Thousands of modern-day hobos descended on Britt, Iowa this past weekend for the 107th annual Hobo Convention. Some of those hobos were here in Ohio a few weeks back for their own hobo gathering at Deep Lock Quarry in Peninsula. As ideastream's Dan Bobkoff learned, being a hobo is not what it used to be.
Meet Luther Gette.
Luther Gette: Luther Gette is my regular name, but they call me Luther the Jet on the railroad for riding Amtrak so fast.
Luther is a lanky, self-deprecating man. He's bearded and bespectacled and wears tattered clothes. A modern day hobo - a recreational hobo he says, though it's more about nostalgia these days.
DB: Do you still ride the rails now?
Luther Gette: My last ride on a freight train - I'm going to be 69 years old on Monday. The floors are harder, the boxcars are higher off the ground and things like that. So, I kinda gave up I guess. I hate to say I'm retired, but I think I am.
Luther the Jet rode the rails for decades, but he's a little embarrassed to tell me how he arrived here at Deep Lock Quarry.
Luther Gette: In the car.
DB: Drive yourself?
Luther Gette: Yeah, I did. I bought a Camry, a used one about 10 years ago.
DB: That's not a very hobo vehicle.
Luther Gette: No (laughs)...
When I meet Luther down by Deep Lock Quarry in the Summit County Metroparks, hobos are gathering where hobos have gathered for years. Decades ago, hobos would stop here and set up a jungle - a kind of makeshift village. This day, they're building a simulated jungle. Someone's making soup from unappetizing tomatoes.
While we're talking, Luther is fidgeting with a makeshift crown. About 10 years ago, he was voted King of the Hobos at the convention in Britt, Iowa. That's sort of like prom king for the less-attractive rail-riding set, though the hobos insist it's a serious position. But as his niece Vanessa told me, there's a lot more to Luther than I realized.
Vanessa Heeman: He studied abroad on a Fulbright scholarship, he's been published, he still writes freelance.
And, she says he has a PhD. I want to ask him about all this, but before I can, the train comes. Summit County Metroparks arranged for the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad to supply a train for a day: a simulated hobo experience except... something's not quite right here.
You guys are supposed to be hobos, why didn't you jump on?!
The doors open, and the hobos are welcomed onto the train. They sit in the comfortable padded seats. Luther takes a seat by a window, and I finally ask him about that PhD.
Luther Gette: Yeah, a PhD in riding freight trains. No, I do actually have one. In French Literature. And everyone always asks me, what the hell good did that do for you? Well I sing and write songs, and that helped me out a lot.
Actually, it's hard to stop Luther the Jet from breaking into song.
DB: Where did you grow up originally?
LUTHER: (singing) Philipsburg, PA is its moniker today... Deep in the heart of the Alleghany, is myyyyy home town.
Nearby sits Texas Madman, and other hobos. They're easy to spot amidst the tourists who came out to get a taste of hobo culture.
Texas Madman: Good afternoon everyone. I want to welcome you along.
They learn about the hobo code of ethics - that no true hobo would take advantage of a stranger, and how they always took the least desirable jobs in the towns they'd pass through. Through the lecture, Luther can't help himself but to interject with a song.
Luther sits down next to 9-year-old Ashley Lemon. She's wearing hot pink pants and she looks inquisitively at Luther. Her mom Gina says she wanted to show her daughter the truth about hobos after her grandfather told her some tall tales.
Gina Lemon: I said okay, we have to get her some real information.
DB: What was he telling her?
Gina Lemon: That they were really bad guys.
Ashley Lemon: He told me that hobos eat people.
Gina Lemon: I said they don't eat people so that's why we had to prove him wrong.
Hobos are a dying breed. It's been a federal crime since 9/11 to hitch a ride on a train. On this day, the train's conductor had to keep a straight face as he pretended to kick off the real life hobos.
Train Conductor: Okay all you hobos, you're not supposed to be on my train, you're getting off at the next stop!
But once the train stopped, the conductor helped Luther and the other hobos get off the train safely. How times have changed. Dan Bobkoff. 90.3.