Songs about riding trains across America always include hobo songs, there are a multitude of hobo songs and Arlo Guthrie sings them as well as anyone.
Its a romantic image, the American hobo jumping a train and riding for hundreds of miles to a new town sitting in a box car playing a harmonica and singing, standing around oil can fires in railroad yards waiting for the next goods train to pull out, a life spent riding the trains for free, carefree, with a dog on a string.
I met the British equivalent last Monday evening.
I’d been to Birmingham for the day, Cross Country trains, runs the length and width of the country, Aberdeen to Plymouth, every hour on the hour, I did the Leeds to Birmingham sector, and then back the same evening.
My trusty ticket booker in the office always books me a table seat, so I took my seat at New Street station on the 4pm to Leeds, two women sat at the table working on laptops, I took out the eBook and started to read…
“The Girl Who Played With Fire”, but thats nothing to do with the story.
All was well, it was the quiet coach, no mobile phones allowed, it was, well, quiet, people tapped away on their laptops in a self important way, I read my book, it was very civilised.
And so it should be for £106 return.
And then, when the train stopped in Derby…
A tramp got on.
A proper tramp, scruffy corduroy trousers three sizes too big for him and tied up with string, a shapeless “farmers” jacket of heavy tweed that hung from him like a bed quilt thrown over his shoulders, pockets full to bursting with pens and bits of stuff he’d picked up from the pavement, he carried two huge cloth “bags for life” which were crammed with everything that he owned in his life, a pair of his dirty socks lay on top of one of them.
Spectacles repaired with the use of an elastoplast and hair long, wet, bedraggled hung over his face, he could have been either 25 years old or 70 years old, it was impossible to tell.
In an Arlo Guthrie song he wouldn’t have boarded coach D of the 4pm X-Country to Leeds, he’d have waited in the bushes at the side of the tracks and run alongside as the train slowly pulled out of the station then jumped up into a box car at the back and spent the rest of the journey sitting on the floor next to the open door blowing softly on a harmonica.
But this isn’t America, our hobo’s aren’t romantic characters of the mid-west, our hobo’s are scruffy smelly old tramps and we don’t have box cars for them to ride on, so they get on the train and hope to avoid the ticket collector.
And of course, he sat in the seat opposite me, I mean, he had to didn’t he, he walked up and down the coach and there were plenty of other seats but then he came back and sat opposite me, I half expected him to lean over the table and whisper, “You’ll be able to write about this in your blog this weekend won’t you ?”
The two women at the table looked horrified.
I couldn’t help a smile, managed to bite in an outright laugh, kept my head down and read my book but kept sneaking looks, I’d never seen a person with so many pens in their top pocket.
He pulled an old sheet of paper out of an inside pocket and a pen out of his top pocket and wrote something on the paper, it was covered in numbers, no letters, just thousands of numbers, he read all of the numbers on the old folded sheet of paper for several minutes, then scribbled something in the margin and put the paper and the pen back in his pockets, maybe it was his expenses to the tramps association.
The ceiling seemed to fascinate him so he sat for about twenty minutes just staring at the lights and then he pulled from another pocket a mobile phone, an old Nokia, and it was at this point that I almost stood up and exclaimed “Sir, you are a disgrace to trampdom for what sort of tramp can afford £106 for a train ticket AND a mobile phone ?” I mean, tramps with mobile phones, what the hell sort of world are we living in ?
Mind, I;m not saying that it had a SIM card in it for all he did was switch it on and stare at it for a while, then laugh out loud as if another tramp had sent him an abusive text, “Have fire going in tar barrel under M6, BTW you’re a knob, LOL” but when I got off at Leeds he was still sat there staring at the ceiling for all the world as if he expected it to fall on his head any minute, and the only reason I suspect that he was still there is because the ticket inspector never made his rounds again after Derby and for all I know that tramp could have got all the way to Aberdeen last Monday evening.
British railroad hobos, same theory, but ride inside with mobile phones.