Video introduction to the book Someplace Like America: Tales from the New Great Depression by Dale Maharidge, Michael S. Williamson, photographer, and Bruce Springsteen, foreword. Bruce Springsteen talks about the author's previous title and how they inspired him to write the song "Youngstown." Someplace Like America is being published by UC Press and is available now.
In this background blog for the book Someplace Like America: Tales from the New Great Depression by Dale Maharidge, Michael S. Williamson, photographer, and Bruce Springsteen, foreword, published by UC Press, the authors go behind the scenes and talk about the extraordinary newspaper series they collaborated on together which lead to the book.
Podcast interview with Dale Maharidge, author of Someplace Like America
On Becoming a Hobo
Clickity clack. Clickity clack.
Lookin' back. Lookin' back.
Where ya' goin'? Where ya' goin'?
Where ya' been? Where ya' been?
Clickity clack. Clickity clack.
Don't come back. Don't come back.
-An old hobo chant
The Burlington Northern freight train was going some 70 miles an hour. It was just after 2:00 A.M., April 27, 1982. We were north of Mount Shasta, at the top of California. The snow pack was deep. The temperature was in the high 20s. The wind chill factor was stunning: I'd been in actual air temperature of minus 20 degrees, and that's what it felt like. The other notable sensory torment was the clatter. This was no cushioned Amtrak ride. An empty boxcar pulled by a speeding train makes a lot of noise, as it violently rocks not just up and down but sideways, slamming you and throwing you around. I've been accused of overstatement when describing it as having a metal garbage can placed over your head and then having someone repeatedly strike it with a baseball bat, but that's precisely what the sound was like.
Yet I could hear Michael's teeth chattering. He lay against the front wall in a cotton sleeping bag designed to be a child's comforter for summer beach camping. He wore a sweater, denim jeans, and white tennis shoes. I paced in front of the boxcar door because I'd given up on my equally useless sleeping bag. I wore long underwear, thick pants, a heavy coat, hiking boots, and wool socks, and yet was beyond misery. I looked at the couple we were traveling with. They huddled beneath a thick sleeping bag, their two dogs piled on top of them.
His name was Wayne. He was twenty-four. She went by Lisa, never told us her real name. But she showed us her tits while we waited thirty-six hours in Sacramento for a freight train to catch out on. It was a hot Central Valley afternoon, and we were sitting in the shade of an old icehouse in the Western Pacific yard. She suddenly pulled off her shirt and bared her breasts. Wayne was legally blind, and perhaps she felt that he couldn't visually appreciate her womanhood as she thought we might. It was hardly a turn-on; she was still a child. She said she was nineteen, but no way was she much over sixteen.
Traveling with Wayne and the girl hadn't been our plan. We were here to write about and photograph a different kind of homeless people, who happened to be hobos. We-
The train slowed, jarringly. Wayne and Lisa stirred. The dogs jumped up. I peered out the door. Lights of a town: "K-Falls," Klamath Falls, Oregon. Far ahead, someone was shining a jacklight on the train. No Thumbs, the old hobo we'd really wanted to ride with, had warned me that the K-Falls yard was hot and that the bull, the railroad cop, would light the train to catch riders. No Thumbs had been teaching me how to be a hobo, and he was going to be our guide of sorts for what we were really after. But No Thumbs, damn, he caught out early.
We entered the yard. I hid by running to the front of the boxcar. As we passed the bull's truck, one of the dogs walked into the jacklight that was blasting on the door. Maybe we could run off. I tried to hurry the others but confess I was equally slow; I was severely hypothermic. By the time we gathered our gear, the bull had driven the gravel road parallel with the stopped train. His left hand held a flashlight beaming on our eyes. His right hand was hard on a sidearm. He demanded identification; one of his sidekicks took the ID. The girl didn't have any. The bull ignored that.
"If the jail wasn't full, I'd be takin' you in," a voice behind the glare snapped. "I see you again, you're goin' to jail for five days."
The bull drove off. He wasn't so bad. No Thumbs had told me the bull in Dunsmuir, on the Southern Pacific line on the other side of Mount Shasta, routinely cracked heads.
