America Obscura (1)
November 11, 2016
HILOBROW friend Andrew Hultkrans is a legendary freelance journalist; we have admired his range, erudition, and virtuosity since the early ’90s, when he was a columnist at MONDO 2000. We’re proud to publish this series of essays by Andrew, each of which originally appeared (as noted) elsewhere.
The Mark of Bozo: Bill Daniel Runs the Hobo Down
When Robert Silveria confessed to multiple murders at a Placer County, CA jail in early March, police and media began excavating an underground culture which many associate with early twentieth-century Americana, that of the freight-hopping hobo. Dubbed the “Boxcar Killer” by investigators, Silveria traveled the rails for over fifteen years, and by his own admission, murdered at least fourteen fellow drifters “out of an uncontrollable rage,” often stealing their bundles and boots afterwards. Unlike many of his ilk, whose victims are functioning citizens with incomes and IDs, Silveria is a serial killer with an unusual M.O. His grisly tales illuminate a still-thriving subculture of men who, by choice or necessity, slip beneath society’s radar and adopt a rootless existence, free of social security numbers and the bonds of wage slavery. In a political climate where welfare mothers receive the full brunt of opprobrium from upper and working classes alike, few are aware of this liminal network of rail-riding hoboes, whose names are not recorded in the files of state-assistance bureaucracies. The lurid account of Robert Silveria is just one portal to this shadow civilization, and most likely the only one with enough tabloid clout to court national attention. Texas filmmaker Bill Daniel offers another, more sympathetic channel to the culture of the “bindle stiff” through his twelve-year work-in-progress Who Is Bozo Texino?.
Dallas resident Daniel was working as a commercial photographer in a warehouse across from the Santa Fe train yard in 1983 when some curious chalk etchings on the sides of boxcars caught his eye. Already interested in conventional aerosol graffiti, Daniel became fascinated by the caricatures drawn by hoboes identifying themselves as “The Rambler,” “Coaltrain,” “Kid Idaho,” and “Colossus of Roads.” “This is incredible,” he thought, “It’s like a secret hobo society.” As he started photographing the sketches, Daniel came upon on tag which compelled him to delve deeper into the culture of hobo writing, a cartoon cowboy sporting a large hat with an infinity-shaped brim and a cigarette dangling from his mouth. This was the mark of “Bozo Texino,” a mythical symbol that, like the Trystero post horn in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, suddenly appeared to be everywhere Daniel looked. Beyond its ubiquity, the Bozo Texino tag seemed to promise a wealth of hidden history behind its blank stare, and like the Trystero horn, it did. As Daniel has discovered in his serpentine rail journeys across the country in search of its author, Bozo Texino is both every hobo, and no hobo in particular. Like the “author” of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament), referred to by Biblical scholars as the “J” writer, Bozo Texino is an amalgam of anonymous writers who have created a collective identity that unites the disparate elements of hobo culture.
According to Daniel, the term “hobo” derives from “hoe-boy,” or migrant worker, and possibly “homeward bound,” referring to uprooted Civil War veterans making their way home by rail. Contrary to popular belief, Daniel maintains that the heyday of the hobo was the post-Civil War era, not the Steinbeck 1930s with its traveling Tom Joads. “The whole transient, jobless scene started after the Civil War,” says Daniel, “They were men who couldn’t reassimilate into society.” Coincidentally, the western expansion was peaking at the time, so many of these rootless drifters hopped freight west in hopes of finding work building bridges or “gandy-dancing” (laying train tracks). In the 1890s, according to Daniel, these “kings of the road” could always find work, and happily chose to travel from job to job, never settling down. This spirit of wanderlust characterized the Golden Age of hobo culture. The migrant workers of the Depression, notes Daniel, did not choose their lifestyle, but rather hopped freight by economic necessity, and were not serious contributors to hobo lore. The classic hobo lived by the “laws of the Wanderpath,” which, according to Daniel, go like this: “You help somebody who needs some help. If somebody doesn’t have any food or water, you share with them, and somebody will share with you. When you leave a campsite, you don’t leave it trashed out, you leave some wood for the next guy. You never ask too many questions about what someone’s doing; you mind your own business. It’s called being a ‘good Johnson,’ a Johnson being a gentleman of the underworld, a criminal who still has a creed of ethics.” It was from such a community of honorable rogues that train writing, or hobo graffiti was born.
