I met a hobo with dark hair and a black eye. He said his name was Scott. It was a hot July day in St. Paul, temperature in the 90s, and Scott was sitting in the shade of a bridge under the freeway. The path I was on divided him from the train tracks. As I rolled past on my bicycle we made eye contact and greeted one another.
That could easily have been the end of the story. When I’m on foot or riding a bicycle I often greet those whom I encounter, then never see them again.
Jesus is a hobo on a fast freight outta Denver,
huddled up under a twin stack his back
against the rain.
Back in the sunlight, an inner voice told me to bring water back to Scott. Maybe a little food, too. I’d like to say that I responded to this voice without hesitation. However, as is often the case, another voice countered with excuses. “He won’t be there when you get back. It’s a waste of your time. He’s a hobo, he knows how to take care of himself.” Usually that voice prevails.
Not this time.
At home I filled a bottle with water and placed that and an apple and a banana in my pannier. Almost an hour later I approached the bridge, half expecting Scott to be gone, but he was sitting in the very same spot. “Would you like some water?” I asked. Scott eagerly stood up and navigated his way through the rock bed to accept my offer. “Thank you for your kindness,” he said, reaching with a misshapen hand. His forefinger stopped at the knuckle and his fourth finger ended at the top joint. Frostbite? I didn’t ask.
He’s hoping to make the west coast
his food is running low.
He’s been traveling on these roads
for 2000 years or more.
Although his skin was tanned dark, I noticed a dark circle around his left eye. Scott thanked me for the water. I asked if he was just passing through. “Just waiting for the train. Headed for Michigan,” he said, adding that he was looking forward to cleaning up when he got there. Scott’s coveralls were fairly clean. Only his stringy hair and dirty fingernails gave him away as someone who had not showered lately. I pulled the apple out of the pannier and said I’d brought bananas, too. The wheels of a train heading toward St. Paul squealed, making it difficult to hear one another. Scott eyed the apple, then said, “No, thanks, I’m good,” which wasn’t surprising since he had only a few teeth, and with exposed roots long and brown, those teeth looked to be soon outward bound.
I told Scott I’d seen him when I had ridden past earlier. “You seemed like a nice man and I wanted to bring you food and water.” He looked at me with a sideways glance as if to size me up: was this woman who arrived on a bicycle for real? I’m not always the best judge of character. But the few minutes I’d spent with Scott confirmed my intuition. He was polite and thoughtful, offering his hand when I asked his name. He spoke economically, disinclined to chat. Scott scrambled up the inclined slab of concrete, back to his perch beside a flat day pack, sat down and looked at me, not unkindly.
Jesus is a hobo in a jungle near LA,
where nobody really knows him even if they know his face.
They’ll stare into his eyes
a disciple from the past
but the moment’s gone and lost
in the engine’s long low whine.
The next day I ran on the same path, wondering if I would see Scott. Coming around the corner I saw only concrete where Scott had been sitting. I imagined him on a train headed East and felt relief over not having to concern myself anymore with his welfare. The trail did not loop so I returned the same way, and this time Scott was sitting under the same bridge, but closer to the bike path. He was leaning over, possibly vomiting. “Scott!” I called out. “Are you ok?” He lifted his head as if startled. “Yeah.” He paused. “I haven’t eaten in 30 days,” he said, his voice soft and weak. It didn’t seem possible for him to be mobile if he hadn’t eaten in 30 days. I probably misheard him. But clearly he needed food. I said I would bring him something and asked what he would like “Anything,” was his answer. “Ok,” I’ll be back shortly,” I said. “Thank you, sweetheart,” was Scott’s answer.
What is the best food for a man who hasn’t eaten in many days and has hardly any teeth? Why did Scott have no food? Why was he still in St. Paul, watching the trains but not hopping on one? Why, of all the people who passed by, am I the one who is helping him? Why did I not pull the bananas out of my pannier for Scott the day before? Why did I have a surplus of food, but Scott did not?
At home I spread peanut butter on gluten free bread and looked for other soft food I could bring: energy bars, blueberries. I filled a water bottle. At a nearby restaurant I pondered the menu. Salmon? Eggs? Potatoes? I settled on an egg, cheese, and bacon sandwich on a croissant. The man needed calories.
Jesus is a hobo, he never left us here,
caught a fast one from Calvary
and he’s been riding ever since.
Scott had moved to a spot in the sun, closer to the bicycle path. He turned as I approached, then nodded, remaining seated on the pavement, a pack of cigarettes within arm’s reach. I crouched beside him, handing him food pulled from my pannier. Scott surprised me by putting his arm around my shoulders and thanking me. “I got jumped,” he said, pointing to the left side of his face. I saw now that his cheek had been cut open and was scabbed over. “I’ve been resting here, trying to heal.” His vulnerability stunned me. What would it be like to attacked and lose what few belongings I had? How would I trust that the food and water offered by a stranger was safe to eat? At what age is a hobo too old to expose himself to the evils of the world? I wondered if the ride to Michigan would be Scott’s last.
“Are you going to be ok?” I asked, hoping he would say yes. It wasn’t that I had tired of helping him. My heart was overflowing with sorrow.
Jesus is a hobo riding south outta St. Paul
seeing a cathedral through the snowflakes
and bracing against the cold.
When he gets to Rock Island maybe there he’ll let ‘em know
that underneath his coveralls he wears a purple robe.
Back at the artist cooperative where I live, I rode the elevator with a neighbor and told him briefly about helping Scott. My neighbor stiffened. “They’re everywhere,” he said. He was right. At any time of day I can find a homeless person within minutes of leaving my building.
The name of every one of them is Jesus.
Yr gonna need me, yr gonna need me
But can you find me, where you look.
Yr gonna need me, yr gonna need me
You can’t always see the truth.
“Jesus Is a Hobo” is one of my favorite songs by Charlie Parr.