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Oh, to Live the Life of a Hobo

Updated on April 6, 2017
kenneth avery profile image

Kenneth has been a member of HubPages for five years. He is retired from a 23-year career in the weekly newspaper business.

Two hobos walking along railroad tracks after being put off a train. One is carrying a bindle.
Two hobos walking along railroad tracks after being put off a train. One is carrying a bindle. | Source
John Steinbeck   Of Mice and Men, 1937.
John Steinbeck Of Mice and Men, 1937. | Source

A 'bo is

a shorter name for a hobo who could be a migratory worker or homeless vagabond, especially one who is impoverished. The term originated in the Western—probably Northwestern—United States around 1890. Unlike a "tramp", who works only when forced to, and a "bum", who does not work at all, a "hobo" is a traveling worker.

The True Story

Of Mice and Men is a novella written by author John Steinbeck. Published in 1937, it tells the story of George Milton and Lennie Small, two displaced migrant ranch workers, who move from place to place in California in search of new job opportunities during the Great Depression in the United States.

Based on Steinbeck's own experiences as a bindlestiff in the 1920s (before the arrival of the Okies he would vividly describe in The Grapes of Wrath), the title is taken from Robert Burns' poem "To a Mouse", which read: "The best laid schemes o' mice an' men / Gang aft agley". (The best laid schemes of mice and men / Often go awry.)

Required reading in many schools. Of Mice and Men has been a frequent target of censors for vulgarity and what some consider offensive and racist language; consequently, it appears on the American Library Association's list of the Most Challenged Books of 21st Century.

Hobo signs, California, c. 1870s
Hobo signs, California, c. 1870s | Source
Napa Valley California more than twenty five years a bindle stiff walked from mines to the lumber camps,
Napa Valley California more than twenty five years a bindle stiff walked from mines to the lumber camps, | Source
A man hitching a freight train who might be venturing from town to town to get gainful employment.
A man hitching a freight train who might be venturing from town to town to get gainful employment. | Source
San Francisco Examiner Photographic Archive of a hobo jungle.
San Francisco Examiner Photographic Archive of a hobo jungle. | Source
Contrary to popular opinion, this is a homeless man, not a hobo. You must know the difference.
Contrary to popular opinion, this is a homeless man, not a hobo. You must know the difference. | Source
Hobo killing a turtle in a hobo jungle trying to make turtle soup.
Hobo killing a turtle in a hobo jungle trying to make turtle soup. | Source
Photograph of a ragged hobo sitting on a fence circa 1920
Photograph of a ragged hobo sitting on a fence circa 1920 | Source
This is a true, sure enough, genuine female hobo.
This is a true, sure enough, genuine female hobo. | Source

Now if I Were

to tell you that living as a hobo in the 1920's was glamorous, clean-shaven, nicely-dressed, I would telling you and out and out lie. Not a gentile fib, but a cold hearted lie. The hobo was more than a survivor than he was an adventurist.

When The Great Depression of 1929, the rich lost fortunes and the average almost starved to death if it weren't for the good hearted people in some cities who survived by a cup of soup and a crust of bread. There was no such a thing as people being elite, middle or poor classed people--all stood in the same cold, windy line waiting for a steaming cup of nourishment and even that had to go for an entire family who did not even have a Welfare System in order to live.

But cold, depressing, and rough as it was, I have to believe (in my heart) that I would have loved to been able to "ride the rails" and visit from town-to-town while doing odd jobs to get a meager wage in order to hitch another train to get to "greener pastures."

Truthfully, many 'bo's died. Many fared decently as they struggled tooth and nail to keep a roof over their head and a few groceries to eat.

Now let's talk about the 10 reasons why I would have loved to lived as a hobo.

10.) Sleeping and naps: were an easy task if I had lived as a hobo. If I were sharp enough to have finely-honed hobo skills, I could have taken my pick of any hobo jungle or maybe in a cottonfield to catch a few zzzzz's without worry of being arrested or harasssed by the authorities.

