Railroads, Hobos and Codes

Wabash Cannonball – Boxcar Willie

I am fascinated by the strangest of things.

When I was a teenager, I worked at the local fast food restaurant. One day, our boss came in.  To me, he was rather tall, not ancient but completely white-haired and usually carrying around a coffee mug.  Though my years of working with him, I learned many things.

On this particular day, he told us that he was going to check all the nearby traffic signs. He was a bit odd anyway, so this didn’t strike me as too out of the ordinary for him. Later on, as I was cleaning booths and sweeping the floor, I chanced to look out the window. There he was with a spray bottle and a wash rag, cleaning off all the signs. I sort of shook my head to myself and went on about my business.

Later that evening as we were closing down, one of my coworkers asked, “Did you get all the signs clean?” He had sort of a smug grin on his face as if he was amused at our boss’ bit of weirdness.

Our boss stood up and stated matter-of-factly, “I was surprised at everything that sign told me.” He reached for a trash-bag and continued on his way to whatever he was going to do with it. My co-worker turned to me and asked, “What was all that about?”

I chucked and shrugged. There was much about our boss that I knew I’d never quite understand.

Sometime much later, I was working the counter up front by myself. It was raining pretty hard and there was no customers in the place. My boss walked up to the counter and sort of stood there for a minute. The silence was so awkward that I couldn’t help but blurt out, “What was written on the signs that day you cleaned them?”

He took a teachers pose with perfect posture, leaning an elbow against the register as his other arm remained at a 30 degree angle so he could sip his coffee from time to time. I knew this meant that he was about to go into “‘splaining” mode.

What followed was a conversation I have never forgotten and think about often. It went something like this:

“At the start of the Great Depression there were a lot of men out of work. Some men decided to support themselves by becoming traveling workers. They took jobs nobody else wanted. These men were known as hobos.

Now, I need to be sure that you don’t get them confused, as through the years, other names have come to sort of be synonymous with the hobo, but aren’t the same.

Take the word tramp, like Charlie Chapin’s character (I knew who he meant). That was a person that worked only when forced to. And “bums” were men who drank and didn’t work at all.

Hobos worked, very hard in some cases. But our image of them is that they were dirty men cooking a can a beans over a fire next to a railroad yard because they were homeless and out of work. While that’s true, these men also had a drive to work and make some money, even if it was just enough to get them to the next job.  They were traveling workers, mostly hopping rides on trains.”

He paused and waited for me to nod, which I did, because I was very curious now as to what a hobo had to do with my boss washing signs.

He continued, “Over a period of time, these men developed a way to pass on information about what was ahead…best places to camp, where to find a meal, where to find work, or that a certain place was filled with danger. This way of passing information became known as the Hobo Code.

Now it’s important to know that many men who became hobos couldn’t read, therefore, their code became more like hoboglyphics. Pictures that passed on information.”

He paused and drank his coffee. When he started up again, he seemed to have changed the subject. “Did you ever take the time to read the restaurant manual?”

I wasn’t sure what to say. At the time this conversation occurred, I was in high school full-time and attending college at night, as well as working on the nights I didn’t attend school. So, no, I had never read the manual and didn’t see that happening anytime in the near future.

He waved me off. “Most people don’t read it. But if you ever do, you’ll discover that we have a policy that strictly forbids us to turn down anyone who comes in and asks for a free meal.”

At that moment, I recalled another rainy night when a drifter of sorts had come into the restaurant and asked for a meal. Our boss had told us that if anyone did that, we were to let him know immediately, which we had. Our boss had come forward and taken the guys order, gone in the back and put it together himself and delivered it to the man at his booth where he joined him for a conversation.

My boss continued, “Because it’s our policy, modern-day hobos who know the Code will mark the signs near us to be sure others know the policy.”

I was dumbfounded.

He continued, “That day I went to clean the sign, I learned that there was a free telephone, a nice place to camp, directions to the train yard and that we were a good place for free food.”

He shrugged.  ” I don’t mind giving a hungry man a free meal, but I didn’t want to advertise.”

Ever since that conversation took place, I tend to be drawn to railroads and I always look to see if there are hoboglyphics.  In my younger years, I saw them more often than I do now.  Anytime I find them, it’s like a delightful moment that touches my past on the day that I learned about hobos.

Hope you enjoyed learning about hobos. 


Top – Torrid, (similar here); Pants – Walmart; Shoes – Steve Madden (similar here and here)

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