River Rats

St. Paul hosts the alternative hobo convention

The unwashed travelers converged on St. Paul from Whitefish and Helena, Milwaukee and Seattle, Council Bluffs. Some arrived by train, others by thumb or bus. Dogman Tony and New York Slim, Patches and No Name, Little Bear and Skeeter, more than 100 hobos in all. For four days they camped on the banks of the Mississippi, in the shadow of the Landmark Brewery. They discussed the politics of train hopping, played music, wrestled, and, most importantly, consumed as much alcohol as humanly possible.

The impetus for this gathering? Trampfest 2000.

Trampfest was mounted as a repudiation of the National Hobo Convention, a gathering of train riders past and present that takes place each August in Britt, Iowa, home to the Hobo Museum and a hobo cemetery. Many were put off by the convention in Britt last year because of what they saw as police harassment, lack of financial support from the town, and outright fraud in the annual election of the King and Queen of the Hobos. (Firecracker, a 25-year-old anarchist train rider who campaigned on the slogan "Let's put the ho back in hobo!" was allegedly denied her rightful crown because it was feared she would be a bad influence on the kids.)

Life on the Mississippi: Banjo-pickin' time at Trampfest 2000
Michael Dvorak
Life on the Mississippi: Banjo-pickin' time at Trampfest 2000

The rationale for the alternative-hobo convention in St. Paul was laid out in a zine called Hobocore that circulated among train riders. "So why not move the 'real' hobo convention and free it from Britt's fat tourists, sleazy money-grubbing, small-town politicians, self-satisfied right-wing politics, stupid small-minded hypocrisy, missionaries, cops, and RV-driving fake hobos?"

So they came to St. Paul.


Thursday, August 3, 7:00 p.m.: Perhaps 60 people are scattered around the hobo encampment, dubbed the Jungle. Clusters of tents--some shiny and weatherproof, others nothing more than ragged army surplus cloth--dot the woods. Skinny, mangy dogs dart everywhere, unable to decide whether to fornicate or fight one another. The humidity has broken and a breeze occasionally pushes in off the Mississippi.

Most of the train riders are gathered around a fire pit, although no fire is burning. Judging by the mountains of beer cans spilling out of garbage bags and littered throughout the grounds, heroic quantities of alcohol have already been consumed. Some people have been living down here for weeks; others hit town today. The possibility of police intervention hovers in the air. One person claims to have seen the cops watching through binoculars from the nearby rail bridge over the Mississippi.

The crowd can be roughly split into two groups. The younger set, ranging from 16 to 25 years old, favors multiple piercings, tattoos, and wardrobes consisting exclusively of army green and black. Their heads are shaved or sprout dreadlocks. They have been dubbed the Flintstones because of their tribal body adornments.

The older set has been riding the rails for years, and is weather-beaten and alcohol-sodden. It's impossible to gauge their age, but undoubtedly the men are younger than they look. Some are Vietnam vets. A handful are linked with the Freight Train Riders Association, which the media has portrayed as an organized gang of killers. Most train riders dismiss this as a fantastical myth.

Sitting in a legless, rapidly decaying red armchair is Dogman Tony. He has raccoon eyes, matted shoulder-length graying hair, and an assemblage of dirt-caked clothes. Dogman Tony was once featured on "America's Most Wanted," allegedly in connection with a Texas murder. There was never enough evidence to result in charges, according to press accounts. "Stoned again," Dogman Tony offers by way of commentary, a can of Special Export in his hand. "This is better than Britt already. Fuck Britt."

Conversation borders on lucidity. A guy named Jake in a tie-dyed T-shirt, with hangdog eyes and the goofy grin of the permanently stoned, is pondering the "Naked Bacon."

"What's the Naked Bacon?" he's asked.

"It's uh, when people get naked and like roll around on the ground like they're having an epileptic fit and shit."

"When does the Naked Bacon take place?"

"Oh," Jake offers. "It's pretty much every night." This is followed by a long silence, during which Jake seems to be replaying in his mind a past performance. "Man, I ain't ever gonna be drunk enough to do the Naked Bacon," he concludes. The conversation then turns to malt liquor and which beers have the greatest adverse effect on one's sobriety. It's a significant question because the beer reserves are almost shot. Fifty-four dollars is collected and a re-supply run is made.

Sitting on the grass near the edge of the water is a scrawny kid with a banjo. A sheen of dirt covers his lanky frame. His eyes, hidden beneath a baseball cap, have the vacant look of a Depression-era Dorothea Lange subject. His name is Andrew. He's 17 years old and has been riding the trains for more than two years.

"It's just free transportation and there's a lot of cool things that come along with it," says Andrew, who speaks in a quiet staccato voice and declines to give his last name. "I like the scenic aspect of it. And there are cool people. Those are extra perks."

Andrew generally travels the rails alone. He rarely drinks and calls his mom from every stop along the way. To support himself, he scavenges food out of dumpsters, panhandles, and occasionally performs migrant work--apple picking in Washington state, strawberry picking on the East Coast. "I work, but I'm not proud of it," he says. "I don't like the working part. I like the traveling part."

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