Note: This story was written in 1974 just after I graduated from college. I sold it to more than 40 newspapers and magazines throughout the United States.
It’s his third hat since 1961.
He sold the first one. Some stole the second one. He says this one, the third, “is worth $10,000.” Someone once described it as a “miniature junkyard.” It’s a collection of feathers, hairpins, political and union buttons, buttons proclaiming, “I’m a good guy” and “Lost, Tired and Hungry,” plastic flowers, clothespins, trinkets and assorted oddities wired to a felt hat. It weighs about 10 pounds.
He wants attention, an audience. That’s why he wears the hat. He is a bit of Americana tramping along, a colorful bit of Americana that is fading rapidly. He calls himself the “King of the Hoboes, the Pennsylvania Kid.”
The Pennsylvania Kid says his real name is Richard Wilson. He left his hometown of Franklin, Pennsylvania in 1927 just after completing the eighth grade and has been on the road ever since.
“I was 16 when I hit the road. I didn’t like everybody tellin’ me what to do. Kids today want the same thing. We ain’t gonna have no country left if people keep tellin’ you what at do. I can do what I want when I want with nobody tellin’ me what to do. But hoboin’ ain’t easy livin’. What I been through--I don’t know how I lived.”
Some of the old mulligan stew flavor is wafting away from the hobo kingdom. It’s not just that the hippies and winos are demeaning the profession or that freight trains are getting too fast and far between or that welfare and sickness have taken a lot of good men off the road. Retirement, too, has cut into their ranks. Most of the fabled vagrants like the Pennsylvania Kid, Slow Motion Shorty, Connecticut Slim, the Hard Rock Kid and Bigtown Gorman are getting on in years and have trouble getting around.
The Pennsylvania Kid’s life revolves around the railroad. One of the few steady jobs he has had has been as a railroad gandy dancer, a man who fixes the track. He worked at it for two weeks in 1957.
Pennsy, as he likes to be called, travels about the same route each year, hitting the Midwest in the summer and fall and California in the winter. “I swim in the ocean while you’re shovelin’ snow.”
Each year he goes back to the same places--places where he has received a handout, a free sandwich, cup of coffee or a couple of dollars. But the railroad is his home and it has been his home for the last 47 years. The railroad men take care of him. They give him coffee and food. Their wives make a couple of extra sandwiches for him when they know Pennsy is in town.
Pennsy spends much of his time joking with railroad men, trying to convince them to join him. Often they wish they could because he has no wife, no taxes, no insurance, and no obligations. At one time railroad men weren’t friendly towards hoboes. The railroad bulls (detectives) used to try to keep men off the rails by beating them, arresting them or even shooting them. Even brakemen and switchmen would turn hoboes over to the bulls.
But with railroads losing their strength in number and prestige, the hobo is a symbol of the railroad’s glorious past. And with as few hoboes as there are, the hobo is respected, aided and loved by the railroad men.
In Albert Lea, Minnesota, a switchman and old friend, Bill Davey, spotted Pennsy walking toward the switch shanty. “Well look who’s here, the old con artist himself--El Slicko!” he shouted.
Pennsy went into the shanty with Bill and drank several cups of coffee with the railroad workers. He also ate three of their sandwiches. Their working day was finished so they were going home, but they stayed long enough to talk to Pennsy for a few minutes. When they left, they locked the shanty and Pennsy headed for the “jungle.”
“There ain’t much of a jungle left here anymore,” he said, wading through waist-high weeds. “This used to be a good jungle town.”
The jungle was a clump of trees and bushes just east of the tracks, but still in the railroad yard. Years ago you could find 20 hoboes in a jungle at any given time. The prerequisites for a jungle were that it had running water, seclusion and it was near a place where the trains slowed down. It was the hobo’s home. A fire was kept burning and communal pots, pans and tin cans ringed the encampment. There was no rubbish around. The place was kept clean.
The hoboes had an unwritten rule that you didn’t steal from another hobo. “You could come into and drop your bags and go uptown. You could even trust the winos and bums. Only the young kids would take your stuff. Outside that, you didn’t have to be afraid of someone takin’ your stuff.”
Pennsy is quick to distinguish a hobo from the winos and bums. “I ain’t no bum. Bums and winos are a breed apart. Hoboes work at odd jobs here and there. We got kind of a profession. But bums don’t do nothin’. Neither do winos. They ain’t even got enough guts to go out and beg.”
Today’s jungle is used as a resting place for a couple of hours before the hobo moves on. Pennsy crawled through the bushes into a small clearing. In the dark circle was a collection of junk: old pallets, tin cans, highway signs, seatless chairs, a ripped-up sofa and some boards loosely arranged to make a rough shelter from the elements. He crawled onto the sofa and went to sleep.
When the Pennsylvania Kid is ready to leave a town by rail, he always asks a switchman or dispatcher when the train will arrive and what track it will be on. He always gets on and off the train when it is standing still. “Ya don’t get hurt that way.”
