Tuesday, September 04, 2007


I gave Ken a ride the other day. Picked him up at the I-12 on-ramp and took him across Lake Pontchartrain into Greater New Orleans. Ken was white haired, probably in his late fifties, although he looked older from a life spent in wind and sun. He said he was hitching to Texas where some folks he knew had a ranch and would hire him on for fall work and let him stay in their bunkhouse.

Our time together was only about forty minutes but I heard some great stories. He spoke of stopping in to sleep in an abandoned house once and finding two cases of beer and a pound of pot hidden there. He chewed the fat that night, making up for a long period of lean. He told me about a time when he accidentally scared the hell out of some teenagers who tried to break into another abandoned house where he was sleeping.

He told me how strange it was to him to find all the useful stuff that people threw out along highways. His shoes and his jeans had been discovered beneath a bridge, and it made me wonder who had lost them, and why. He himself had misplaced a sweater that he'd once found, and he lamented that loss although he wasn't terribly broken up. Easy come, easy go, he seemed to be saying.

Ken reminded me of a line from the song, "Me and Bobbie McGee." "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." Ken was free, and I think many of us have moments when we envy such freedom. I don't feel that way for long, though. On a bright day with a little breeze, when someone offers you a ride and maybe slips you a few bucks for a bite or a beer, then the way of the road might have its pleasures.

But what about when the sun beats on your bare head like a hammer while you stand for hours along the blacktop with your thumb out? What about when the nights turn cold and you can't find enough clothes along the highway to keep you warm, and the abandoned house you're sleeping in has no heat to combat the holes in the walls where the chill comes creeping? What about the mornings you wake with sickness in your belly and there's no one to lay a hand to your forehead and whisper a comforting word?

What about?


Angie said...

Good question. [nod] Sounds like a good character-seed, though, someone like Ken.


Lisa said...

I think I bought Ken breakfast at a truck stop once many years ago when I was driving through west Texas at two in the morning. Road people give new meaning to the term existential loneliness. Even if they don't seem to be lonely, it somehow finds it's way into me by proxy.

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

Not many road people here, Chicago is too big for that. Lots of homeless and hustlers, though. One of the hardest images I've seen is of men sleeping in 20 below weather on steam vents in the back of Macy's.

the walking man said...

You have to have been there to understand it.



cs harris said...

What an interesting, thought provoking character.

Bernita said...

And what about the sudden loneliness that grips you by the throat?
Yet I have had a surpressed desire to be a beach scavenger.

Charles Gramlich said...

Angie, definetely someone who will appear in a future story.

Lisa, I agree. Sometimes it may be our own projections but I can't help but feel that way.

Wayne, I see quite a few road folks here. I guess Ken is smart enough to keep moving south as it moves toward winter.

Mark, I'm sure you're right. I've hitchhiked plenty of times but never lived on the road.

Candice, certainly a fellow worth meeting.

Bernita, yes, I know just what you're talking about.

miller580 said...

Thanks for this post. I have playing with or (teasing really) a story of a young road warrior. I've been struggling with it, mostly because my character seems to glamorize it...or maybe its because he is two dimensional. Sort of flat or a hollywood version.

You wrote:

"He told me how strange it was to him to find all the useful stuff that people threw out along highways."

This line struck a chord. Once, when I first started "writing" I was sitting in this class room with the lights off. A street person walks in and shuffles through the trash. He finds a Coke can with pop still in it. He drinks. He opens a crumpled bag of chips, finds it empty and leaves the bag behind, but he takes the returnable bottles and cans. Then he leaves. Right after he left, I wrote a really bad poem sitting there...but from it came one line that I liked...

"He exits as he entered,
pausing for a moment
to drink from a can,
the remains of wasted wealth"

I have always been thankful for that "moment" and bad poem aside, I knew it would fester until I could write about it.

This post brought it back. Thanks.


AvDB said...

