"I worked forty years as a fireman, boy / On the Pennsylvania line / And I ended up / just a derelict / Drinkin' Boone's Farm apple wine / Oh where can a bum find bed and board? / When you gonna make it stop rainin' lord?"
— Warren Zevon, "Stop Rainin' Lord"
Hobos are either homeless people viewed through an industrial-strength Nostalgia Filter
or living Americana: freewheeling folks
, usually men, who for any number of reasons live a wealth-free life
, stowing away on freight trains and moving from town to town
looking for campfires and a good can of beans. The Great Depression Theme Park
isn't complete without these boxcar barons.
Having been everywhere, seen everything and met everyone, hobos are full of tall tales and song — not to mention sage advice. Some may claim to have been men of status (i.e., mayorfs or heavyweight champs) brought low by dumb luck, while others willfully renounced the stationary life. Both varieties of hobo will recount his story in detail, if you have the time.
These regents of the rails are never far from train tracks and almost always carry Bindle Sticks
. Their natural habitats are moving boxcars and campfire circles, though ramshackle hobo metropolises do occur. Any gathering of five or more hobos will feature a hobo gentleman, identified by ragged top hat, cane and swagger.
Unlike street persons or the colloquial bum, hobos prefer rural settings, rarely panhandle, and generally conduct their affairs with some sense of dignity and etiquette. Newcomers to hoboism are often adopted by old timers and taught to observe some variety of "The Hobo's Code". When and how a hobo receives his nickname is unclear, but every hobo has one — it's usually "Boxcar" something.
Hobos are allergic to hard work, unless promised beans or alcohol, and are magnetically attracted to pies cooling on the window sill (whose aroma may cause spontaneous levitation
). Kindly old women and farmers' daughters are friends of the hobo; police officers, bulldogs and employees of the railway ("railroad bulls") are natural hobo predators.
Bonus points are awarded whenever a hobo plays the harmonica.
This applies only to hobos as a trope
. Real Life
hobos allegedly prefer to think of themselves as homeless travelers subsisting on odd jobs, whereas tramps
travel without seeking work and bums
do neither. We've yet to verify this with one of their rank, and note that calling a tramp or bum hobo
elicits the same nonverbal response as calling him Gargamel
. (Unless his name is Gargamel.)
- Kings In Disguise was serialized for years in Dark Horse Presents and later published in book form. It's a grim look at the desperate lives of hobos during the Great Depression, and deconstructs the carefree popular image of the hobo.
- In The Golden Age of Comic Books, Marvel Comics (then called Timely Comics, among other name changes) had a character variously called the Fighting Hobo or the Vagabond, who was a comical hobo who fought crime. These days it's panned as politically incorrect for glossing over the hardships of real hobos' lives.
- In The Goon Hobos appear as cannibalistic cavemen/jungle savages who have their own language. Their leader, the Hobo King may be a caricature of Woody Guthrie.
- The WALLE Forum Roleplay has several instances of this with the Undersite people, who escaped from a society that was no longer to their taste and withdrew in the sewer. Subverted by Dr. Grifton, who despite living in the sewer with them you'd not call a hobo at all.
- Bonus points for one of them, Hobey, who was actually a beggar before he joined the Undersite.
- The heroes in O Brother, Where Art Thou? are not hobos, but they briefly encounter some while attempting to sneak aboard a moving train. They still steal pies, though.
- They pay for the pies by replacing the pie with money held down with a rock.
- The film Emperor of the North, set in the 1930s, depicts the brutal battle between a sadistic train conductor and a legendary hobo nicknamed A#1. (A rare example of a realistic depiction of the hobo life in a Hollywood production.)
- In Meet John Doe, a reporter fabricates a letter from a John Doe who says he will kill himself on Christmas to protest the state of the country. When the story draws sympathy from the readership, she hires a former baseball player hobo to portray this fictional person in public.
- In the closing section of Pulp Fiction, Jules declares his intention to quit his job as a hitman, leave Los Angeles and "walk the earth" in the style of Caine from Kung Fu. His partner, Vincent, responds that he would be nothing more than a bum. Better a live bum than getting shot up in the toilet.
- The protagonist of Hobo with a Shotgun is a hobo who becomes a vigilante. With a shotgun.
- Pee-wee's Big Adventure - Pee-Wee encounters a friendly hobo when he hops a freight train, but the hobo's delight in singing old songs finally becomes too much for him.
- Who Is Bozo Texino? documents filmmaker Bill Daniel's 16-year quest for the most famous boxcar artist in history.
- Any of Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp films.
