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The idea for this quirky guidebook came to me quite by accident. I was a poor writer with a young portfolio, recently railroaded out of a promising job in the mass-market romance sector. While I had M.F.A. experience behind me, I didn't have the journalism clips, which made my decision to become a full-time freelance writer, well, impossible. And in no time, I was down on my luck, competing in seedy checkers tournaments against a one-legged dwarf and a posse of albino hookers. That was all until I stumbled upon the National Hobo Convention in Chase's Calendar of Events, which I had found in a dumpster and was using as a pillow after a five-day Liquid Paper bender. I pitched the event to a trendy magazine and in no time flat I had my first feature story. I was out of the gutter -- at least for the moment.
What I found in Britt, Iowa, that August in 1998 was big stuff, much more than I ever expected: drugs and murder, false hopes and shattered dreams, a vast alterna-culture gathering around a lifestyle that had not changed since the first freeloader hopped a freight two centuries ago. I met Windy City Tom, a bicycle hobo and musician from Chicago; Shadow (a recovering heroin addict) and Speedy, an early-20s hobo couple selling their poems and photographs; Mad Dog Tony, a member of a notorious rail gang under suspicion for murder; Bandana, a part-time hobo and homosexual Catholic priest from Indiana; New York Slim, a six-foot-four-inch African American hobo and Vietnam vet; and Steamtrain Maury, a retired graybeard hobo from the bygone days. I met many others, all with rough-textured reasons for living the way they do.
After the final crowning of the King and Queen of the Hobos that I witnessed over a bowl of Mulligan Stew that hinted at the flavors of rubber, leather and rusty tin, I began searching for other events, which were few and far between. There was no bible for the kind of weirdness that satisfied my soul. So, like a good dog, I set out to create the book I needed and went fishing for oddball festivals, conventions, conferences and contests through every chamber of commerce in the nation.
Although I didn't get to travel to nearly as many of the America Bizarro events as I would have liked (there are more than 260 in the book), I did get to speak to many priceless folks, like L-Bow, the spokesman for the Summer Redneck Games; Phillip Calhoun, the 1999 winner of the Hands on Hard Body Contest; and Violet Guaerke, the only surviving daughter of Charlie Nagreen, father of the American hamburger, who loved to rattle off her father's sales pitch: "Hamburger, hamburger, hamburger hot, with an onion in the middle and a pickle on top, makes your lips go flippity-flop."
That's the America I know. That's the land I love. I've stood beside her and guided her since childhood, since the days when I rushed home from the Lamplighter School, popped my knuckles, stretched my eight-year-old fingers and gave my father a good dose of foot-slapping à la Nelson -- his warm work feet (zip boots and rolled, panty-thin socks beside the bed), those yellow calluses and dry, cracked toenails. And those summer jobs, oh those summer jobs, working for my father the renegade inventor, champion barbecue griller, and circus mouse trainer. The real credit for this book goes to him. So thanks, Dad, thanks for giving me my first taste of America Bizarro.
Posted July 24, 2000
This is the funniest book I've read in years. You don't need to be going anywhere to pick up this book and enjoy all the kookiness of American culture today. Where else in the world do people stand up in 100 degree heat for 90 hours just to win a pick-up truck (Hands on a Hardbody Contest)? What other country boasts a National Hobo Convention? This book is fantastic. Buy it and roll on the floor with laughter.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.