9.) Social skills: were not as easy and many thought. Some hobos got into scuffles and jailhouse sentences for fighting or public drunkness. But not me. I would have been humble-hearted and soft spoken as to not be thought to be a troublemaker. If I did that, I could have made a lot of friends in the various towns where hobos congregated.

8.) Taking one's: pride would have went a long way if I were padding the sidewalks looking for a job or maybe a quick hand-out from a generous back door restaurant. It's all in how I conducted myself. If I had kept my head bowed down--looking forlorn, people would not respect me, the hobo. But if I had taken some pride in myself and smiled although I wasn't employed or broke, my looking positive would have given me a job of washing dishes or sweeping a cafe and always saying thank you to the restaurant owner.

7.) Tourism: had its pluses in the Great Depression. A lot of hobos went to finding work when they got it even if it meant taking up roots from their families and making a fresh start although it meant making new friends and doing what they could to make a living and besides, "riding the rails" (hitching a freight train) is a great way to take a restful nap.

6.) Romance: was evident, although a minute amount, in the 1940's. There were many women who were hobos not because they loved to roam around, but most women had disabled husbands and kids with mouths to feed, so these enterprising women took to traveling out of town in order to get jobs. Believe it or not, poverty knows no race or respect. In all reality, a lot of married ladies fell in love with another male hobo and made a life for herself. Question: is it proper to call a female hobo a "hoboette?"

5.) I would have: loved to be a hobo for there were no bills to speak of that were due every first of the month--rent, grocries and utilities. All I would have been able to do is catch a chicken or two, or maybe catch myself a fish out of some creek and that way I could eat free and not pay a power bill. But in that timeframe, I would be void of a color television, internet, cellphone and other luxuries.

4.) Making good friends: would not have been a burden. I would simply get myself a nice dog or cat and there you have it, a pet named "Rory" or maybe "Tom." Just as long as I shared the food and fare with my dog or cat and talk about beating loneliness, a dog or cat would be perfect for life on the road.

3.) Housing: for me, the hobo, would be some doing. I would have slept underneath a bridge as long as the cold wind wasn't whipping around. Or I could have negotiated for myself to sweep a few floors just to sleep in someone's basment. Times were tough, I am telling you, but if you were willing to be industrious, you could survive.

2.) Networking: for hobos were not as tough as you thought. You make one or two genuine friends in a hobo jungle or two and before you know it, you have four or five good hobos and in a few years, you can get a meal, a decent wardrobe and shoes just for the asking. But you have to be able to be able to barter some goods or services just to help the person giving you a suit of clothes to go out on Saturday night.

1.) Writing: would be a natural job for any hobo. If I were that hobo, I would be able to barter a notebook and a few pencils, and maybe I could be another "John Boy Walton," (Richard Thomas) on CBS Television's "The Waltons," as told by writer, Earl Hamner.

Happy traveling, friends.

And good night, Reno, Nevada.

A few of the slang used in the 1940s, hobo lifestyle

 
 
 
Angelina
 
Young inexperienced child
Banjo
 
Small portable frying pan
Barnacle
 
Person stayin on a job longer than a year
Big House
 
Prison
California blankets
 
Clothing wrapped; tied to a stick
Blowed-in-the-grass
 
Genuine, trustworthy individual
'Bo
 
Hobo, vagabond
Bone polisher
 
Mean dog held in junkyard
Bullets
 
Beans
Bull
 
Railroad officer
California blankets
 
Newspapers used for blankets
Calling in
 
Using another's campfire
Catch the West Bound
 
To die
Cover the moon
 
Sleep in the open
Doggin'
 
Go by train or bus
Flip
 
Board moving trains
Flop
 
Cheap motel room
Glad rags
 
A 'bo's best clothing
Jungle buzzard
 
One who preys on a 'bo in a hobo jungle

Writer's note:

Although the middle section of this piece is somewhat humorous and for good reason. But the lingo and terms in the section at the bottom along with the top of this piece are all true. I sincerely hope that you have all enjoyed this hub. Thanks, Kenneth

© 2017 Kenneth Avery

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    • kenneth avery profile image
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      Kenneth Avery 5 months ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      Dearest Sakina :)

      Thanks so very much for your sweet comment.