In the heyday of hobo graffiti, boxcar observers were treated to a diverse palette of visual form and expression. Beyond human caricatures and moniker tags, one could find political satire and propaganda, poetry, doggerel, religious appeals, lewd renderings of the female form, sequential narrative art, and most significantly, an iconic code of symbols directed at fellow hoboes. These icons served as a secret communications network for the freight-hopping population, informing hoboes of conditions they might expect in a particular place, from “You can sleep in hayloft” to “Hit the road, quick!” Hobo writing was documented as early as the 1930s, as this excerpt from the July 1939 Railroad Magazine proves:
In addition to human faces and forms, students of boxcar calligraphy bump into figures of animals now and then, also pictures of trains and locomotives, but rarely any other type of machine. Most of these masterpieces are drawn by hoboes while they are waiting for freights or loafing around warehouses. Or, perchance, while enjoying free transportation at the company’s expense, they show their gratitude by scribbling over the inside walls of the train. Other sketches are done by railroad men in terminal yards.
This article reveals an important aspect of train writing—that it was practiced by railroad employees as often as by hoboes themselves—and even identifies Bozo Texino as one J.H. McKinley, a Missouri Pacific engineer who adopted the moniker as his own, adding the cowboy caricature. As Daniel notes, “The development of boxcar art has been enriched by the two-way influence between tramps and trainmen. Although they are from two different classes, their drawings share common themes: frontier identity, freedom, and fantasy.” Whereas in McKinley’s day hobo graffiti functioned as code as well as cartoon, today the informational aspect has all but vanished. The site-specific icons are “a totally dead language,” according to Daniel, who characterizes today’s train writing as “purely tagging, it’s about identity.” The loss of the visual code points to the fragmented state of today’s hobo community. “Like the rest of society, it’s so fractured,” observes Daniel, “There’s no cohesion, people don’t really take care of each other, there just isn’t the kind of brotherhood there once was, or so the histories would have us believe.” Nevertheless, hobo culture persists into the present day, in a fashion somewhat removed from the romanticized images once created by Jacks London and Kerouac.
Daniel, who has been a rail-rider for the past ten years, is quick to stress the harsh realities of contemporary freight-hopping, from the physical discomfort of sleeping in snow and occasionally in jail, to the threat of violence from psychotics like Robert Silveria and “jackrollers,” predators who attack or kill others for their gear. Daniel warns that rail-riders must be wary of “streamliners”—tramps traveling without gear—as they are likely to be jackrollers. The act of freight-hopping itself has become more hazardous as well, due to faster trains which rarely stop and increased yard security augmented by infrared scopes and remote video. Despite the increasingly perilous nature of rail-riding, the culture still exists, although the classic hobo, or migrant worker by choice, has all but disappeared.
In the old days, there was an unofficial pecking order in the freight-hopping community—the working hobo on top; the tramp, who wanders but doesn’t work, in the middle; and the bum, who is often alcoholic and remains in one place, on the bottom. Today, the hobo hierarchy mainly consists of its bottom two rungs: tramp and bum. The majority of contemporary rail-riders are “stamp tramps,” or traveling, non-working stiffs who scam the food stamp system from state to state, often on a planned schedule. Daniel notes that since food stamps are going high-tech with personalized credit cards, or being abolished altogether, there may be a revival of the working hobo. “Maybe you’ll see hoboes come back, because guys will decide they still want to live out there, and when they come into town and can’t get stamps, they’ll wash windows or pick up trash.” The true latter-day inheritors of the hobo work ethic, however, are largely Latino migrant workers, illegal immigrants who ride the rails in search of work. Generally ostracized by prejudiced Anglo tramps, the Latinos have not significantly incorporated traditional hobo rituals into their lifestyles.
Although there is little cross-pollination between the contemporary tramp community and the Latino migrant workers, there has been an interesting crossover between urban aerosol graffiti and hobo writing. While inner-city graffiti artists have long made train cars their canvas, they have generally confined themselves local metro trains and subways. With increased security at metro train lots and new surface materials that wipe clean with a wet rag, hip-hop writers are now tagging freight trains. As Daniel observes, “All the graffiti art zines have pictures of freight now because the metro trains, they clean them off and the yards are too hot. Even if you get a great piece up and don’t get killed by the cops, they’re going to clean it off that day. Now you’re not citywide, you’re nationwide.” Daniel cites well-known San Francisco aerosol artist Twist as a writer who has adopted the dimensions, styles, and themes of traditional hobo graffiti in his work on boxcars. As hip-hop tagging is primarily concerned with delineating one’s turf, the move to interstate freight trains is a curious one, yet Daniel maintains that this “out for fame” impulse is consistent with hobo writing:
They’re such different people demographically, but the impulse is exactly the same. I listened to an eighty-year-old guy, who’s working the oil fields in south Texas, who’s never been out of his hometown, talk about why he writes, how he developed his moniker, what it means to him and what he expects it to mean to others, and it’s exactly the same thing. It’s about getting up, it’s about getting seen, it’s about developing an image that people recognize as you, so you can stand back and say “Boom! All over the country they’re seeing me.” It’s the same kind of thing as juvenile turfing.