- While hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in Wild, Strayed runs into a reporter from the Hobo Times who assumes that she is a hobo and starts interviewing her. She insists that she isn't a hobo, but has to admit that she doesn't actually have a job or a place to live.
- Woody Guthrie meets many during his travels in Bound for Glory, at one point riding in a railroad boxcar full of them. A hobo brawl ensues.
- The novel Sixth Column (also titled The Day After Tomorrow) by Robert A. Heinlein includes a hobo character. The hobo used to be a graduate student who decided to research the hobo lifestyle. He discovered he liked it and gave up being a student to be a hobo. He also points out to the protagonist that hobos are not tramps or bums, and in fact lays out an entire social taxonomy of American transients, with bindlestiffs at the bottom and true hobos at the top.
- Old blind Rhysling, the Singer of the Spaceways in Heinlein's The Green Hills of Earth is a kind of hobo. He's an unusual example, as he's built up something of a reputation as a wandering poet and is well-regarded by pretty much everyone.
- George and Lennie from Of Mice and Men, a novel by former hobo John Steinbeck.
- Spoofed by Tex Avery as hobo bears George and Junior.
- The climax of Fahrenheit 451 has literary hobos after Montag escapes the Mechanical Hound by jumping in a river. It is later revealed that these are all former English professors and stuff; they're keeping the books in their heads until contemporary society crumbles.
- In John Hodgman's The Areas of My Expertise, he gives a detailed history of the Hobo Conspiracy, including how a hobo (Hobo Joe Junkpan) once became Secretary of the Treasury and then gives 700 Hobo names (and 100 more in the paperback version).
- In his Cities in Flight tetralogy, James Blish has the character Mayor Amalfi liken the titular cities to the migrants of the United States, saying that most cities are hobos, migrant workers, but some are tramps, basically petty criminals, and a few are the lowest sort: bindlestiffs, migrants who live by robbing other migrants.
- The main character of The Jungle becomes one by the end of the book, leading a happy life free of corrupting capitalism. Sinclair was known to bemoan the fact that people missed that this was the point of the book, not the meat factories.
- In the short story "The Haunted Trailer" by Robert Arthur, the narrator finds his trailer haunted by the ghosts of three hobos.
- The Second Doctor from Doctor Who was basically a Space Hobo.
- It seems to be a running gag in iCarly where hobos are found or mentioned as a joke. In "iEnrage Gibby", Carly even has a "hobo party" where everyone dresses up a hobo!
- Dave Attell encountered one on his show Insomniac With Dave Attell. After referring to him as a hobo, the man corrected him: "I'm a tramp."
- Don Draper had a life-changing encounter with a hobo, as he remembers in the episode: "The Hobo Code."
- "Big Rock Candy Mountain" is a humorous folk song describing a fictional hobo paradise. Bowdlerized versions have been found on compilations of music for little kids; on the other end of the stick, probably in protest to the romanticizing of the hobo life, it has also been covered by the likes of Tom Waits, whose version is without accompaniment and consists of him slurring, screaming, and sobbing the lyrics even more drunkenly than usual. One version ends on this deeply cynical note:
The punk rolled up his big blue eyes
And said to the jocker, Sandy,
I've hiked and hiked and wandered, too,
But I ain't seen any candy.
I've hiked and hiked till my feet are sore
And I'll be damned if I hike any more
To be buggered sore like a hobo's whore
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.
- Captain Beefheart's song "Orange Claw Hammer" is told from the perspective of a delirious old sailor who is "on the bum where the hobos run". Also note the song "Hobo Chang Ba", from the same album: Trout Mask Replica.
- "Hobo Jungle" by The Band is a song about the death of an old hobo.
- "Waltzing Mathilda" is the Australian version. It comes from a wave of German immigrants who brought with them some of their habits, such as nicknaming their awesome Great Coat Mathilda. A German swagman would refer to himself as "Auf der waltz mit mein Mathilda" (on the walk with my Mathilda), with all his belongings (swag) wrapped up in his coat.
- "The Ghost of Tom Joad", by Bruce Springsteen, is a hymn to the hobo life.
- Steve the Tramp was one of the early villains in Dick Tracy.
- The stage show/podcast Thrilling Adventure Hour has a series called "Down in Moonshine Holler", which is about a millionaire who abandons his riches in pursuit of his beloved Hobo Princess.
- Waiting for Godot: the two main characters waiting for Godot are described as tramps.
- The Penny Arcade game Penny Arcade Adventures: On The Rain-Slick Precipice Of Darkness featured an entire area called Hobo Alley. Of course, the portrayal of hobos was not exactly of the "Walking Americana" variety.
- Likewise, near the end of the video game Indigo Prophecy reveals that all the hobos the player has seen throughout the town are actually a secret group devoted to protecting the world.
