Thursday, November 23, 2006

Hobo in Paradise

It's no secret that Betty is an advocate for day laborers. Another group of worldly and flexible people who have been unfairly maligned, their contributions to American life forgotten, are hobos. Betty is grateful to have learned today about Steam Train Maury (born Maurice W. Graham), who - to use hobo terminology - "took the westbound" yesterday at the age of 89. With him, Maury takes his title Life King of the Hobos East of the Mississippi, and a legacy as vast as the "Iron Road" that splays over this country.

Maury hopped his first freight train at age 14, leaving a troubled Kansas home behind in 1931. He learned cement-masonry and set up a school for masons in Toledo, OH, not far from the small town of Napoleon, where he died. He served as an Army medical technician during World War II, and worked as a day laborer until the age of 54, when he began riding the rails again. He was a founding member of the Hobo Foundation, and helped establish the Hobo Museum in Britt, Iowa, where the National Hobo Convention in still held annually.

"A hobo is a man of the world, who travels to see and observe and then shares those views with others," he said. In his 1990 autobiography, "Tales of the Iron Road: My Life as King of the Hobos," Maury emphasized hobo chivalry and bonds, descried hobo convention attendees who were "show-bos, not hobos," and asserted that hobos are not bums, winos, or no-goodniks, but rather shadow builders of industry, particularly in the American West.

Admirers of the hobo lifestyle, while lamenting the poverty conditions that landed more than a million desperate people on freight trains in search of work during the Great Depression, still express appreciation for the hobo's creative lifestyle, self-determination, intense loyalty to friends and community, and resistance to American cultural norms like materialism. John Steinbeck called hobos "the last free men" in his wonderful road memoir Travels With Charley.

At you can learn more about Maury, the Foundation, the Museum, the Convention, Hobo music and art, the Hobo Union, Hobo dress, and the appeal of an ascetic way of life "so sweet, so addictive, so seductive, so intoxicating, that those of us who retire after 20, 30, even 40 years are never really free of it."

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