      I loved your remark about a girl hobo being a 'hoboette.'

      Your sense of creativity is liken to a razor's edge.

      I applaud you, Sakina.

      Love your writing and write me anytime.

    • SakinaNasir53 profile image

      Sakina Nasir 6 months ago from Kuwait

      Wow! This hub was surely interesting to read and I loved reading about the reasons why you could have been a good hobo. I really admire your ingenuity with the topics you bring forth. Keep it up dear friend! :)

      I think hoboette sounds like a girl hobo, LOL.

    • kenneth avery profile image
      Author

      Kenneth Avery 7 months ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      Hi, whonunuwho,

      You are truly a good guy by the tone of your nice and honest comment about the Mom and Pop store and cotton mill.

      I know that after I graduated high school, the country store might have been okay, but I went to work in a mobile home factory and worked there for two years and let me tell you, not being able (financially) to go to college, I had to work and this was a culture shock.

      The people were two-faced, taking advantage of young people like me and on it goes.

      It wasn't until I married my wife on June 28, 1975, that I left Toll-Gate Garment Corp., in Hamilton, Ala., (the hub about "Ron" and myself talking about "Sherry") and then I landed in the weekly newspaper business and stayed there for two separate newspapers for a total of 24 years.

      I loved the work--so much so that fear of losing these other jobs kept me working and learning to be an advantage for the company.

      I left there in 2000 and the rest is mostly being diagnosed with Fibromyalgia in 2003 and could never work again.

      I hope that I haven't bored you too much, but man, I still live that Mom and Pop store. I really do.

      Thanks for your wonderful friendship whonunuwho.

      Write anytime.

    • whonunuwho profile image

      whonunuwho 7 months ago from United States

      Hey, Kenneth. That would have been a great adventure. I worked in a Mom and Pop grocery store in high school, and a cotton mill later on while I was going to high school and junior college. I had to earn my way and these days some kids think they are entitled. Bless them all, they deserve better in his country

      than we help them out with. Blessings Kenneth and family. whonu

    • kenneth avery profile image
      Author

      Kenneth Avery 7 months ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      Hi, whonunuwho,

      Possibly both of us could have made it on the road.

      When I was a senior in high school, I worked for a country store and gas station to get my last two units for graduation, but the man and woman who owned the store, told me that when he and a buddy were discharged from the Navy somewhere in South Carolina, they made themselves a vow to hitch-hike all the way to California before they grew up and had families. This would be a treasure trove of memories for them both as the years went by.

      He recalled eating green apples and his buddy ate too much that he came down with a terrible stomach ache and one of their odd jobs was dish washing, of course.

      But they also slept out in the open many times and oh, the talks they had.

      The man who owned the store is still with us, thank God.

      I don't know what happened to his buddy.

      I guess that I am afraid to know.

      Nice comments.

      Write soon.

    • kenneth avery profile image
      Author

      Kenneth Avery 7 months ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      Robert,

      Thanks for the sweet comment about Jimmy Rogers and Boxcar Willy. Loved those guys.

      I also loved how Merle Haggard recorded and told the story about Rogers loving the railroad, hobos, and other facet of his life.

      But the most amazing facts were when Rogers had TB and was dying, but not before he would record a track, then rest in the cot in a studio until every song was finished.

      When he died, the engineer kept the whistle to a low squawl all the way from Tennessee to Meridian, Miss., to where he is buried in the shade of the old boxcar.

      Write me anytime.

    • kenneth avery profile image
      Author

      Kenneth Avery 7 months ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      Elijah,

      Nice thoughts; comments.

      Write soon.

    • kenneth avery profile image
      Author

      Kenneth Avery 7 months ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      Road Monkey,

      When you talk about Steinbeck, you automatically have my attention. He was a true literary master along with J.D. Salinger with "Catcher in The Rye," and these were real writers back in the day before censorship was so stern.

      This much is right.