- The homeless are... interesting in Yakuza. They seem to be considered relatively noble, with a tight-knit community and pretty much act as a secret army for the information dealer Kage the Florist.
- Kingdom of Loathing actually has various hobos as enemies, most notably in the Bonus Dungeon "Hobopolis", and in a Shout-Out to The Areas of My Expertise their leader is named "Hodgman" and they received permission to use some of the hobo names.
- In Deus Ex, most of the people you see in New York are hobos. You even find some that live underground.
- In the web-game HoboWars, the entire point is to be a hobo.
- In Stacking, Levi the Hobo helps the main character Charlie and paints murals of his escapades, arriving in the endgame with "Hobo Team Bravo" as part of a Big Damn Heroes moment. There's also the DLC "The Lost Hobo King", in which Charlie helps Levi's uncle become said Hobo King.
- In Sonny, you encounter two of these in succession on an old train that your party hijacks to escape a mountain village. The first one's a zombie, while the second is an actual human hobo. The second fight is handled in a slightly Anvilicious way, where one of your party members calls you out after realizing on the second party turn that your foe's not a zombie (the anitheroic player character's response about not wanting to part with money not helping his case), in addition to the hobo having reduced max HP in comparison to the first and status ailments whose descriptions reflect the many negatives of hobo life inflicted upon him as the battle wears on.
- Wasteland features a number of Hobos at the Rail Nomads' Camp - most notably, the Hobo Oracle, who grants cryptic visions in exchange for hooch.
- The sequel, Wasteland 2 also features them, in the same location. One can even join the party - Scotchmo, a particularly greasy old man who nonetheless holds the Hobo Code of Ethics very close to his heart.
- The Simpsons have occasionally run into some hobos. Every third episode had a hobo joke for a while (some particularly cruel), mostly thanks to John Swartzwelder, a prolific writer and Preston Sturges fanatic.
- Futurama has hobos... in space! Bender meets a reclusive chef Helmut Spargle who lives in a space hobo metropolis. Using only leftovers and garbage, Spargle can bake a pie with hobo-levitating aromatic properties (because they have jet packs somehow).
- The hobos actually refer to Bender as a robo, a Robot Hobo; at first he's offended, because he thought they said "romo".
- In the "King of the Hobos" episode of Hanna-Barbera's series of The Little Rascals, Porky ran away and met an old hobo who called himself Boxcar Bill.
- Invader Zim mentions hobos, as well... as an urban legend on par with the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot.
- The eponymous Baggy Pants in the obscure DePatie-Freleng series Baggy Pants And The Nitwits is explicitly described in the theme as "the hobo everyone knows." It may be because he's a No Celebrities Were Harmed version of Charlie Chaplin.
- The Tex Avery characters George and Junior were often depicted as hobos (no surprise, since they are based on Lenny and George from Of Mice and Men). Their first cartoon was even titled "Henpecked Hoboes".
- In the early Merrie Melodies short "Hobo Gadget Band", a Trash Can Band of hobos enter a singing contest and win a big recording contract. They reject it for a life on the tracks.
- Bugs Bunny deals with two hungry hobos based on Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton in the cartoon "Half-Fare Hare".
- In The Legend of Korra, Korra encounters the strangely cheery hobo Gommu, who politely asks for one of her speared fish and gives her the first revelation that Republic City isn't all the shine and splendor she thought it was. Gommu later takes the Krew in for sanctuary during the late stages of the Equalist uprising as guests in the underground shantytown that he and other vagrants (bender and nonbender alike) had set up.
- Lumpy Space Princess from Adventure Time did a stint as one of these after she ran away from home.
- Real Life: Several famous Americans were hobos in their youth, including actors Clark Gable and Robert Mitchum, writers John Steinbeck and Eugene O'Neill, folk singer Woody Guthrie, and heavyweight champ Jack Dempsey.
- Though closely connected to the American railways, a looser definition of hoboism requires only: transience, moochery, troubles with local authorities, and a habit of spontaneous narration. As such, hobos have a whole canon of nicknamed saints to inspire them, including "Confucius" K'ung-fu-tzu, Siddhārtha "The Buddha" Gautama, Jesus Christ "The Christ" of Nazareth, Paul "The Apostle" of Tarsus, etc.
- Jesus especially was well-known to the hobos, since appealing to religion was a common way to get vittles. He was nicknamed Jerusalem Slim and Nazareth Blacky, as explained here.
- The singer/historian/activist U. Utah Phillips was long famous in both American left-wing and folk-music circles for preserving the lore and history of hobos and their ethic.