Like hip-hop graffiti, the writing of contemporary tramps is all about self-identification. Caricatures and monikers dominate the boxcars, but Daniel also comes across sequential art with word balloons, poetry, and occupational folklore. On the insides of cars, he occasionally encounters more ambitious stabs at abstraction, “large abstract shapes that could be figures, could be sex acts, sometimes done with paints, totally abstracted and unfathomable as far as their intent. There are also some amazing figures, the range of presenting female form is just incredible. Some hands are so practiced and make such elegant lines, and others are so raw.” As for Bozo Texino, he’s still out there, a timeless icon that is seemingly shared by every generation of hoboes.
Daniel has been laboring for twelve years to make Who is Bozo Texino?, often biding his time between train hops by working with collage filmmaker Craig Baldwin (Sonic Outlaws, Tribulation 99), whose films he helped edit. After playing out the grant scene, he still needs $40,000 to complete his film, which he expects to run 75 minutes. Next, Daniel plans to shoot a film about traveling carnivals, and its dying subculture of painters and ride builders. When asked what motivates him to persist in his quixotic quest to bring Bozo Texino to a larger audience, Daniel replies that he “wants to show what the message of graffiti is, that there’s an art in life when it’s free, that outside the boundaries of commodity and wage life there’s a flourishing human condition, with storytelling, social bonds, and friendship.” Daniel’s message recalls the picaresque romanticism of those noble tramps of yesteryear, Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton. That the charmed life on the skids these Hollywood hoboes depicted seems as irretrievable as the Wild West is not surprising. In an era when Congress ritually demonizes the underclass, the image of the happy-go-lucky tramp has never been more out of vogue. By documenting the remnants of a subculture for whom the slogan “Live Free or Die” is something other than license plate trim, Bill Daniel reminds us that there once was a time when homelessness wasn’t a problem but a choice, and finding work was as easy as hopping the next westbound train.
Originally published by the web magazine STIM, June 1996.
CURATED SERIES at HILOBROW: UNBORED CANON by Josh Glenn | CARPE PHALLUM by Patrick Cates | MS. K by Heather Kasunick | HERE BE MONSTERS by Mister Reusch | DOWNTOWNE by Bradley Peterson | #FX by Michael Lewy | PINNED PANELS by Zack Smith | TANK UP by Tony Leone | OUTBOUND TO MONTEVIDEO by Mimi Lipson | TAKING LIBERTIES by Douglas Wolk | STERANKOISMS by Douglas Wolk | MARVEL vs. MUSEUM by Douglas Wolk | NEVER BEGIN TO SING by Damon Krukowski | WTC WTF by Douglas Wolk | COOLING OFF THE COMMOTION by Chenjerai Kumanyika | THAT’S GREAT MARVEL by Douglas Wolk | LAWS OF THE UNIVERSE by Chris Spurgeon | IMAGINARY FRIENDS by Alexandra Molotkow | UNFLOWN by Jacob Covey | ADEQUATED by Franklin Bruno | QUALITY JOE by Joe Alterio | CHICKEN LIT by Lisa Jane Persky | PINAKOTHEK by Luc Sante | ALL MY STARS by Joanne McNeil | BIGFOOT ISLAND by Michael Lewy | NOT OF THIS EARTH by Michael Lewy | ANIMAL MAGNETISM by Colin Dickey | KEEPERS by Steph Burt | AMERICA OBSCURA by Andrew Hultkrans | HEATHCLIFF, FOR WHY? by Brandi Brown | DAILY DRUMPF by Rick Pinchera | BEDROOM AIRPORT by “Parson Edwards” | INTO THE VOID by Charlie Jane Anders | WE REABSORB & ENLIVEN by Matthew Battles | BRAINIAC by Joshua Glenn | COMICALLY VINTAGE by Comically Vintage | BLDGBLOG by Geoff Manaugh | WINDS OF MAGIC by James Parker | MUSEUM OF FEMORIBILIA by Lynn Peril | ROBOTS + MONSTERS by Joe Alterio | MONSTOBER by Rick Pinchera | POP WITH A SHOTGUN by Devin McKinney | FEEDBACK by Joshua Glenn | 4CP FTW by John Hilgart | ANNOTATED GIF by Kerry Callen | FANCHILD by Adam McGovern | BOOKFUTURISM by James Bridle | NOMADBROW by Erik Davis | SCREEN TIME by Jacob Mikanowski | FALSE MACHINE by Patrick Stuart | 12 DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE | 12 MORE DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE | 12 DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE (AGAIN) | ANOTHER 12 DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE | UNBORED MANIFESTO by Joshua Glenn and Elizabeth Foy Larsen | H IS FOR HOBO by Joshua Glenn | 4CP FRIDAY by guest curators