      Censorship was not necessarily about sexy words and ideas, but one had to be watchful about anti-government clubs and ideas.

      I loved your comments.

      Write me soon.

    • kenneth avery profile image
      Author

      Kenneth Avery 7 months ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      Hi, Ruby,

      Thank you kindly for the support about "me" making a good hobo. I would have loved that life IF I had been sharp enough in the skills area to NOT steal from people, but find an odd job or two and write stories as I travel along. That would have been the life for me.

      Take care and write soon.

    • kenneth avery profile image
      Author

      Kenneth Avery 7 months ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      Dearest Abbigayle,

      Please do NOT apologize for your long comment. I loved every word. Every word that you wrote was the truth and every interesting.

      Real truth is why such "Of Mice and Men" were written. Tales, regales, and nighting gales, of such were a "Bo's" life.

      Enjoyed you talking about your dad and how he sacrificed to stay with her.

      You could go on talking about hobos and such and I urge you to write a book, a serious book, and maybe one day, an upgraded screenplay.

      Why not?

      I also want to Thank You Sincerely for your Sweet Following. I will send you a Thank You email when I get finished with some of my projects.

      I appreciate YOU so much.

      Write soon.

    • Abbigayle profile image

      Abbigayle 7 months ago from California

      Ok, first things first...The Waltons is one of my all time favorite shows. I have to admit I own all 9 seasons and the extra specials, also the board game and a Dew Drop Inn t shirt. Haha , things I've never admitted out loud. Next, love your hub, and third, this was a very informative read. Until now I never would have known it, but my dad was a hobo. This was not in the great depression that he was a hobo but in more recent times...I guess until the 2000's when he stayed home to take care of his mother until she passed and then until he settled down and had another daughter, (talk about starting all over), that he is raising as a single father. Up until those times he carried a "tramp" pack and hiked or hitchhiked across the US doing odd jobs in each place he landed. Sometimes he would obtain a vehicle (a Dr pepper truck, vw van) and live in and travel out of it. He's worked as a chef in Louisiana to an appliance repairman in California. I just always called him a traveler, but in truth I now know he was a Bo. Sorry for the long comment, I should have probably turned it into a hub. :) I truly enjoyed this article and will read many more. Thank you!

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Fuller 7 months ago from Southern Illinois

      I have no doubts whatsoever that you would've made a good hobo. I remember my mother feeding hobos on our front porch. ( We lived close to the RR tracks ) I really didn't know there were female hobos. I enjoyed this hobo trip!

    • RoadMonkey profile image

      RoadMonkey 7 months ago

      I loved John Steinbeck's novels, Grapes of Wrath and Mice and Men and the others too. It was a hard time and I think it might have been hard to survive as a hobo but like you, I think I could enjoy parts of it.

    • The0NatureBoy profile image

      Elijah A Alexander Jr 7 months ago from Washington DC

      That is well written and your 10 reasons are profound expectations of what you "would have done." Except that you would need to leave your wife, you could still do it for a year or two just to see how it really is.

      As the "nomad" I am, although temporary stationary, I attended the "hobo convention" in Britt, Iowa in 1980 as a "hobo" using the "Shadow" as my handle. Being a nomad in obedience to spirit's suggesting your number 8's pride in myself is still my most valuable aspect although I never sought work - and only did when spirit instructed me to - and for the first 5 years didn't know about such things as "feeding the homeless" paces and never asked at restaurants' back door. I learned just after my first year to eat "raw" from gardens and fields so I never required handouts unless in cities where there wee no gardens.

      Elijah

    • profile image

      Fiddleman 7 months ago

      Excellent article. Couldn't help but think of Jimmy Rogers and Boxcar Willy and the music and songs. I kinda like your take on being a hobo. Might have been an exciting adventure but no doubt was an exercise in survival. Good writing!

    • whonunuwho profile image

      whonunuwho 7 months ago from United States

      Thank you, Kenneth. I would have liked being a "Bo". I may not have been one long, but it would have been an adventure. Many blessings my friend. whonu