Saturday, August 8, 2009

The King and I

The first time I met the King I was eating spaghetti at the Gladstone Church in Pullman. He walked in with no fanfare.

He had no entourage. No flowing robes. Instead of a crown he wore a dirty black baseball cap, his curly brown hair poking out the sides and back. Patches of gray sprouted from his beard around his cheeks. His round belly jutted forth beneath a black T-shirt.

To me, he looked just like many of the others in the dining hall attached to the church. We were there enjoying a kick-off meal to the Pullman Hobofest, an event I wrote about for the Sun-Times last September.

As the King entered the room, someone called out to notify everyone the King had arrived. People stopped eating to applaud. It was believed he would be in town for the event, but with hobos you never know for sure until they are standing in front of you. The King smiled and waved, clearly enjoying the moment.

That was Stretch, who a month earlier had been named the 2008 Hobo King at the national convention in Britt, Iowa. Today, Stretch will hand off his crown to the new king and will go back to being simply Stretch.

I wanted to be there this weekend for that event. Up until about a month ago I thought I would be. But it didn’t work out and I instead am left to write about my first experience with Stretch and his hobo brethren (and sisteren, if that was a word).

When I met Stretch he was just starting his reign as king. He was living in Cleveland, but really he lived on the rails with his dog, Burlington. He had lost his job of nine years and didn’t want to impose on his friend, who offered him a rent-free room until he could find work again.

But Stretch isn’t a freeloader. And he’s not a bum. Hobos take great pride in pointing out they are not bums. They aren’t tramps either. Hobos travel the country looking for work. Tramps travel the country searching for something else. Meanwhile, bums don’t travel or look for work.

At the time, Stretch was philosophical about being out of work.

“Maybe it was meant to be,” he told me. “Right after I got laid off, I became hobo king. I don’t have time to work now. I’ve got gatherings to go to all over the United States.”

He’s been busy, too. I’ve followed his experiences all over the country via his Facebook updates. Yes, hobos have Facebook accounts. And MySpace pages. And e-mail addresses. And cell phones. They might not always have access to the Internet, or the money to keep their phone accounts active. But they do have the technology.

The more I’ve read about hobos, the more interested I became in the lifestyle. I enjoyed the taste of it I got in Pullman. But at the end of the day, Kristin and I left the jungle and drove home to our comfortable bed in the suburbs. The hobos stayed right there and camped out.

There is something tempting in the romantic notion of hopping a freight train headed somewhere—anywhere—and disappearing. My notion includes forsaking technology. Of putting down my cell phone, of leaving my laptop behind, of forgetting the clutter of modern life.

At least for a while. For now, though, I’ll settle for living vicariously through Stretch with his Facebook updates.

See you down the road, Stretch.

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