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Sunday, December 12, 2010

Orders & Sects: The World of the Modern Vagrant

You've no doubt seen me use the term Carpet-Walker a number of times in this blog.  For those non-vagrant readers out there, please understand this is a term of endearment and is not intended to have negative connotation.  It's no different than the term 'vagrant' itself...many assume this word has a negative connotation, but it's all in the intended use.  I happily consider myself a vagrant, and I hope the non-vagrants out there happily consider yourselves carpet-walkers.  There is no offense intended on either side.

The intent of this post is to further dissect some of the classifications of vagrants.  In my experience, every modern vagrant will fall into at least one of these categories, but it's not unusual for ones to be part of more than one.

Rail Men - The oldest and most secretive order of transients.  A common misconception is that any vagrant who hops on a train or lives temporarily near some tracks is automatically a Rail Man.  That's simply not the case.  A Rail Man is part of a very specific order, filled with it's own history and lineage, social mores, customs, language, dialects, symbols, hand signs and binding rules.  I myself was a rail man for a number of years, though I do not currently participate in Rail Riding and am therefore automatically removed from the sect.  NOTE: Although I do have much experience living a life on the rails, I will not be sharing very much specific information about this lifestyle, the hand signals or the terms involved with it.  I do this both out of respect for the secrecy of this group and out of a healthy fear of potential repercussions for doing so.

While bridges are a common gathering point for any sort of vagrant, Bridgers take this to a whole new level.  These men find a bridge they like and will often stay there for months, even years, before moving on.  This is often due to age or medical conditions that don't allow them the fully transient lifestyle they may have practiced in the past.  I like to find a Bridger when I move into unfamiliar territory, as they are often very knowledgeable about the area and the vagrants currently residing there.  They also will often have semi-permanent cooking accommodations, since they plan to stay put for an amount of time, so they might have a grill, a variety of clean pans, access to clean water and other benefits.  NOTE:  While the majority of elderly Bridgers are very friendly and accommodating, sometimes these men are very protective of their territories and are hostile to outsiders.

Urban Foragers
Foraging for food is a common link between all vagrants, but these men take the practice to a whole new level.  They are often proud to say they have lived without paying cash for food for X number of months or years.  They are experts at making the base ingredients for their foodstuffs from scratch, using what is freely available from their surroundings.  The results can be amazing.  I met an Urban Forager named Kelvin one time in Bartlett, Tennessee, and he was able to produce a Tomato & Bacon French-style salad dressing that tasted better than anything store bought I have ever tasted.  He would routinely locate the base ingredients within a sixteen city block radius (including a corner of a state park), and had a trash bin he would ferment the slurry in that would eventually become the dressing.  He would portion off some of the dressing for himself and trade the rest away.  These men are truly artists and are completely devoted to their craft.

True tradesmen.  These men don't bother with labor, they simply buy and sell and skim some off from the profits to survive on.  There are still some that go the "gold watches in the trenchcoat" route, although the internet, free wifi and public libraries have brought many of these men online.  There they will buy an item from a local Swap Sheet or social media group, and then even before they pick it up will list it and try to resell it for a small profit.  It's not a bad idea to locate a local Merch when entering a new village, because they will often have an excess of inventory and are looking to move it for a quick trade.  A great deal can often be found utilizing these men's services, as volume of products bought and sold will often outweigh profit margins.  Be sure to haggle!

Steam Men
Like Bridgers, Steam Men will often be slower in relocating than the average transient.  These ones tend to gravitate toward industrial settings.  Unused warehouses, industrial buildings that are for sale and not in use, large, sprawling dead factories--these are the homes of the modern Steam Men.  One interesting fact I have noticed about these men is that they will often tinker with any leftover equipment still available in these industrial settings, either using them to create industrial art or to re-engineer them into a useful piece of equipment.  They aren't necessarily the most social or generous of vagrants, but Steam Men tend to be very knowledgeable and practical people.  They also tend to form small groups, their own "families", and they will literally die for their "brothers".

Grass Walkers
These are the transients that tend to avoid cities.  Since small towns are notoriously inhospitable to vagrants (especially in this day & age), Grass Walkers will often set up camp in rural and secluded areas, such as large ranches or state parks.  They will often hunt, fish and forage for their meals, and are often considered 'loaners' because they don't customarily gather to share ingredients in a communal bowl.  It's unlikely you'll happen upon a Grass Walker unless you are specifically looking for one and are told where to search.

Camp Boys
Camp Boys are similar to Grass Walkers except for the fact that they are more social and will often exist as part of a close-knit group.  These men will fashion their own tents and will set up semi-permanent camps in areas that they feel are close to available resources and will go relatively undisturbed.  There are fewer and fewer of these sorts of vagrants around, at least in my experience, because groups are more easily noticed living uninvited on someone's rural property than individuals would be.

Masters of alcohol production, beverages that will vary widely but are generally referred to as either Hobo Shine or Hobo Wine.  Similar to Rumrunners or Moonshine Producers of old, Shiners operate on the fringes of the law and will often only sell or trade their product to other vagrants.  The exact type and quality of the alcohol--everything from vodka to beer to very diluted wine--will vary widely by region NOTE: When buying liquor from a Shiner, be sure to inquire locally about his reputation and skill level.  The vast majority of these men run a clean and reasonably sanitary operation, but the conditions that a few operate in are quite unfortunate.

Street Hoofs
This is kind of a catch all term for vagrants that prefer small to mid-sized cities.  I would be considered a Street Hoof today, as I wouldn't currently qualify as a Rail Man.

