Lethem stands in the subway entranced by the adjacent Hoyt Schermerhorn platform. A long forgotten relic standing timeless and dilapidated that Lethem revives and relives in his daydreams. He’s not there to commute, he’s there for the imaginative trips to the past. He wants to inhabit the abandoned platform, imagine how it used to look, how it used to operate. The smell of grinding break pads, the bustling of commuters, and chatter of business men. Hoyt Schermerhorn as it was in it’s heyday. Lethem daydreams during his commutes and he observes his fellow passengers. He is a looper, and loopers blatantly disobey the rules of the transit authority by illegally jumping the turnstiles from one train to another out of necessity (or laziness) to arrive at an exit. At times Lethem would loop to skirt trouble, avoiding a station ridden by crime. As one would expect from Lethem, he identifies with the outsiders and vagrants, the pickpockets and the loopers; malingerers of the subways stations. All of whom are worthy of suspicion, loopers are monitored by the good, fare paying citizens of New York who expect everyone to conform to the rules or be reported to the Transit Authority. In Lethem’s words “every subway rider is an undercover officer in the precinct house”.
I see a connection between Lethem’s experience with outlaw loopers and pickpockets at Hoyt Schermerhown, the outlaw rituals of the Beat generation and kids who hop freight trains today. A phenomena that is flourishing and both more vibrant and diverse than ever before. In the essay Commodify Your Dissent, the ideals of the Beats are thought to be relics, or at best, adopted as marketing ploys set in motion by corporations to sell jeans and cola, condoms and buckets of chicken. From an insider’s perspective, I say these ideals are violently thrust forward by modern hobo culture. Today, the hollow skeletons that embody the ideals of the Beats are animated and forced to dance in the market place. These skeletons are moulded with clay and a scroll is inserted in their mouths by this hobo tribe, bringing to life an army of hobo Golem. The child devouring Moloch in Ginsberg’s Howl is synonymous with the youth stealing “Babylon” mentioned and damned by today’s train hoppers. They define Babylon as cities, popular culture, society and “the system”. To be a battery for the machine is to take the drug of the commonplace. To imbibe in modern American consumerist culture is to have one’s life taken while still breathing. Some believe that fighting back and retracting one’s time and energy from the machine, is the only logical choice in life, even if their life is cut short by living recklessly. In a world gone mad, sanity is no sign of health.
As someone who jumped trains earlier in life, I know kids who embody and push the Beat’s rebellious envelope even further. Most of these kids are spurred to go “On The Road” after reading Kerouac, myself included. When I was a teenager, I explored abandoned buildings near the train tracks in Austin and San Antonio. In later years I explored buildings and railways throughout the U.S, the swamps of Louisiana, the mountains of Tahoe and most of Montana, the Dixie Beer Brewery in New Orleans, the abandoned grain silos next to the train yard in Minot North, Dakota, an old ice factory in Asheville, North Carolina, transformed into a squat by and for the hoards of traveling youth living out their myths and dreams. During my trip from Minot, North Dakota through Glacier National Park and on to Portland, I went through a twenty-three mile tunnel outside Spokane, Washington. To ride through this tunnel is to risk suffocation by diesel fumes and lack of oxygen, a small drawback to such an amazing journey but worth every breath. Like the loopers in Hoyt Schermerhorn, train kids are snitched on by the civilians who sit idling at railroad crossings during rush hour.
My tribe of traveling vagabonds are obsessed with invoking the old ways, banjos and home made instruments played at hobo camps alongside the tracks while cans of beans cook on the fire. Cassady and Kerouac would Howl if they ran with this tribe. These pseudo hobos defy responsibilities and duties imposed on them by their parents and attempt to break free of the mental shackles that society bolts on at birth. Fueling their soul’s fires with alcohol by flipping the martini glass of wealth on end; trading a stable home and an anchoring career, for a unruly life of wild uncertainty and reckless abandon. Bureaucracy and Apollonian morals be damned, here reins Bachuus and Eris, Dionysus and Persphone. Forgotten children of the underground; a virus in the Matrix, these kids are a modern tribe of dreadlocked, pierced, and tattooed warriors with no masters who laugh boisterously while order is being ground by monstrous wheels of chaos. Like the Beats, for this tribe there is but one life; a fast, gritty, and often short lived one, they believe that a candle which burns twice as bright burns half as long. Many of these lost kids are alcoholics, they use (and share) needles and drugs, have unprotected sex, proudly sport body lice and carry hepatitis. Literally risking life and limb, these sometimes toothless, dirty faced- grinning gremlins cling to wicked mile long caterpillars of steel hurtling from the dead zones of cities into the wilderness to points unknown. “Alive!” they cry!!
When not hopping freight trains or stowing away on cargo ships bound for Alaska, these roving communities revel in urban spelunking (sewer traversing) chronicling abandoned buildings in ink and digital photos that they religiously share on Myspace and Facebook. Every summer these underground communities of self-titled autonomous individuals throw a free dance party in the forests of Oregon and Washington; The Autonomous Mutant Festival. Giant sound systems powered by bio-diesel generators trucked in in gutted-out school buses. Most spend two weeks at this outdoor squatter rave, drinking wooden mugs of coffee brewed on a campfire, they pass around the manifesto of Hakim Bey: The Temporary Autonomous Zone. The New Year finds many at Slab City, a gutter rave near Salvation Mountain in Southern California. For as we all know “A revolution without dancing is a revolution not worth having.”
Asheville, North Carolina, 2006, I was fresh off the train and wandered into an art gallery for the free wine. Realizing that I knew a handful of the photographed faces on the walls I found the photographer, and we agreed that we were family, distant relatives bonded by having travelled in the same circle. When looking at the photos of “The Polaroid Kidd” aka Mike Brodie, one see’s a timeless hobo pagan spirit in the eyes, souls, and wrecked bodies of rugged squatters and tragically beautiful girls. For more photos, Google “The Polaroid Kidd” or “Ridin’ Dirty Faced”.