Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Hobos and Weirdos I Have Known and Loved

Eventually I'd like to stockpile all of my old favorite articles from the Noise, in one easy-to-read location-- maybe here.
This one, a favorite of mine, was published in May 2008. My recent visit to Flagstaff inspired me to revisit it....

Hobos and Weirdos I Have Known and Loved
May 2008 "The Noise"- The Outs
By Ellen Jo Roberts

Flagstaff is a railroad town with a long history of hobos arriving via boxcar. Despite downtown's current boutiquey chic, it wouldn't take much to scrape away the glossy veneer, revealing a seedy underbelly populated by vagabonds. Summer breezes bring an abundance of weirdos, rolling in with their knapsacks, all enjoying the mild climate of outdoor living and the plentiful public land. I have known my share of hobos and I have adored them all. Their certain je ne sais quois adds invaluably to the flavor of any town.

First of all, I'd like to clarify what I mean by hobos. I do not include trust fund hippies ("trustafarians"), all traveling in artfully disheveled colonies, resting under downtown shrubs with at least 1 vaguely feral looking dingo mutt. They are hobo-wannabees, easily outted by their good teeth, expensive faux bohemian sandals, and a fanciful romantic notion of what it means to be a tramp. My ol' pal Brian called them "hippycrites". Hippycrites were a pet gripe of ol' Bri. Hypocritical hippies that complained about the government yet "used federal highways and got food stamps".

When I speak of hobos I mean the true busted, broken down, woolly weirdos who are living on the fringes of reality and the thinnest margins of society. They may have at one point had normal lives, jobs, families, in some land far away-- but in their current incarnation they have become "that weirdo". Often times with a geographic designation---"that weirdo who hangs out on Leroux" or some other modifier-- "that weirdo in the white jumpsuit on the bike", "that midget weirdo who pushed the baby stroller", etc. Even people who do not know their names have created a name for them and recognize them from the details.

I grew up in a big city and took public transportation so I am well conditioned to the presence of vagrants and vagabonds. My father, a Chicago policeman, called them "bust -outs". Just a catch-all term for folks living outside of regular society. Maybe homeless, maybe not. Maybe crazy, maybe not. Maybe broke, maybe sitting on a big bank account that nobody ever seemed to discover until long after their death. There were many weirdos in every neighborhood, weirdo mascots specific to a certain street or park, and while not all of them were harmless, the majority were as more frightened of us than we were of them. Each had their own eccentricity, a funny walk, a bad hairstyle, pants pulled up too high or hanging too low. Most shared the common characteristic of muttering to themselves.

Flagstaff attracts a wealth of weirdos. The rails and major interstates all converge on the picturesque mountain town. It is easy to blend in with the eccentric mix of natives, foreign tourists, and college students. It's a place where everyone is passing through, for a day, a week, or a few years. There were many favorite weirdos and freaks in Flagstaff. Remember that mystical fellow with the cape and the staff, fancying himself a wizard of some kind? What was his deal? How about that guy who rolled his VW Bus, then had it towed to a parking lot where he continued to use it as habitation for himself and several cats. There was that old fellow from Virginia who smoked a pipe and occasionally donned his army dress suit, complete with a chest full of medallions. I still think of that lil' guy called Herman, the small slumped wanderer of downtown, in his sweaty trench coat and slicked back hair. I never heard him say a word, but I once saw him smile. When Herman died many folks truly lamented his passing.

A visit to the Flagstaff library always was a certain opportunity to catch a bustout snoozing in a comfy overstuffed chair. Many of these random characters had been 86'ed from most of the bars in town, and several of them had a tendency to piss their pants. At one time, in the not too distant past, rivers of piss polluted downtown Flagstaff. "Dolores the Dwarf" was one of the famously incontinent. She was, as her moniker implies, a dwarf. She was elderly, with a mop top of shaggy white hair, and could often times be seen awakening from her favorite sleeping spot, in a doorway on Aspen Street. She would push a baby-stroller full of all of her meager belongings, swearing at cars and pedestrians, calling everyone foul names, muttering "hippies, punks, communists, polacks!" under her breath as she struggled with her stroller.
"I wonder of she has a family somewhere?" I mused, one day.
"They probably dumped her off here, like a stray dog." I was sworn at by Dolores, and it brightened my day every time. Every encounter with a weirdo enriches my life and adds another tale for the archives. Their outlooks are so vastly different they may as well be from a different planet, or a time traveler from a different millennium.

Grubbs was a favorite character in my Flagstaff story. Sometimes called "Chuck", or "Shiloh", but mostly just called Grubbs. A religion could be built on his teachings, and in fact, my friend Alice created one—she called it The Church of Grubbs. He lived in a motel on Route 66 and went to the Monte Vista Lounge every day to play the ponies at the off-track-betting. Legend has it he once got arrested for peeing off a roof. He was tall, robust and rumpled, with one pant leg tucked into his boot and one left untucked, a sure sign of craziness. There was something Bill Murray-esque about him, something endearing, crooked and oafish like Carl Spackler in Caddyshack. He talked in a blurred, deep, rolling mumble. Most of the time he talked about Eva Braun, Idi Amin, and the Playboy Bunny, a stream on non-sequiturs, though this was occasionally punctuated by sudden bout of clarity. Sometimes he bordered on the brilliant and profound.

He told me he had been a cop. I said, "Wow, that had to be a tough job!" He responded, suddenly articulate, "Nope, easiest job in the world. You put on that uniform and (*snapped fingers*) you get anything you want." Another time, out of the blue he said, "How many people do you think went to Harvard and don't remember it?"
One time he said, "You're my girl, right?" as he walked by and I went weak in the knees. I am Grubbs' girl! He thinks I am his girl!

Perhaps his most enduring comment was his common salutation: "How's yer politics?" I myself have used this to greet people for years. It is perfect.

Grubbs stole a waitress' tip from off the counter and left 3 cigarettes in its place. Some kind of fair trade in his mind. One time I saw him eating flowers out of a planter on Route 66. He was enchanting. Alice asked to take his photo. "For 'The Winner's Circle'? Sure," he said. I'm not sure what the Winner's Circle was, but he for sure was in it, in his mind anyway, wrapped in flowers standing next to his favorite horse. We were also winners, because his image was forever captured for posterity. In the shadowy photo he is sleepy-faced, slightly crooked, with tilted posture, his eyes half closed, and his mouth half open because he of course he hadn't stopped talking the whole time. I wonder what ever happened to Grubbs. Maybe he is still around, playing the ponies now at the Museum Club, eating flowers along the roadside and trading for cigarettes. Maybe he drifted on to greener pastures, or was finally collected back up by his family far away. Maybe he had escaped and they'd been looking for him for years. I wonder if he had any children or was ever married. Maybe he finally made it to the Winner's Circle.

Despite my mom's best teachings I have a habit of talking to strangers, the stranger the better. It is because I know they will always share some nugget of wisdom, even though it may be cloaked in crazy talk and gibberish. I also know that most of us are only a few degrees removed from being hobos ourselves. You never know what is down that next road, and where those rails might take you.

Ellen Jo Roberts lives in the old railroad town of Clarkdale Arizona. She shares a 94 year old house with a 35 year old husband, and several pets of random ages. They are surrounded by assorted 1970s vintage Volkswagens. Read all about it at www.ellenjo.com

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