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Mack Williams: An ode to the 'hobo'

By Mack Williams
For the Salisbury Post
One day, at our museum in the old Danville train station, we experienced a different sort of excitement than the usual mega-groups of visiting schoolchildren. Two city policemen entered the lobby and headed out the station’s back doors toward the tracks. At the urging of my own curiosity, I inquired as to the problem, to which the policemen replied that a hobo had been sighted.
The word “hobo” is most often applied (disrespectfully) to a homeless man who rides a train. Recently, a local homeless man of the streets has taken to riding a bike, so I now see him in many different parts of the city. It is almost as if the state of his homelessness now cuts a wider swath, expanding from an area of only a few streets to reach throughout the city to its limits. The predicament of a homeless man riding the rails could be described as “interstate” in its nature.
Although my father worked third shift at the Spencer yard, I don’t recall him ever mentioning encountering any hobos there. Part of the time, he was inside the yard office at his desk, but at other times he was outside in the wee hours tagging boxcars. Perhaps, at that time, any hobos present were asleep, not attracting much attention unless they happened to be snoring loudly.
The policemen stood next to a halted freight train, with a couple of the trainmen from that freight at their side. They watched as the engineer slowly pulled the entire length of the train by them, giving both officers and trainmen enough time for a lingering, steady visual inspection of each boxcar as it rolled past. One of the policemen told me that someone along the railway’s roadbed (most likely a driver stopped at a crossing, his cell phone with him) had seen the hobo and called the police department, which then placed a call to Norfolk-Southern. I can’t say for sure, but perhaps the hobo was enjoying the railroad’s scenic view, temporarily forgetting that as he looked out, those on the outside could also look in.
At that dramatic point, I had to take care of setting up our downstairs classroom for a lecture, so I left one of our volunteers in charge of the lobby. When I returned to the lobby, the volunteer said that the hobo had been apprehended, taken back through the lobby and transported to the city jail.
My parents were young adults at the beginning of the Great Depression. I remember my mother mentioning rationing, and I even found some old ration books (containing stamps for sugar) tucked away in a drawer, seemingly as a memento of difficult times. I remember my parents mentioning men who rode the rails from city to city in search of work during that time. Hearing about that, plus seeing hobos depicted in cartoons and also by Emmet Kelly (additionally Joey the Clown, whose makeup style was similar), Red Skelton (Freddy the Freeloader) and Buddy Ebsen in one episode of the Andy Griffith Show, I had a “composite” stereotype of the “hobo” which had built up in my mind over the years.
I asked our volunteer what that gratis (“gratis” not by the invitation of the railroad, but of his own) rider of the rails looked like, to which he replied: “Just a dirty bum!” I thought that our volunteer’s reference to the unfortunate man’s circumstances was quite rude! Being a state employee and not a volunteer, nor employed by Norfolk-Southern, I am under certain constraints as to the terminology which I can apply to members of the public, even in such a case as when one of them has chosen to ride the rails for free instead of making the proper purchase of a ticket.
Since I didn’t observe the hobo myself, the volunteer’s disparaging description of him is only hearsay as far as I am concerned. My stereotypical, rail-riding, homeless man (although one trainman told me not long ago that some women also currently ride the rails) still carries his few worldly belongings in an improvised cloth sack tied to the end of a stick, smokes a cigar (frequently snuffed and frequently relit, not unlike the cigarettes of Reginald Van Gleason III), dances a little , whistles a tune (upon removal of the cigar), talks about life in the profound manner of the old Fort Fisher Hermit (although he had a home, sort of), and if so sufficiently inspired, occasionally sings a song by Woody Guthrie.

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