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Lifestyles: On The Road

Most Reverend Antonio Hernández, O.M.D., U.B.

Dedicated to the Knights of the Road

The Christian holidays are almost upon us, and their crass, clashing commercialism along with them. For some (myself included) the holidays bring back fond memories of Old World-style celebrations; the decorations, tinsel, steaming dishes, crystal goblets and the heirloom silverware. Christmas might seem odd at my Sephardic Jewish house- but we loved it anyway. The holidays always remind me of the lean years, and I suspect many people share this trait. Not only do I remember the hobos who used to come to the door, thick and fast; I remember being one of those hobos, for a brief time in my teens.

Hobos are legendary, iconographic in the United States. The hobo costume, one of the easiest to make, is de rigueur for Halloween- and not just for the kiddies. Hobos are also the subject of endless mockery. Almost like the outcastes of India, hobos skirt on the raw, rough edge of society… always on the wrong side of the tracks. Immortalized in Norman Rockwell's painting, The Fleeing Hobo, hobos (spelled "hoboes" by the hobos themselves, after the original spelling) are the American Gypsies. This negative portrayal is unfair, horribly discriminatory, and just plain wrong.

In Rockwell's painting, the hobo (Rockwell used a model who surely was a well-off banker or insurance agent) is a pot-bellied bum and a thief, running off with someone's freshly baked pie. This caricature, along with countless others, such as Red Skelton's character Freddie the Freeloader, is a sad state of affairs. The only noble person with some sympathy for hobos was Charlie Chaplin, who created the character of the Little Tramp- the Tramp was noble and courageous. He was a genuine hobo, like Chaplin himself had briefly been after arriving in the
U.S.- not a tramp. Terminology is vital in such matters; consider Tolkien's Hobbits. Tolkien was Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, a philologist who was fluent in nearly a dozen languages. It is said he invented the word "hobbit" based on the word "habit". It was really based on the word "hobo"- as evidenced by the names Tolkien chooses for his heroes, Bilbo Baggins and his nephew, Frodo. Put them together and you get hobo.

The Hobbit characters represent all that is simple, fine and beautiful in us. They also represent the hobo, though Tolkien himself may never have made this connection consciously: American hobos are unknown in England, except by way of the ugly American caricatures. As we see above, there is plenty of proof that Tolkien had American hobos on his mind while writing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. In truth, "hobo" is defined as "a traveling or itinerant laborer or craftsman, who lived life on the move, usually riding the trains. The hobo worked in exchange for food, lodging, clothing, etc." Note the distinction: hobos worked. They just didn't stick around for very long. In contrast, a tramp is defined as an itinerant bum- one who wanders, a mendicant who refuses to work. Finally, the bum is defined as one who neither travels nor works.

It needs to be stated that hobos contributed many things to American society without America realizing it. Hobo slang, crafts, ideas, morés and even fashion have made an indelible mark on American life and society. Hobo Art is a major antiques collectable, showing no signs of slowing down. Several great men were hobos: Louis L'Amour, Jack London (who was saved from hobo life by an older hobo) and Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, just to name some. As for slang, most of the words used by youngsters these days were coined by hobo society. The two oldest, most important hobo terms, tag (signature- usually graffito) and toadskin (paper currency) never made it into the vernacular. However, the terms moniker, punk and greenbacks did.

Well, sad to say I never actually got to ride the rails but once in my life- and that was a legit train ride, not freight car-hopping. We all hopped the freights as grade school kids, for a laugh and a few blocks' worth of train ride; but when one is raised near train tracks, one knows from infancy their dangers that lie in wait. My parents lost one of their first children beneath the wheels of a locomotive. No… aside from some years off and on living in the streets, hoboing where possible, I hardly traveled alone. I've been around the globe, and usually as a hobo more or less, but no rail-hopping. Road-warriors are deemed "rubber hobos" (referring to the tires), and are respected. My first trip to Colorado by myself was hobo-style. The fact that I've had college and seem multi-talented kept my parents happy. Mom and grandma never, EVER turned away the hobos that stopped by our home right near the tracks. I grew up near the city of Rock Island, Illinois, right on the Mississippi River and home of the great Rock Island Line.