Side Men
When asked to bring ingredient for a pot of communal hobo soup, what would you think to bring?  Maybe some meat?  A potato?  Some beans?  These are all wonderful ingredients.  However, often overlooked are the side ingredients that add to the flavor or detail of the meal.  Spices, binding agents, brines, relishes, condiments--these sorts of ingredients are often overlooked, but are critical to the dish.  This is the specialty of the Side Men.  They might invest in a chicken breast whose only use is to flavor a season's worth of chicken broth.  Instead of wasting money on a can of broth, a Side Man will spend his money on the meat and use it to create gallons and gallons of his own.  Every group of vagrants ought to include at least one competent Side Man.

Vera Fosters ("VF"s)
Female transients.

I am probably going to get some heat in the comments section for being so blunt, but the best concise way I can think to describe Haps is this:  Haps are aggressive, often violent social vagrants that will often ostracize strangers.  Yes, they are very familial.  Yes, they will often go to great lengths for their hobo brothers.  But the fact of the matter remains that if I come into an area and find it to be inhabited by Haps, I leave without looking back.  In certain cities it seems that the entire population of vagrants there are Haps.

Another kind of catch-all term for vagrants that are very communal.  Said to be named for a group of transients that would meet in the city of Skokie, Illinois every spring and band together until winter time, when they would go their separate ways south or west.  Some vagrants prefer to dine alone, prepare their own meals.  Those of us who eat the majority of our meals from a communal pot are Skokies.

Lambs Tails
The opposite of a Skokie, a Lambs Tail is a vagrant that eats the majority of their meals alone.

Hobo Historians
These great men preserve and pass on the stories on of our spiritual ancestors, the vagrants of years gone by. Too many of us try to live our lives only in the present, and since transients are so inclined to "look forward, not backward", it is easy to forget the great men who forged this way of life.  This history of vagrants in America is wonderful, engaging, tragic and beautiful, and these men will tell the tale in a way that will bring a tear to your eye.  Beyond this, some of these men are also experts in the history of vagrants from around the world, stories and lessons that will often go back hundreds and hundreds of years.  Many of them are willing to share this information for free, but I encourage everyone to offer these men a trinket or a meal for their tales.  Keeping these men fat and healthy is an important way to keep our history alive for the next generation to hear and appreciate.

Bell Men
Some transients live in a remote area, either a forgotten section of a city or in a rural area.  Often these ones will try to form a 'human chain', ensuring there is at least one transient within earshot.  At certain times of the day they will ascend to a high point, such as the top of a tall tree or the roof of a building, and will communicate messages up and down the line through the ringing of bells.  Information such as warnings, gathering points, passwords, news and other such communique can be transmitted through this human chain.

Black Tips
These are the news-gatherers in a group of vagrants, named for the darkened fingertips one will acquire when pawing through newspapers.  Their day will be centered around gathering local, state and national news that is relevant to the group of vagrants they associate with.  If they have a semi-permanent place of residence, such as a corner under a bridge or in a building, they will often plaster the walls with newspaper clippings and their own writings.  Some Black Tips I have encountered will even produce their own hand-written vagrant newspapers for distribution among the group, complete with editorials, classifieds, obituaries and comic strips.

Presumably named after President Hubert H. Humphrey, these are the traditional leaders among a family of vagrants.  If it is a blood-related family, the patriarch will often be considered the group Humphrey.  In the rare case a war is declared between families, the Humphries on either side will be in charge of deciding both the terms and the conclusion of the event.

Communication by printed word is still a common way for vagrants to communicate with each other, such as in Swap Sheets, classified sections of the newspaper, online sales and other ways.  Often an ad will be placed where every third letter is coded to spell out a certain message, such as a password used for a secretive hobo gathering.  If you need to get a cryptic message posted in a local periodical, you will need to find the local Media vagrant.  For a fee he will transcribe your message into an a singles ad or an ad for a vacuum cleaner for sale.

Thumpers are vagrants with an agenda to push, often as Christian ministers or bastions for a certain political party.  They are generally unpopular within the average vagrant social circle.

Oddly named, Larks are vagrant criminals.  It is a broad term that would include transients that steal food from stores, participate in illegal or unscrupulous activities for money, harm others or try to outwit another vagrant for profit.  Once outed as a Lark a vagrant will often have to leave the area to rid himself of the stigma.

Also known as 'dice throwers', these vagrants specialize in under-the-table gambling.

A nonspecific term for a vagrant that collects an excess of inventory, to the point where it is unwieldy to try to move from place to place.  Hoarders will rarely collect items of value, and even though they have such a collection it is often difficult for them to liquidate any of it for money in a time of need.

You've probably heard the term 'Tijuana Bible' before, referring to the sexually-explicit comics that were a popular 'under the table' item for purchase in pre-war America.  Inkers will often produce these sorts of materials intended for a vagrant audience.   Since pornographic magazines are expensive and this sort of material cannot be easily accessed online at a public library, these sorts of hand-drawn materials are still very popular among some vagrant groups.  The materials may be traced from a pornographic magazine or simply drawn freehand.  They may have a plot or may not, they may be humorous or may not.  The vast majority are crudely-drawn, but some are surprisingly detailed and even shaded with color.  Authors of these materials will often use them for trade, and some become quite famous within vagrant circles.

Broad term for a vagrant who is especially talented at collecting tales to share with the group.  These tales will often not be for sale (see 'Hobo Historians') but will be freely provided for a group after a meal or at the end of the day.  These men are often the most social, most engaging and most popular among their group.

There are countless others, but these are the main ones that will likely be referred to in this blog.  Besides, my time is nearly up here at the local public.

In solidarity,

Train Tom