When the train stops, he walks down the side looking for a clean, empty boxcar. When he’s satisfied with one, he throws in his gear, takes off his hat and gently places it next to his pack. If the other door is open, he climbs into the car. If it’s not open, he goes around to the other side of the boxcar to open it. He likes to travel with both doors open because “Ya never know what door you’ll have to get out of.” Once in the car, he rips protective cardboard off the empty walls until he has enough for a five or six layer mattress.
Riding a boxcar is like riding a rickety roller coaster--noisy, bumpy and sometimes scary. If you sit against the sidewall, the swaying motion of the train bangs your head against the oak boards lining the car. It’s much better if you stand, leaning one hand against the wall to keep your balance. It’s too rough of a ride to sleep, but the cardboard mattress smoothes the ride a little. However, the inconveniences are outweighed by the advantages.
The open doors make it a moving panorama, a vacationland dream. It’s like watching two movies simultaneously. Pennsy walks back and forth between the doors, often leaning out, absorbed in the passing landscape--trying to take in both scenes at once.
Despite their declining numbers, most hoboes manage to gather each year for the National Hobo Convention in the north-central Iowa town of Brit, a corn belt metropolis of 2,600. Once a year its citizens turn the spotlight on the vagabonds--a breed of rugged individualists living in a world of permanent vacation. To Britt, the hobo is a hero--and a man who keeps the cash registers jingling.
Twenty or thirty years ago, Hobo Day used to be a big event. Now it’s a crassly commercialized affair. Hundreds of hoboes used to converge on the town, having a drinking and eating festival under the guise of electing a king. Today there aren’t many hoboes left. This year only eight hoboes showed up. Of the eight, only three or four are still on the road. Each man is allowed to speak for three minutes to try to convince the crowd why he should be elected king. The man who receives the most applause wins.
Britt used to take care of the hoboes, sponsoring games and the like, giving the winners money and food. Today the town fathers aren’t interested in the hobo. They are more interested in the parade, the carnival rides and how much money they can take make. Each hobo is given $7 worth of “complimentary” groceries. That’s it.
This year Slow Motion Shorty was crowned king by the applause of more than 6,000 people in the audience. The Pennsylvania Kid came in second. He claimed he was gypped.
“Hell, I’m the real king. Slow Motion is a phony. He’s got a bad back and has to see a doctor every week. He has to stay home. Hell, hoboes don’t have no home. He’s a phoney. I shoulda won.” Pennsy has won the election four times: 1963, 1966, 1968 and 1971.
Two other hoboes, Connecticut Slim and Iowa Blackie, friends of Pennsy’s were in Britt for the convention this year. Slim has known Pennsy for more than 20 years. They first met at a convention. Slim, too, has been on the road most of his life. Now he has a home, a room in a dilapidated hotel in West Virginia. He returns each year to the convention.
“Me and Pennsy have a disease, ‘trapetomania.’ It’s a disease that gives a man the morbid desire to wander. I think I would have been dead had I not gone on the road. We could’t have done it any differently, because we got that disease, ya know?”
Slim drinks three beers for breakfast and increases his consumption of alcohol as the day progresses. By the end of the day he passes out. He’s in his early 60’s and is on medication.
Iowa Blackie, the youngest hobo at the convention, 25, is also a good friend. He claims he’s trying really hard not to be a hippie, but “a real hobo.” He first met Pennsy about five years ago when he first came to the convention as a spectator.
He idolizes Pennsy, who once offered Blackie this advice: “You might want to be a hobo, but there ain’t no way you’ll ever get it. What you want is in the past.”
In the modern world the hobo is losing his fight for survival. The Pennsylvania Kid survives through the goodness and kindness of other people--those who give him a sandwich and a cup of coffee, or those who give him a dollar now and then. He survives on the attention he gets. He attracts an audience wherever he goes. It’s the hat. The hat is his come-on; it’s how he gets his food and money.
He walks through the center of town on the main street, stopping at most bars and cafes. When he walks into a bar or cafe carrying his pack, wearing that hat and a smile, everyone in the place sees him. Soon everyone in the place is talking to him, laughing at his antics and tales, and trying to buy “The King of the Hoboes” a beer or sandwich. When he leaves the place many offer him a dollar or two; he never refuses it.
“I was 35 or 40 before I learned anything. How to have a smile on my face, a twinkle in my eye. I learned it in jail. Hell, I was sometimes arrested three or four times a week for just talkin’ to people in a restaurant. In some towns they’d arrest me just for that. They’d call it “disturbin’ the peace.” I spent so much time in jail, I was doin’ life on the installment plan.”
“I didn’t begin to enjoy life until I was 40. That’s when I learned the secret of life.”
The secret of life? “I read all them intellectuals. Guys like Socrates, Plato, Lincoln and Jesus. You read all of them fellas and you learn the secret of life. But don’t believe what they tell you or what they teach. You gotta find out for yourself.”
Pennsy claims he has been saving between $500 and $1,000 a year, every year since 1935. He’s probably worth $20,000 but he won’t reveal his exact worth.
“I started saving government bonds and switched to war bonds during the war. After that I went back to government bonds and post office bonds. I’m puttin’ it away for my old age. When and if I ever settle down, I’m gonna write a book and marry a rich widow. Then we’ll see which is the biggest liar!”