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River Rats

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

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.)

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."

In two days Andrew will hop on a train heading west. He has a court date in Seattle. In July, he says, he was convicted of felony malicious mischief for activities during the World Trade Organization protests and now must return to be sentenced. He doesn't want to discuss the exact nature of the charges, dismissing them with a wave of his hand. "I don't think it's serious, but they do."

Andrew uses Portland as a sort of home base. He volunteers at an "animal rights/anarchist" collective there called the Liberation Clinic, and describes himself as an activist. A paddleboat passes by on the Mississippi and Andrew offers his appraisal. "Fucking yuppies," he mumbles.

Andrew has no intention of leaving the rails. "I don't fucking wanna be at the end of my train-hopping career," he says. "I like being at the start of it, 'cause I got a lot of shit to learn and a lot of places to see and people to meet."

Back at the fire pit, a schism has developed. The older train riders have formed their own circle and their own fire--and taken most of the $54 worth of beer with them. The Flintstones have just a case of Milwaukee Best Ice to last the night.

 

Friday, August 4, 12:45 p.m.: A tour of the Landmark Brewery is scheduled for 1:00 p.m. Shortly before departure time, a fresh keg arrives at the Jungle. Calls for everyone to begin making their way to the brewery fall on deaf ears.

New York Slim, a tall, dignified, graying Vietnam vet and former King of the Hobos, surveys the scene. "I'm afraid," he intones, "that the keg has seriously fucked up the brewery tour."

Only five people make it to the tour.

 

Saturday, August 5, 7:35 p.m.: At the head of the dirt path leading to the Jungle, someone has attempted to memorialize the hobo gathering. Scrawled into the sandstone is
"Tampfest 2000."

The mood is decidedly muted. Some people have already packed up and moved on down the tracks, for Milwaukee or Chicago or Seattle. Most are recovering from some form of overindulgence. An Australian girl plays an Irish tune on a tin whistle. Several guys huddle over a game of dice baseball.

Rocco Nagy has been at the Jungle for a week. He heard about the gathering from a train hopper named Stretch in Whitefish. Nagy is 22 years old and he's been riding trains for four years. His body is adorned with a chain-link choker, metal-studded leather bracelets, and a massive ring through the center of his nose. His tank top is held together with a safety pin, and his pants are constructed largely of various patches, one of which reads "Jack Daniel's Field Tester." Nagy's hand is bandaged up from a drunken wrestling match the previous night. This evening he's sticking to Swiss Miss and cigarettes. As he talks in a nasal voice, he repeatedly pronounces Minneapolis with an extra N, as in Minne-en-apolis.

"I've been in a good amount of the country," Nagy says. "From north to south to east to west, mostly every damn state in America. I ride trains to get away from people. It's this weird, metal piece of transportation that not many people use anymore--and I can get anywhere I want on it. I'm hanging my legs off a boxcar, smoking a cigarette, eating some pork and beans. Oh yeah."

Propped against the log where Nagy sits is a kid in a Slayer T-shirt who made the unfortunate mistake of passing out by the fire pit. His face has been covered over with black and red magic marker. His feet have been bound with rope. His ears are filled with sand. People occasionally walk over to lift up his shirt and peer into his ears. He never stirs.

Nagy says that he began riding trains after getting kicked out of his parents' house in San Diego. "I was homeless," he says. "I pawned everything I owned, and then I started pawning my parents' stuff. I became a quote unquote drug addict, if you want to say. I was way into crystal meth. But I quit all that shit. I haven't done it for, like, four years."

 

The first train that Nagy hopped took him to Mexico. He got stuck in a railroad yard there for two weeks, unable to catch a freight back across the border. "We ate at the dumpster and chased dogs around and shit," he recalls.

He says he's been caught by the rail cops --"bulls" in hobo parlance--eight times. After Trampfest, he's heading to North Platte, Nebraska, one of the largest rail yards in the country. "They train the bulls there," he says. "I love the competition. It's like a war."

From North Platte, Nagy plans to make his way east to Charlottesville, Virginia, where he grew up and which he still thinks of as home. Come winter he hopes to be in Florida, soaking up sunshine.

Nagy doesn't think of himself as a tramp or a hobo. "I'm just a train hopper," he says. "I'm not gonna say I'm a hobo. It's not the Depression. I'm not looking for work. I'm just a train hopper."


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