guys).

Yes, Boulder Shorty had some street smart wisdom for a guy who couldn’t have been past forty, at least that’s what I figured from the times he gave in his stories. (Don’t try to judge a guy on the road’s age because between the drugs or booze, the bad food, the weather-beaten road, and about six other miseries most guys looked, and acted, like they were about twenty years older. Even I, before a shower to take a few days dirt off and maybe hadn’t eaten for a while, looked older than my thirty years then.) But most of all it was the little tricks of the road that he taught and showed me that held me to him.

Like how my approach, my poor boy hat in hand approach, was all wrong in working the Harvard Square panhandle. You had to get in their faces, shout stuff at them, and block their passage so that the couple of bucks they practically threw at you was far easier to do than have you in their faces. Christ, he collected about twenty bucks in an hour one day, one day when he was coughing pretty badly. And a ton of cigarette, good cigarettes too, that he asked for when some guys (and a few gals) pled no dough. It was art, true art that day.

Or about how a hobo king need never go hungry in any city once he had the Sallies, U/U good and kindly neighbor feeding schedule down. No so much those places, any bum or tramp could figure that out, and wait in line, but to “volunteer” and get to know the people running the thing and get invited to their houses as sturdy yeoman “reclamation” projects. A vacation, see. Best of all was him showing me how to work the social service agencies for ten here, and twenty there, as long as you could hold the line of patter straight and not oversell your misery. Tramps and bums need not apply for this kind of hustle, go back and jiggle your coffee cup in front of some subway station, and good luck.

[He also taught me the ins and outs of jack-rolling, what you would call mugging, if things got really bad. Jack-rolling guys, bigger and smaller than you but I’d rather keep that knowledge to myself.]

Funny we never talked about women, although I tried once to talk to him about Janie. He cut me short, not out of disrespect I don’t think, but he said they were all Janie in the end. He said talking about women was too tough for guys on the road with nothing but drifter, grifter, midnight sifter guys to stare at. Or looking too close at women when on the bum was bad for those longings for home things when you couldn’t do anything about it anyway. Although he did let on once that he was partial to truck stop road side diner waitresses serving them off the arm when he was in the clover (had dough) and was washed up enough to present himself at some stop along the road. Especially the ones who piled the potatoes extra high or double scooped the bread pudding as acts of kindred kindness. One night near the end, maybe a week before, time is hard to remember on the meshed together bum, he started muttering about some Phoebe Snow, some gal all dressed in white, and he kind of smiled, and then the coughing started again.

I tried to get Boulder Shorty moving south with me (and had delayed my own departure to stick with him for as long as I figured I could get south before the snows hit) but he knew, knew deep in his bones, that his time was short, that he wanted to finish up in Boston (not for any special reason, he was from Albany, but just because he was tired of moving) and was glad of my company.

It was funny about how I found out about his Albany roots. One night, a couple of nights before the end, coughing like crazy, he seemingly had to prove to me that he was from Albany. I had mentioned that I was mad for William Kennedy’s novels, Ironweed and the like, that had just come out a couple of years before. He went on and on about the Phelans this and that. Jesus he knew the books better than I did. He say that is what made hobos the intelligentsia of the road. Some old Wobblie folksinger told him that once when they heading west riding the rails on the Denver & Rio Grande. When holed up in some godforsaken library to get out of the weather hobos read rather than just curled up on some stuffed chair. Yes, Boulder Shorty was a piece of work. He was always saying stuff like that.

Then one morning, one too cold Eliot Bridge morning, I tried to shake his newspaper kingdom and got no response. Old Shorty had taken his last ride, his last train smoke and dreams ride he called it. I left him there like he wanted me to and like was necessary on the hobo road. I made a forlorn anonymous call to the Cambridge cops on my way out of town. But on those few occasion when I pass some potter’s field I tip my fingers to my head in his memory, his one less hobo king memory.

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