When I was young and my dad worked in D.C., he'd take me into the city to go to the museums or the zoo. As we walked, I'd see these forms covered in layers of clothing and ratty blankets, hunched on the steam vents like Wayne mentioned. My dad (probably not wanting to delve into the concept of homelessness) called them "Grate People." Even when I was older (but not yet wiser), I couldn't understand why they didn't just go get a house. Having had one my entire life, I couldn't grasp the concept of NOT having one. I thought they chose to be like that, that they had some sort of caveman/demonic tendencies that made them like hunching on the stinking vents and scaring kids.

That's a suburban, sheltered childhood for ya.

Shauna Roberts said...

I've heard that most street people are mentally ill and do make the choice (so far as it is possible for them to make one if they're not taking their meds) to live on the street. This is the result of a change in policy at mental hospitals that encouraged keeping only as permanent residents only those who couldn't function.

I have not heard whether the same is true of road people. It would seem to take a high level of functioning to travel about the country and live off the land.

My father rode the rails briefly in his youth. Doing that never appealed to me, but I do very much want one day to walk the pilgrimage road across Spain to Santiago de Campostella. I'd love to do it alone, but in terms of getting permits and communicating and other logistics, it would be more practical to join a group.

Steve Malley said...

I like to think my gypsying days are behind me, but one does meet the nicest people.

For instance, Ken got a ride from psych prof and noted fantasy author Charles Gramlich!

Henry Miller used to say there was something exciting about his vagabond days, waking up in the morning and having no idea how the day would end...

Charles Gramlich said...

Miller, you're welcome. An occassional meeting with someone like Ken does make one appreciate what one has.

Avery, there weren't any homeless folks living in the country where I grew up, but road folks came through on occassion. In those days we called them hobos. I always thought, too, that it was their choice rather than their circumstances.

Shauna, a lot of schizophrenics do end up on the streets since the long-term housing of mentally ill patients has given way to drug treatment. I don't know what the percentage is. It's higher than in the regular population, though.

Steve, I'm blushing. I think Henry Miller captured rather perfectly that feeling of enviousness that some of us feel on occassion. For me that would be an unpleasant state, though. I like to know where my next meal is coming from.

the walking man said...

Hobo's mostly use freight trains as a means of travel and scavenge or (in this day and age) steal or kill to get what they need or want.

Road Dogs use feet or thumb and will work as the opportunity presents itself, or go into the bush and kill and cook what they need to eat.

Homeless are just that homeless, in the past 15 years it is not a choice, yes there is mental illness among them but how can they afford meds? Nobody gives them out for free. And now with more people losing their homes through the sub-prime blow-up, shelters are like prisons, full beyond capacity.

Some of the homeless DO want to stay on the streets because the alternative is to always have to watch your stuff because other clients will steal it if you don't or can't live by house rules, which can be demeaning and at times dehumanizing. Learn the truth of the Salvation Army rehab program to understand this.


I suggest you talk to a few homeless in urban areas and you might be surprised at the amount of education and willingness to share if not their take for the day (a bottle of rot gut wine) then at least their story.

Inside our hands, outside our hearts said...


Many people like to live free like that. But I am with you in respects that for a bit it might be interesting, even exciting. But after a few days or illness, cold, something along those lines I would want to snuggle in my bed.
I have a friend that lives in a house, but he refuses to pay for electric or things such as that. I still do not understand how he keeps food, or stays cool or warm, especially when it hits 30 below here and the wind chill rips into your skin like sharpened knives.
I guess it is just one of those things I will never understand.

I think it wonderful that you gave him a ride and spent time listening to him. I bet you will one person he remembers on a lonely night or a story he tells of a man that extended a hand. Those are truly the best moments.

This was a nice post. Thank you.

Erik Donald France said...

Good one, Charles. It takes a certain amount of guts for men, and for women its
too dangerous for most, both the picking up and the asking for a ride. But the payoffs are in the stories, certainly.