We went into a meadow, spread sleeping bags, and lay shivering on the ground, cold and hard as frozen rib meat. For Michael and me, our world of a newspaper office was two days and a lifetime behind us. That morning, the girl had pointed to a passing Amtrak and called it the "people train." What she meant was that we weren't people.
We were hobos.
It was a transformation that had begun not long after I met Michael at the Sacramento Bee newspaper, where I was the new day police reporter. I hated cops but was happy to be working. I'd been living out of my Datsun truck for three months after driving out from Cleveland to seek newspaper work, sleeping in national forest campgrounds or at the side of roads. In August, the city editor, Bob Forsythe, said that he wanted to hire me. But there were no openings. Bob asked me to phone once each week. On the last day of October, he told me to call the following Wednesday, the day after the national election.
"I've got good news and bad news," Bob said when I rang.
"What's the bad news?"
"Reagan is president."
It was a fairly big newsroom, and I didn't meet everyone right away. One afternoon there was a fire in a trailer park: a Christmas tree had burst into flame. An editor barked that I should meet the photographer in the photo car lot. I raced out the door. The sound of feet came from behind. Abruptly, on my left, there appeared a photographer I had not yet spoken with.
"You a runner, too?" Michael asked.
I knew exactly what he meant. The newsroom was full of plodding staffers. There are two kinds of journalists. Runners. And walkers.
Michael passed me. I ran faster.
No one died in the fire. There was time before we had to file. Michael drove us to a Wendy's on Freeport Boulevard and parked in back. Hobos sat on the other side of a chain-link fence in the Western Pacific rail yard. This prompted Michael to talk about a photographic essay that he wanted to do on winos.
As we ate burgers, Michael told his story, which explained his interest in the wino project. His mother, Valerie, was a barmaid who had had five children by five different men. His biological father, John Aagard, had been murdered by Jimmy Williamson. Jimmy had been living with Valerie, but he went on tour with the U.S. Navy. He had come home on leave from Japan, only to discover that Valerie was pregnant. He'd been gone longer than nine months. Jimmy could do math. Before going off to kill Aagard, Williamson threw Valerie down a flight of stairs, breaking her arm. Valerie went into premature labor, and Michael was born a few weeks before term.
Each of Valerie's children spent time in orphanages and foster homes. Michael had episodically lived with his mother, accompanying her to work in bars. Through this, he'd come to know a lot of drunkards. He hated what alcohol did but grew to become extraordinarily sympathetic toward alcoholics.
When Michael was twelve, Valerie got him out of an orphanage, gathered all her kids under one roof in Los Angeles, and tried to fix her life. That Christmas Eve of 1968, she was driving home from work with presents. She was on the Pacific Coast Highway and had a green light. An ambulance blew through the signal at 86 miles an hour, according to what Michael remembers the California Highway Patrol telling him, broadsiding her. She died at the scene. Michael was back on the street.
Twelve years had passed since his mother's death. At our age, that seemed like a long time. To some degree, Michael was still the orphan who feared becoming homeless.
As for me, I had a working-class background. One grandfather worked at Otis Steel in The Flats of Cleveland; the other was employed by the BO Railroad, which brought coal for coking the mill's furnaces. My father made industrial metal cutting tools for one of the largest manufacturers in the world, Cleveland Twist Drill. He put in an eight-hour shift at the plant, grinding steel tools to razor sharpness. These tools, the most common of them called "end mills," work not only vertically like a drill but also horizontally. They can be reused many times. Dad's day job was responsible for his other job, a side business in our basement, where there was a collection of massive machines. He came home and ground steel, resharpening this same kind of worn tooling for small manufacturers.
At the age of twelve, I began grinding steel on those machines. Dad paid me 10 cents per tool. I grew up with steel dust in my lungs. I later operated a lathe in a plastics fabrication factory while continuing to work for my father. I dropped out of college after some three years, never graduated. I began freelance writing for the Cleveland newspapers while still working with steel and eventually wrote my way out of the factories. Still, I feared failing. When I left Cleveland that summer of 1980, the flames of the steel mills were licking at my ass. They wanted me back. At my new job at the Bee, I didn't see that much distance between me and the hobos on the other side of the fence behind the Wendy's.