Today I am a Buddhist priest. Sometimes I half-jokingly tell people I'm a "hobo monk". I've written to a few hobos living in America today, spreading the word that the Lord Buddha and his first monks were true hobos. There were no rails to ride 2,600 years ago, but there was plenty of road and no carts. The monks traveled hard. Wherever they went, they served the community. They would not settle down, hold permanent jobs, break the ground for tilling or kill any living thing; their living and eats were essentially obtained by working first, then begging. They had only a handful of possessions: robes made of re-shaped and dyed rags which were picked from the cremation grounds, needle and thread, a razor to shave their heads, a begging bowl and a staff. Only later did the Buddha allow them to carry a rosary. It took some convincing to get the Buddha to eventually allow the monks underwear.

As a sick, retired old coot, I still travel - I do it on the internet and watching telly. Once upon a time I was a martial arts teacher and served as the martial art school's Zen priest. Many still call me their priest. As a doctor of Oriental medicine, I've been honored and privileged to serve hundreds of patients. As an author (several hobos were also great authors), I have been blessed with true luck and have a book in the bookstores. There must be over three dozen papers and works of mine on the internet, and I've been publishing poems and lyrics for a quarter of a century.

When I was younger, I worked in law enforcement, but again, it was practically hobo status: I was a bailiff. We were treated worse than hobos, and we certainly weren't paid as much as hobos got. Besides, I'd never allow myself to be a beat-walker.

Asia, especially the Buddhist world, has within its clergy and lay ranks a kind of hobo. So does Hindu society. Known in ancient Sanskrit as siddhu, meaning "wandering holy man", these Asian hobos still exist- usually living temporarily settled lives as hermits in the wilderness. Most of the year they leave their temporary settlements to wander, though in keeping with Buddhist and Hindu custom, they must find shelter during the rainy or winter seasons. These holy men live purely off alms, and are dismissed by part of the population as parasitic beggars; sadly, many of them are just that. Many are not: they are healers, teachers and craftsmen, and they work quite assiduously for their living. They are approached and given alms, only to be asked in return for a few simple chants or prayers. Asia is a country that has at least some priorities in proper order; their "holy hobos" are nearly identical to American hobos in morés, values, goals.

In the American hobo world there exists another fascinating relationship with Buddhist Asian life: it is as simple as a knot. The Monkey's Fist Knot, used by sailors since when, is a sort of Gordian Knot that is secure and won't let go. It is also known as the "Lifeline". Hobos in America have adopted the Monkey's Fist Knot as their personal symbol of the hobo friendship bond. Among the martial arts monks of my order, the Monkey Fist Style is a fighting style based precisely upon this knot. It is a Chinese knot, and is used in every knot the Chinese tie- thus it is commonly called the 'Chinese knot'. There are martial arts "Monkey Fist families", who form the knot symbolically with their fists to identify themselves. It is this knot-fist that is used to disable an attacker as well as to greet a brother. A true lifeline, a symbol of such deep meaning that coincidentally spans the world and is brought together by the hobos of the world.

My real interest in hobo life was born when I saw two things: the hobos at our back door and the signs they left round the railroad tracks by Rail Road Avenue. Recently I saw an old photo of a hobo standing at the door of someone's house, eating a sandwich and having coffee. This was common, and afterwards the hobo often tilled a beautiful garden in return, or carved something. I recalled the hobos standing politely at our door that way. My grandma said to me, "Never forget this: do not turn hobos away as long as you live. Because they are God's own, no different from us, and need our help." My mother, who was wary of any stranger and hated bums (always lots of bums around here, too) was not too fond of hobos. But she did as grandma said, and she did it all her life. After all, as my father used to say, everyone is just trying to earn a living somehow. Einstein once said, "People do not beg for pleasure." Einstein was one of the best friends the hobos around New Jersey ever had- and was often mistaken for a hobo until people got a look at his face and recognized him. Strange, that Einstein lived near Hoboken, which is whence detective and agency-founder William Pinkerton thought the term "hobo" originated.

