The Writing on the Rails
Conrail Twitty. Coaltrain. Palm Tree Herby. Smokin’ Joe. Waterbed Lou. Seldom Seen. Bozo Texino. The Rambler. Colossus of Roads. Is there any way to read names like these—tagged in dusty chalk or greasy paint stick on steel sidewalls rushing by behind closed crossing gates—without falling under the rhythmic sway of America’s longtime romance with railroads?
Not for peripatetic film artist and aficionado of cultural obscurities Bill Daniel, who began researching railcar graffiti tags—and the transient hobo communities and rail worker fraternities that spawn them—25 years ago. Daniel, himself the spawn of Austin’s mid-’80s Do It Yourself punk styles and strategies, has documented the neglected art form and underexplored history, first with black-and-white photographs, and later on Super 8 and 16 mm film. He took to the rails himself, riding freight with the old-timers and looking on as a new generation of train-hoppers began assuming the hobo mantle, bringing their own aerosol aesthetic along for the ride.
Sixteen years of footage, shot mostly from moving railcars, found beautifully condensed form in Daniel’s 2006 film, Who Is Bozo Texino?, which manages to answer the titular question while leaving its essential mystery undisturbed. At the most literal level, Bozo Texino was J.H. McKinley, an early-20th-century trainman stationed in Laredo, Texas, who developed as his graphic signature the simple bust of a pipe-smoking character in a peaked hat with an infinity-shaped brim. Given that McKinley has been followed over the course of at least 80 years by a succession of Bozo Texinos, each dedicated to the semi-anonymous continuance of the character, the truer answer ends up having more to do with mythology and community than biography.
Mostly True is an addendum to the film, a place to publish transcripts of the film’s interviews, still photos, and what Daniel calls the “paper-based ephemera” of his quarter-century exploration. Lest “paper-based ephemera” strike too academic a nerve—suggesting a beach book burdened with bibliographies and footnotes—rest assured that Mostly True, true to its name, puts its most ambiguous foot forward. The book—Daniel’s first—is identified as Vol. 19, No. 7 of “The West’s Most Popular Hobo Graffiti Magazine” (a well-mimicked falsehood) and the issue is dated April 1908. If you read through all the paper-based ephemera between the book’s vintage pulp covers, you’ll learn about the hobo who dates all his tags in the 19-oughts. He was born, he says, a hundred years too late. The contents of this seemingly tossed-off treasure chest turn out to include advertisements both current and antique (Pullman cars!), letters to the editor that may or may not be from the hobos to which they’re attributed, an unreproducible recipe for a cocktail called the Hobo’s Wife, historical musings, firsthand accounts, indignant distinction-drawing between perfectly respectable hobos (who aren’t averse to working their way from jungle to jungle) and tramps (who apparently are), interviews with rail riders, newspaper clippings, a poem about freight graffiti, handwritten testimonials, napkin maps, hobo signs, a short story, sketches, doodles, diary entries, cartoons, pencil rubbings of water-tank carvings, and lots and lots of photos of hobo graffiti.
Collectively, Mostly True amounts to a charming and at least semifactual folkloric portrait of “hobohemia,” a world where America still holds out some small promise of freedom, as the concept relates to both time and space. You set your own schedule as a hobo, and you go where you want to go, just as long as there’s a line that runs there.
In America, it’s only getting harder to indulge these sorts of unencumbered freedom fantasies, which is exactly what Daniel’s hobo heroes give the rest of us permission to do.
Indulging them is important, steam that needs venting. Because hobohemia also offers the very American, yet vanishing, option of moving on down the road rather than going along to get along, accommodating a preference for a social universe in which not everyone wants to—or has to—play the game.
“They say this country is based on hard work and integrity and worshipping God,” says a hobo called Robert. “That’s a lie. It’s built on murder, man. Mayhem, slavery, oppression, lies, stealin’ and killin’. That’s what it’s based on. And you can’t change it after it started. Just stay away from it. Try to get away from it. Be independent of it. Cause if you try to deal in it, you become part of it. Stay away from it, you diminish it by one. By one.”
That’s just one ‘bo’s bum trip, of course, a single voice in a hobo chorus that spans a spectrum from rebellious to resigned, with stops along the way at philosophical and drunk.
The book that binds them is a free-spirited production by Brooklyn boutique designers with train-tagging on their rÃ©sumÃ©s, and an Indiana micropublisher with a penchant for specialty press runs and small-scale distribution (Mostly True is available through www.microcosmpublishing.com and akpress.org). The physical book, as a result, is a stylish, tactile treat, printed in black and white on paper made to decompose in the first decent rain. Flipping through unexpected page after unexpected page, even readers who’ll never come any closer to hopping a freight than catching a D.C. commuter will feel the wind in their hair, the grit in their teeth, and the rumble of rail underfoot.
Brad Tyer is the Observer‘s managing editor.