Michael and I made a pact that day at the Wendy's to document stories ignored by most others in the media-about the poor, workers, outcasts. I'd write and he'd shoot. Michael was twenty-three; I was twenty-four. We started with the wino story, which ran with a lot of photos. It began as shown here.
[FIGURE 2 RIGHT HERE]
We teamed up on similar stories in the ensuing year. When 1982 rolled around, there was a new city editor, Bill Moore. He often drank at the Old Tavern on 19th Street, the "O.T.," next to the Western Pacific main line. The O.T. was a hangout for hobos when they got a little dough. One afternoon that April, Bill sought me out. The previous night at the O.T., old hobos had complained to him about all the job-seeking new timers crowding them out of boxcars. Bill told me to find out what was going on.
The next day, I went into the Western Pacific yard behind the Wendy's. I ended up in the "bone yard," some fifteen tracks wide with long rows of rusting boxcars put out of service. I heard voices in an abandoned boxcar and saw wisps of cookfire smoke coming out the door. A young man stuck his head out and offered a friendly hello.
Inside were four people. No Thumbs stood out. He had a big snowy beard and a deeply lined face. I joined them, sitting on the steel boxcar floor littered with empty white port wine bottles with 99-cent price tags, opened tins of Vienna sausage, yellowed newspapers. It was hot. Flies buzzed. I told No Thumbs about the story I wanted to write. He offered to help-it was part of the hobo code, he said, for elders to teach greenhorns.
He shook from advanced Parkinson's disease, and he was missing both thumbs. He'd lost them in 1945 to a license-plate stamping machine, at the federal reformatory in Chillicothe, Ohio, where he served a brief sentence after a conviction for interstate auto theft. I later learned that he was sixty-five. He looked a lot older. No Thumbs was jovial-he often smiled, revealing bare gums; his mouth was nearly toothless. When he laughed, which was often, it came out as a wheeze. His real name was Thomas Jefferson Glenn, but no one called him that. Up and down the line, he was known as No Thumbs, Tom Thumb, or Alabama Tom.
I spent that day and the next two with No Thumbs. He showed me how to jump on moving trains and talk with engineers using hand signals. He also explained how to keep yourself safe by doing things such as jamming an old railcar brake shoe in the track of a boxcar door-this way, the door couldn't close and lock you in when the train got underway, and you wouldn't die of exposure if the train was "sided," left for days in a remote location.
The third afternoon, No Thumbs and I were seated in the shade of the icehouse. He showed me what I call the "hobo microwave." He got an empty wine bottle and filled it with water.
"The water's gotta be right to the brim," he said.
He set the bottle on the gravel, tore up cardboard, piled sheaves around the bottle, and lit a match. In minutes, as the cardboard burned down, the water was boiling. He made coffee with it.
"You got it full, the bottle won't crack."
No Thumbs picked up a scrap of the cardboard. He borrowed a pen and scrawled a word game on it, which I pocketed.
[FIGURE 3 RIGHT HERE]
"See, the words line up; spell the same words across and down," he said.
Several hobos joined us. One was a Vietnam veteran, who said that after each war, men hit the rails and never went back to regular life. The vet told me that the hobos who began riding after World War II and Korea had helped him. No Thumbs said that he'd been taught by hobos from the Great Depression. I imagined how that generation of hobos might have been broken in by men after World War I, how those guys must have learned from veterans of the Spanish-American War, or even the 1894 Depression, when Coxey's hobo army rode to Washington to protest unemployment. I knew that from reading about Jack London, who had been a misfit member of that army. And those guys must have been trained by Civil War veterans. . .
I marveled at this hobo history, but there was, frankly, nothing romantic about it. I was scared of the trains. I also wondered about the hobo jungles. No Thumbs reassured me with one rule he repeated several times over the days I spent with him: if you never cross anyone, you will be safe.
"I can walk into any jungle, and I don't have to worry," No Thumbs said.
