Hobo Signs


My wife is from Iowa. I moved there from Chicago back in the ‘70s and lived there for about ten years. Not many people move there. Even the Iowans used to say Iowa was a great place to be from—the sooner the better.

Iowa is not what you would call a tourist destination. It is not on anybody’s bucket list. There are no majestic mountains. No grand vistas. The official monument marking the highest point in the state is actually in the middle of a hog feedlot.

During the decade I lived there, not one of my relatives ever came to visit. The closest anybody got was when my brother was sent on a business trip to Kansas City, Missouri. He complained that there wasn’t much to do there in the evening. What could I say? Kansas City is where Iowan’s go when they are looking for a good time.

Nobody really wants to go to Iowa . . . except maybe presidential candidates. They show up once every four years and bloviate about how much they have in common with Iowans. They don’t, of course. The only thing politicians have in common with Iowans is a mutual interest in pork. 

Most people don’t know that Iowa hosts another convention of people seeking election. The National Hobo Convention is held every August in the small town of Britt, Iowa. For more than 100 years, the hobos have gathered there to elect the King of the Hobos. 

My wife and I actually attended the convention back in the 1970s. We camped out with the hobos, sang songs around the campfire. Ate mulligan stew. And listened to the tall tales of grizzled men with monikers like Steamtrain Maury, Fry Pan Jack, Virginia Slim, and Mountain Dew. 

Not all of these guys were still hopping freights. Some of the old-timers were shuttled in from local veteran’s hospitals and county rest homes. In fact, the town of Britt had actually set aside a few cemetery plots near the tracks just for hobos who needed a final resting place. The night we were in the hobo camp, we all drank a toast to those who had, in hobo parlance, “caught the westbound.”   

My wife told the gathering she remembered her grandmother’s stories about hobos coming to her farmhouse back during the Great Depression. They would offer to chop wood or paint the shed. After all, these were hobos, not bums. Hobos were willing to work for a meal. Whether or not she had any chores for them, she always gave them a sandwich or piece of pie.

Fry Pan Jack nodded and said her house was probably marked with a hobo sign. He explained that hobos used to carve special markings on trees and fence posts. They had signs telling each other where there was a safe campsite, or a mean sheriff. Where there was good water, or a bad dog.  Where you might get work, or where you might get shot. Grandma’s gate, he said, bore the hobo sign for “kind lady.” 

I suspect that tradition has found its way down here to Mexico. Our gate must be marked. We get them all. The old man with the gangrenous leg, the lady with no leg at all, the woman with four kids and no husband, the one-man band playing his trumpet, drum, and cymbal. Somehow, they all find our house. I never see them knocking on our neighbors’ doors. We’re the lucky ones.

And don’t bother trying to get rid of them by pretending you don’t speak Spanish. That only works on Jehovah’s Witnesses. The beggars have all got hand-scrawled notes in misspelled English. One week, they need milk for the baby. The next, their child needs school uniforms. Then, their mother needs surgery. Then, their mother died and needs a funeral. Each of these people seems to have a cradle-to-grave supply of notes. The amputees need prostheses. The diabetics show you their prescriptions. The one-man band needs—I don’t know. Sheet music? It goes on and on.

I can’t really say I mind all that much. In the broad scheme of things, I won’t miss a few pesos here and there. And who knows? I might be gaining a little karma for the day when I have “caught the westbound.” I just wish that, back when we were camped with the hobos, I had known to ask Fry Pan Jack one question. What is the hobo sign for “Please don’t ring the bell while I’m in the bathroom.”

For more information about Lake Chapala visit: www.chapala.com

Larry Kolczak
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