Bums neither work nor travel.
Vagrants travel but do not work.
Hobos travel and sometimes work.
While traveling workers have always existed in human societies, The term – hobo – can be traced to the returning veterans of the Civil War. Then, with the war finally over, hundreds of soldiers, with no money to buy a ticket, hopped on freight trains and headed home.
Hobos built this country. We’re still building it.
For some reason, I’ve always considered myself a hobo. As a child, my parents took us on long car rides across the country. Sleeping in tents or a small camper, we saw from California to Florida and up to Washington, D.C. Every summer, we needed to return to their childhood home in Minnesota.
When we left home at eighteen, I took my new bride from her childhood home in Southern California to rural Arkansas, my first duty station in the Air Force. Lillian and I have been traveling across America ever since. When our children were young, we took Sunday rides into the country. Ever curious, Jennifer would ask the usual questions about where we were going and when we’d return. Jason would nap silently in the back. His priority – simply, the next meal. America is on the left, I’d tell them. And so, we’d head off, looking for America.
Through the years, Lillian and I’ve traveled through, stayed, camped, or lived in all forty-eight contiguous states. We’ve towed our camper up the Alcan Highway to Alaska. Along the way, we’ve recorded these journeys and reported back to family and friends. Most of these updates were of spectacular scenery and cheery antidotes from the road. However, only some of these narratives were complete. What confronted us most on these journeys was often not the scenery but the dichotomy of the people we met or observed.
Rarely hostile or threatening, most encounters were happy, courteous, and insightful. Occasionally, we received a gentle warning of incoming weather or treacherous road conditions ahead. A few times, however, we received notice for our personal safety.
Our recent train trip from Los Angeles to Seattle reminded me of today’s conflicted state of America. Against advice from Lillian, I want to present some observations from this trip and a few of our other journeys highlighting a part of America we all seldom comment on and, lesser still, become moved to act upon.
“You’re such a cranky, disagreeable sort. People love it when you tell them what’s bothering you. Tell them how the weather in Southern California is terrible. Everyone wants to know how you hate the perfect weather here.”
“I do hate it. I’ve come to expect it. If it gets half a bubble off-center, I get upset. Yesterday, the wind picked up. I’ve got hay fever. The temperature is in the mid-seventies, there’s a slight breeze, and suddenly, my eyes are watering, and I start to sneeze.”
“Don’t trick me. Nobody cares about my allergies.”
“Everyone loves it when you’re upset. Besides, you don’t have the answers to America’s problems. Why get everyone else upset? They’d prefer it if you were the only one bothered. That’s what they love. Everyone is already upset by America’s homelessness and poverty. You should think of something else.”
“A Porsche. Can I get a 911? It would take my mind off what I’ve seen. It can’t be unseen. If I get a Porsche, it would be like therapy.”
No, that one only goes 179mph. I want to go faster.
“Can I get a Porsche?”
When I was growing up, I walked to Canterbury Elementary by way of the orange groves. In the late fifties or maybe the early sixties, my parents bought a small tract home in Pacoima. It was a small house, made smaller by five kids. My dad taught high school in Burbank while my mother worked as a surgical technician at the local hospital. If we were “lower middle class,” we didn’t know it. Growing up, I was a king like all the other kings. We looked and dressed alike and were clueless about the changing world.
Then, the Watts riots happened. “Where the heck is Watts?” “Down by USC.” My father said. “Downtown.” My mother added. “Can we go see?” “Probably not.”
Shortly around that time, our zip code and little slice of heaven changed from Pacoima to Arleta. Our predominantly white set of tract homes grew an invisible moat meant to stem the tide of diversity. Pacoima has a rich culture of multi-ethnic Hispanic, African American, and post-World War II migrant families, otherwise known as “whites.” My parents joined this cultural stew to take advantage of increased jobs and the opportunities afforded Southern California’s San Fernando Valley in the 1950s.
I only offer this personal background to illustrate the complexity of division. Arleta provided us white families with a different identity. It was not based on income. Everyone in Pacoima had about the same income. The only thing we residents of Arleta had over our neighbors in Pacoima was a lack of pigment and an overreliance on eating pot roast. I grew up at 13362 Reliance Street, Arleta, California. AKA, Pacoima.
Looking back, I never observed the rampant homelessness that litters my old neighborhood today. Come to think of it, everyone lived in a house, drove a car, and bought a color TV as soon as they came out. Like I said, I was born a king in the land of kings.
There was no separation due to income. Everyone knew who the poor people were—always them, the other families, not us. If there were families with better means, we didn’t know them, never saw them, and didn’t care. When you have everything, who needs more?
America’s middle class takes in a wide swath of the population. The term is misleading and fools us into believing we live in a country better than we are. By definition, very few of us will achieve the income required to reach the top one percent. You should read this as sarcasm. Most of us are closer to the bottom of this scale than the top. If we rent or own a home, does that automatically make us middle-class? Does owning a car? Do we need to carry all our belongings in a shopping cart if we hit bottom?
Before Lillian’s mother’s passing, I went shopping at her local grocery store—the one she’d shopped at for fifty years. Because the drugstore and her bank were nearby, I decided to make a few stops. I parked close to the bank and set upon my business. First, the Bank, CVS, and then the list of produce and staples Grandma needed. As I pushed the cart full of groceries across the parking lot towards my car, the wheels locked. I was frozen, dead in my tracks. A cart with locked wheels is damn near impossible to drag. With going forward blocked, what about back toward the grocery store? Would my food chariot again be free once I was safely back within the store’s zone of control? I was like a dog with a shock collar who’d passed its owner’s invisible fence.
A crowd was gathering. People were staring suspiciously. It took seven and a half trips to unload the cart and travel the twenty feet to my car. My food chariot now proudly standing in the middle of the lot. “Defy me at your peril.” I could never be homeless. Homeless people have grocery carts. I couldn’t even do that.