In the next breath, he confessed that he wanted to stop tramping. He increasingly feared a vicious breed of hobo he'd been seeing since the economy turned bad, the "crazies," those with nothing left to lose.
The next afternoon, I went back to the yard. A hobo, a stranger, was the only one present. He informed me that No Thumbs had caught north that morning instead of waiting until the next day, when we were supposed to go with him. That's how we ended up with Wayne and Lisa.
On that first trip, we met new timers in K-Falls, then headed back south at night on the Southern Pacific. The only available ride was on the open back ledge of a grain car. Because of the mean bull in Dunsmuir, Michael and I climbed on top of the grainer and clung to its roof before entering that yard. The picture of me sleeping, more or less, the next morning (which appears in the second section of Michael's photographs) was taken on this grainer as the train wailed us south through the heart of the Central Valley.
Just outside the big Roseville yard, east of Sacramento, our train sided for a northbound. As that northbound slowly lumbered past, No Thumbs appeared in the door of an open boxcar.
"Dale!" he cried. "Dale! How ya' doing? I missed ya!"
We whooped and hollered back.
No Thumbs' train moved at the speed of a walking man.
"Let's go catch it and ride with him!" Michael pleaded. (He hadn't met No Thumbs in the Western Pacific yard because his boss hadn't given him time off to join me.) I protested: we had only a few days left, and I wanted to see what was going on down in Fresno.
"We'll catch up with him down the line," I said.
As No Thumbs' train picked up speed, he hung from the door edge by his right arm and waved with his left. He continued waving till he became a speck.
We did other stories that summer about the new homeless. Amid this, we queried Life magazine and got an assignment to ride the rails. When I talked with the editor by phone, he suggested that he wanted to focus on a couple with a baby. Those who knew how the magazine worked told us that this was not a suggestion, but an order.
As we negotiated the Life deal, my Bee colleague Paul Avery came up to my desk in the newsroom. (Paul would later be played by actor Robert Downey Jr. in the movie Zodiac, about the serial killer who terrorized the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1970s. When he was with the San Francisco Chronicle, Paul owned that story, and he'd been threatened with death by the Zodiac.) That afternoon at my desk, Paul looked grim. He wanted to interview me because he was doing a story about the murder of three hobos in Oroville-among the dead was No Thumbs.
[FIGURE 4 RIGHT HERE]
The facts: No Thumbs had been at a campfire in a hobo jungle with the other two victims, Wade Southern and Bernard Moseley, on the night of August 8, 1982. Someone shot Southern and Moseley. All three men had been repeatedly stabbed, each of their throats cut. There was no sign of struggle. No Thumbs' body was nearest the fire, some 15 feet away. Southern and Moseley were found by a Western Pacific worker about 50 feet distant. The men had not been robbed. Police suspected a transient who would "kill for the sake of killing."
On August 28, a check for expenses from Life magazine arrived. The next day, Michael and I caught a freight to Oroville. There, the freight was broken apart, and we had to wait for a new train. We went to the camp where No Thumbs had been slain. The ashes of the dead men's fire were between two feral walnut trees in a field of sun-baked star thistle. What appeared to be blood still blackened the stones.
We rode for three weeks: Salt Lake City, Denver, Portland, Los Angeles. Everywhere we heard that we had just missed hobo families by days-in one case, hours. We joked that it must be the same family, riding just ahead of us.
In that late summer of 1982, it was mostly men on the streets. We never did find that couple with a baby. When we'd first talked to Life, the magazine was running a cover of actress Brooke Shields in a swimsuit, titled "Brooke Brings Back the Bikini." In the end, our story wasn't deemed worthy-the magazine killed the piece. It didn't matter. We were on to something bigger.
The human impact of what was going on in the country needed telling in a form longer than an article. We set out to land a book contract, sans agent. I simply sent a letter of a few pages with our clips to ten big publishing houses in New York City on a Thursday. The following Tuesday, January 11, 1983, editor James Fitzgerald telephoned from Dial Press and said he wanted to publish our book.
How to do that book?
