Yuppie hobos ride rails, share bond with the past

May 13, 1993|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

BRAINERD, Minn. -- When the "Sacramento Kid" decided to hop a freight train to the hobo convention here in early May, he donned his overalls and red T-shirt and lit out for the airport.

The airport? Well, there was just no way the 29-year-old computer chip engineer had the time to travel the full distance by boxcar from his California home.

A quick flight to Minneapolis, a warm car ride to the rail yards and there was the Kid --ing alongside a monstrous black train, reaching for a steel ladder above his head. Grabbing the lowest rung, he swung himself up onto a double-decker container car and settled in for a three-hour ride.

The Kid, who asked that his real name not be used because it might interfere with his career, is a new-generation hobo, a linear, if not spiritual, descendant of the destitute men who rode the rails looking for work during the Great Depression.

Unlike their down-on-their-luck predecessors, today's "hobos" are just as likely to be restless yuppies who carry high-tech scanners to eavesdrop on train engineers and American Express cards in case they get thrown off.

Despite that, they insist they share a bond with the Depression-era tramps.

In fact, it is the often-affluent rail aficionados who are championing the older hobos these days, holding celebrations all over the country to restore the reputation of what they say is TC fading American folk hero.

Hobos are too often confused with homeless beggars, they say, when they were in fact self-reliant migrant workers with a code of honor and sense of brotherhood.

"The hobo was never a homeless person except by choice," said Garth Bishop, who calls himself "Captain Cook" in the hobo tradition of taking a nickname to obscure a troubled past -- which in Mr. Bishop's case, is nothing worse than working in publishing in Los Angeles. "He would hop the next train to the next job. It was just a chosen means of transportation."

To promote the hobo cause, a handful of nostalgia buffs have founded the Hobo Association, many of whose 5,000 members have never ridden the rails. There is also the Hobo Times, a six-issue-a-year publication that includes tips on hopping freights while officially discouraging the practice, since it is illegal -- and lists of forthcoming celebrations.

There is even an 800 number for more information: (800) 622-HOBO.

"These guys are doing a great job," said Guitar Whitey, a 72-year-old hobo who still rides six months a year.

Bobb Hopkins, 44, is one of the new breed who rides the rails for sheer joy, and at his own convenience. He's never begged a sandwich or passed a bottle of muscatel, yet loves the feel of a boxcar. "It's like a symphony of sounds," said Mr. Hopkins, "the tick-tick of the rail, the wind, the horn . . . ."

To reach a hobo celebration held in Brainerd earlier this month, Mr. Hopkins took a redeye flight from his home in Los Angeles, where he writes screenplays.

He arrived at Minneapolis airport about 7:15 a.m., dressed in his train-riding clothes: freshly washed blue jeans, a flannel shirt and suspenders, work boots. He carried an Instamatic camera. With him were three other hobo hobbyists, including "Captain Cook" Bishop, the editor of the Hobo Times, and Bob "Itchy Foot" Spediacci, vice president of California Express courier service.

The group headed immediately for the Alamo car rental counter, where they rented a white Cadillac. "More room," explained Mr. Hopkins.

Mr. Hopkins tried to explain the appeal of hopping trains.

"It's one of the few things you can do in a technological age that is truly independent," he said.

Guitar Whitey said there was an illicit lure to rail hopping.

"The part that gives it the flavor is the part that it's illegal," said Whitey. "It's dangerous, it's dirty, and any number of things could go wrong. If it was all cut and dried, there wouldn't be anything to it."

Along with the weekend hobos like Mr. Hopkins and his friends, the gatherings attract more authentic tramps, some of whom seem a little confounded by their new, yuppie brethren.

Sitting on a bar stool in Brainerd, for instance, was Ernest Hanson, 83, who rode the rails 60 years ago when they were steam trains.

Looking around him at the newer, younger professionals drinking imported beer, he smiled and said only, "I think they're enjoying it, and that's fine."

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