My brother and I often commemorated hobo life by doing our own versions of "hobo nickels". My brother had access to Buffalo nickels, which hobos used to hand-carve with special depictions. These nickels were traded or sold; it was "hobo coinage". My brother and I would carve, perforate or chase-engrave the Buffalo nickels, and make earrings or necklaces out of them. He and I often earned our living this way during his visits home. Here, too, there is a link with Buddhism, for it was often the case that mendicant monks were artisans or carvers; many people wanted shrines, statues of Buddha, or images of famous priests.

Zen Buddhist masters are often known by nicknames. These are their version of the hobo's moniker. They will publish or sign art with their nickname. Famous priests such as Rev. Red Pine, Rev. Morning Star, and Rev. Cold Mountain populate the Zen world; we have no record of these priests' real names. Others gave themselves proper hobo monikers, such as Bundle o' Twigs, Old Frog, and Rice-sack. My own "Zen nickname", as these are called, is the Chinese Ma-bu, "Old Rag". The reasoning is the old rag is so humble that it can be repulsive, but where would any house cleaner or shop worker be without his old rag? My proper Buddhist name in Chinese is Yü Ch'i-lin, Jade Unicorn. As with the American Hobo, each Zen nickname told something about the priest, his teaching methods, skills or ideals. Compare these to hobo monikers like Oats, Captain Cloud, King Preacher Steve, Omen and Oklahoma Slim.

I've read about one final Asian/Buddhist link with hobos: the name itself. Hobo, so I have been told, is a Japanese noun describing a person who "just hangs around". It may be that Zen priests in Japan, usually called osho (Buddhist priest), were also described as hobo. Words are important to everyone, and to hobos perhaps even more so. Clarity, context-positivity and color may be fairly called the "3 C's" of hobo terms and slang. Thus names are vital. Hobos all have a moniker, which is their nickname, and it is the name they use as a signature when signing their tag (which is also called streaking in modern hobo terms). I have so many names, given to me on religious occasions where names mean something big. But sadly I do not have an official hobo moniker, other than "Casper the Ghost" (I got this one as a baby) and "The Flying Dutchman" (this one in high school).

Hobo freedom is a gift and I'll never surrender what little I have of it, though I share it with others. When I approach people in need, it's as a Buddhist monk, of course, but soon they realize that I'm also a plain old hobo and that makes them easy. They also take heart in learning that I'm no superhero like the idiot in the old TV show "Kung Fu". It's amusing to them when I "beg without begging", either for food, cigarettes or money. It's against our vows to charge fees for anything, and I gently remind people that they can make donations, which are then religiously forbidden for me to refuse. They love the fact that I am basically a poor beggar in patched robes and a ratty clergy collar.

Buddhism forgives my deep love for everything hobo, even though it teaches that any attachment is forbidden. According to my vows, I can no more become attached to a "hobo" life than I can to a "Buddhist" life. In the Buddhist view, when I get obsessed with my robes, my title or my bald-shaved head, I'm on the wrong path. It means I've stopped truly living and have become a performer or museum piece. That false attachment is also eschewed in true hobo life. I've read about the hobo gatherings, and am particularly fascinated by their attitudes when departing. They simply mosey on their separate ways, waving "See ya!", and (symbolically) each person takes a different direction. That was one of the Buddha's final instructions to his monks: Then the Lord Buddha said to all of them assembled, "Go forth and spread Truth, harm no one, save every living being that you can, and let not two monks take the same path." The Buddha's last order was that the monks finally become true hobos. In fact, "leaving home, never to return", which is what hobos do, is part of the very first vows a Buddhist monk takes. The very act of becoming a Buddhist monk is called "leaving home".

Buddhism re-taught me a lesson I had learned from the hobo world: When the charity bell rings in your ear this holiday, when someone in need approaches you, or even if they do not approach, help. Help any way possible, but help. St. Paul wrote that one must help anybody, since one might be facing an angel without knowing it. The true message there is that everyone should be treated as if they were angels- including hobos. Take some comfort in knowing that hobos helped build this country, too, and never asked for anything in return except food, lodging, perhaps an old coat. Remember that most families, most likely yours too, produced hobos. As you set to the roast turkey and its trimmings, remember that your home could be sitting on land cleared by hobos. Then it won't be so difficult to see that we are all hobos, each in our own way.

© Most Reverend Antonio Hernández, O.M.D., U.B.

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