Many new hobos were from back East, where they'd lost jobs in manufacturing plants. But a person didn't just suddenly become a hobo. It was a process, and we had to show it. This meant going to one of the dying steel towns and documenting why its residents were leaving. Our model was the Grapes of Wrath: John Steinbeck had to show Dust Bowl Oklahoma in order for readers to understand the Joads in California.
We picked Youngstown, Ohio, described as a "necropolis" in a Wall Street Journal story. The city had been especially hard hit by the closing of steel mills. Here it was not merely a "recession"; something bigger was going on. There had been a de facto decision by political leaders and moneyed elites, both left and right, to shun industrial policy. These neoliberals and conservatives told us we didn't need to make hard goods. Those who argued that all wealth comes from the soil or the sea, as it has throughout history, were dismissed. The Wall Street/Beltway types told us it was a new paradigm: we could import steel from other nations and let our steel industry perish, and all would be well.
It didn't make sense to me. I'd grown up seeing how my father's work, grinding steel-which came from coal, ore, and limestone-made our lives possible. Things extracted from the earth literally put food on our table.
A few weeks later, Michael and I flew one way to Cleveland. We bought a $600 1973 Olds Delta 88 from an unemployed guy. The car's body was lime green and rusted. The rear floor had a hole rotted through-you could see the ground. The tires were bald. But the car had a tight front end, good brakes, a sweet-sounding eight-cylinder engine.
"It's a real tuna boat," Michael said.
We named the car Das Boot, after a film then in theaters about a German World War II submarine. We flipped a coin to see who would sleep in the front seat. I lost. (We had no money for hotels.) In the coming months, when we weren't riding trains, traveling by Greyhound, or hitchhiking, my knees had to deal with the steering wheel at night.
Even though we'd ridden trains the previous year, we were scared. That first experience had merely been a warm-up exercise compared with the enormity of what lay on the road ahead. We feared violence because of No Thumbs' murder and other incidents from the previous summer. Someone had pulled a gun on us in the Oroville rail yard that day we rode in and saw where No Thumbs had been slain-two men commandeered our boxcar as a train was leaving for Salt Lake City. In Denver, when I was alone, guarding our gear while Michael went to photograph a hobo named Ken who was looking for work (pictured in the second section of photographs, sleeping on the piggyback car in Glenwood Canyon, in Colorado), a man who had been sniffing glue came at me with a wire in his hands, intent on strangling me. I had to fight him off.
Thinking about the story itself also caused us some fear. Could we pull it off? Who the hell were we to tell it? Some rejections we'd gotten from publishers had mocked the very attempt. And, on a larger scale, forces were arrayed against the message we wanted to deliver. Charles Murray was at the conservative Manhattan Institute with copious amounts of funding, wrapping up his book Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980, which would come out in 1984. He had already begun speaking and writing articles blaming welfare for the problems of the poor, and he called for ending welfare programs. The biggest problem, however, was not welfare, which reached only about 5 percent of Americans. Another 10 to 25 percent, depending on how you counted, were being ignored-tens of millions of working-class people who were suffering. Yet welfare dominated political discourse, framed by what Reagan called "welfare queens." It almost seemed like a deliberate attempt to ignore the plight of workers by throwing out a red herring to divert people's attention.
So, in the Reagan era, our job was to document the working poor and newly homeless and hope that the broad public would take notice. Could we succeed?
On top of everything, there were financial and personal worries. We'd taken unpaid leave from the Sacramento Bee. Purchasing the car and airline tickets had taken nearly a quarter of our $7,500 book advance. What remained wouldn't even cover our mortgages. We barely had any money saved. Michael, newly married, had a young and unhappy wife back home.
We drove out of Cleveland in a snowstorm, at night, toward Youngstown. Snow came at the windshield, blinding us, emphasizing the void we were heading into. There was no false bravado in the car that night. We'd talked about myriad worries on the airplane flight to Cleveland, but not now. It was too real to bring up. We were silent.
Add source code 15W5487 to get your discount at checkout.
Cannot be combined with any other offers.
Members receive 20-40% discounts on book purchases. Find out more