I’ve spent the last thirty years of my life studying the dying American institution of the rail-riding, trash-can-raiding, squirrel-eating hobo. I’d never met one in person until I ran into Hubert Johnson Hackensack in Saginaw, Michigan after he darted in front of my car. Soon we got into a long and animated conversation and he told me his story. While he declined to be interviewed and expressly made clear that he wanted to keep his story private, I tape-recorded our discussion and will publish it in my upcoming book Hubert: From Sea to Shining Sea. Because, really, he’s a hobo and can’t read, let alone hire a lawyer.
In this excerpt, Mr. Hackensack tells of the cutthroat life of the Depression-era hobo:
“A man’s bindle is his life. You don’t go stealin’ another man’s bindle. One time, out near Sioux City, another hobo, went by Jim, we was sharin’ a box car on the ol’ Central line, anyway I woke up to the soun’ of scurryin’ and, sure enough, Jim was in my bindle tryin’ to take my saltines. Well, ya just don’t do that, so I grabbed his bindle and whacked him a good one upside the head. Then he goes grabs my bindle and we fight, bindle to bindle in that boxcar until both of us were exhausted, breathin’ hard while leaning against our bindles, like we just swapped some ol’ boots for a loose woman’s lovin’. Anyways, Ol’ Jim calls a truce and he gave me back my bindle. He then lean over to shake my hand and I kick him ‘tween the legs and rammed my bindle right ‘gainst his throat ’til he stopped strugglin’. After I pitched his body off out the boxcar in an Iowa cornfield, I go rootin’ through his bindle and find a whole box of saltines in his bindle. A whole damned box of saltines in his bindle.”
But the hobo’s life was not all hardship and bindle-wars:
“Best town to stopover in, best town had to’ve been Dubuque. Dubuque always knew how to treat us right. Their depot there, the station, the inspectors always check the flatcars and cattle cars first, for they know that only the Irish’re hidin’ in the cattle cars. Always sew yer money up in the linin’ of yer jacket when ya ride the rails. Keeps the Irish from getting’ their grubby gold graspin’ paws on it. Anyway, the inspectors give us honest folk time to scoot out and into town and I tell ya Dubuque had the finest lookin’ women I done ever seen. And most womenfolk won’t bed with hobos on accounta we bein’ hobos an’ all, but these ladies did. We call ’em ‘Bindle-Bawds.’ Anyway, one of them wenches goes an’ swivels down right on me and starts sayin’ words that would make even the hardiest of hobos, like Grinnin’ Bobcat Jackson, blush, sayin’ all like what she wanted to do with my bindle. Only cost me a quarter and two cans a salt-pork for the privilege, too. Ended up regrettin’ it though. Hard enough takin’ a piss outta a boxcar without it feelin’ like a porcupine done crawled up yer pecker.”
While contemporary tales of hobo adventures often portray the hobo lifestyle as a lonely one, according to Hubert that’s far from the case:
“A group of hobos; myself, Ol’ Jim ‘fore I killed him, Dirty Dirk Jones, Humphrey Hump-back Daniels, Dainty Jon Peeps, and a-course can’t forget Percival the Kraut, we all meet up a coupla times a year in Oskaloosa. We’d get together an’ trade hobo secrets an’ swap hobo tales an’ decide on which Bindle-Bawds offered the best bindle-jobs, if ya know what I’m getting’ at. After a few swigs of white lightnin’ we begin’ talkin’ ’bout the great thinkers. Dainty Jon would always go statin’ that Kant’s Categorical Imperative was the best way to deal with all hobo-kind, whereas Dirty Dirk kept on harpin’ on Mill’s theories of utilitarianism. Myself bein’ a Hume man, I wouldn’t stand for any a that so I shoved their heads into the fire an’ yelled at ’em ‘How’s that for hobo philosophy?’ Mill? Kant? I’d bet pork to beans on Hume any day. Flame-headed bastards. After that we got into a fartin’ contest. And caught typhoid.”
I hope you enjoyed getting a small insight into the genius of an American Hobo like Hubert Hackensack. He’s a dying breed. Literally. Riding behind coal cars catches up to you. But remember, if you want to hear the real stories, the edgy stories, the stories of backwoods sodomy in exchange for bourbon and illicit uptown hobo racetracks; you’ll have to read my book. It’s due out from Harcourt Brace Jovanovich this Christmas.