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Holding On

Overview

"A collection of unexpected characters, intriguing characters, lovingly assembled. It's a fine read."—Mike Wallace
This book is a tribute to some of America's greatest characters, people holding on to unique ways of life at all costs. A castle builder, a forty-year veteran Woolworth's lunch-counter waitress, a moonshiner, and the president of The Brooklyn Elite Checker Club are among this varied group of ordinary people who prevail against all odds. They are Dewey Chafin and Barbara Elkins, snake handlers for the...

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Overview

"A collection of unexpected characters, intriguing characters, lovingly assembled. It's a fine read."—Mike Wallace
This book is a tribute to some of America's greatest characters, people holding on to unique ways of life at all costs. A castle builder, a forty-year veteran Woolworth's lunch-counter waitress, a moonshiner, and the president of The Brooklyn Elite Checker Club are among this varied group of ordinary people who prevail against all odds. They are Dewey Chafin and Barbara Elkins, snake handlers for the Church of the Lord Jesus in Jolo, West Virginia; Amos Powers, caretaker of America's only coon-dog graveyard in Colbert County, Alabama; Dixie Evans, curator of Exotic World, Museum of Burlesque in Helendale, California; and Mike Gashwarza of the Hopi tribe, fighting against electricity being brought to Old Oraibi, Arizona, the oldest town in North America.
David Isay's compelling, often humorous profiles are accompanied by Harvey Wang's wonderful portraits of fifty such people, die-hard individualists who speak for themselves, illuminating their remarkable lives and personalities. Henry Roth's foreword is a moving testament to the creativity, tenacity, and dignity these people possess.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A "delightful collection" said PW, of these interviews from the NPR series The American Folklife Radio Project. May
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393316087
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 5/28/1997
  • Pages: 216
  • Product dimensions: 6.80 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

David Isay is an award-winning radio producer and regular contributor to National Public Radio. He lives in New York City.

Harvey Wang is a professional photographer living and working in New York City. His work appears in many magazines and periodicals and in Rock Wives and Where Have You Gone Vince Dimaggio?

Henry Roth (1906–1995) spent his early years on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. In 1914, the Roth family moved to Jewish Harlem. Roth died in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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Read an Excerpt

H3>An excerpt from Holding On...

I met "Steam Train" Maury Graham while recording a story about the National Hobo Convention in August 1992. The town of Britt, Iowa, has hosted the annual three-day gathering since 1900, when some locals decided that the convention might help the quiet town to grow a bit. The town never grew, and the hoboes never stopped coming. They continue to descend on Britt each year -- camping out next to the railroad tracks. The 1992 convention drew about sixty wandering souls -- most of them younger drifter types, heavy on the tattoos and Harley-Davidson T-shirts, in search of a party. But there were also a fair number of Depression-era hoboes in attendance, most of whom had been coming to the convention for decades, a few of whom were still riding the rails. "Steam Train" Maury is now considered the hoboes' elder statesman and acts as a master of ceremonies at most of the convention's events. Maury had suffered a stroke in 1991, and was unable to attend the previous year's convention. At the 1992 convention he was greeted with a hero's welcome.

I'm "Steam Train" Maury, Graham is my last name, and I'm seventy-five years old. I spent many years traveling around the country on freight trains and working. I first went on the road when I was thirteen years old. I had a broken home, so I just took off. Luckily, I got in a camp of old hoboes in Toledo, Ohio. They tried to encourage me to get home -- they don't like kids hanging around their camp. I brought them some vegetables, so they let me stay a little while and they taught me the ways of the hobo. They told me the difference between hoboes and bums, and they said, "You go in those bum camps and you might not come out of there, 'cause they'll rob you and they'll hit you in the head. But if you stay around the hoboes, they'll look out for you and they'll treat you nice." I asked'em, "How do you know a hobo?" Well, they start a-learnin' me. "You can tell the hobo by the way they're dressed, and you can tell the hobo by their conversation -- usually not shady."

Also, they taught me little tricks, like always have a few pebbles in your pocket. If you come into a camp and there's a bunch of men you don't know, take one of those pebbles and throw it on the ground. All the men will know that you've been passed by the hobo clan and that you belong to them. So I would always carry a few pretty little stones, and just throw them on the ground when I came into the camp. Now if it was a bunch of bums, they don't even see me do that. But if it's a bunch of hoboes, they see that rock on the ground, and right away I'm under their wing, and I share their dinner and so on. I used to do that, and I'd be taken care of and looked after, and that was good for a kid thirteen years old.

There's two ways of thinking about how the hobo got his name, and two stories that come down through history. One is that hoboes could always get a job working in a garden. Everybody had gardens full of vegetables, and every day they'd need hoeing in the garden. The woman's hoe was usually dull and dirty and not handy to use, so the hobo started carrying his own hoe, and many of them carried a hoe over their shoulder: they'd tie their bedroll and all of their possessions onto the handle of their hoe, and carry it across their shoulder. They call it a bindle, B-I-N-D-L-E, and you carry everything in there. So the word started coming down, "Oh, there goes a boy with a hoe! There goes a hoe-boy." Well, the hobo started resenting being called a "boy" -- a "hoe-boy" -- and they'd let people know: "I'm an adult person -- don't call me a boy!" And the vernacular for an adult was "bo," and it come from the old English "bo" -- that's an adult man. And so they'd say, "There goes a ho-bo" -- that's a man carrying a hoe -- not a boy carrying a hoe. And that's where the word come from -- hobo.

And another story that come down through history is that it was a salutation, like you'd say to a fellow you run across coming from the opposite direction, "Hi, boy, where you going?" And he'd say, "I'm not a boy, I'm a man," and they'd start saying to them then, "Ho-bo, where you goin'?" "Ho" was an old English expression of salutation -- "Hello." "Ho-bo, where, you goin'? Ho-bo, where you been?" And they started calling them "hoboes."

There's several groups of people on the road. The biggest part of them is called "bums," and they bum because they want something for nothing. They don't do any work in this world. If you just sit down and depend on people to give to you, that's a bum. If you bum people and beg people for something for nothing, that's a bum. Now, the hobo would never do that. He'd say: "I'm a class a little higher than that. Have you got any work I can do?" And trade work for something to eat. You didn't have to trade work for money then. There wasn't any money. You'd rather get a meal for the work, or you'd rather get a pair of pants or an overcoat or a blanket. Usually in the old times that's the way people paid the man -- paid him in trade. You aim to work and that's a work ethic.

A hobo never worried about being broke. He knew he could work for his breakfast, and he knew he could work for his dinner. When you were hungry, you'd knock on a door and ask for work. And the housewife would either have some wood to carry in or wood to split, or coal to carry in and ashes to carry out. The husband was supposed to do that, but he didn't do it half the time, and they was glad that somebody come to the door to do it. And by feeding the hobo a meal, why they could get it done. And some housewives were very liberal and very generous and some of them were very skimpy and very tight. You might do two hours' work, and just get a little old peanut butter sandwich for it. But the biggest part of them were generous.

Where the hoboes eat and hang around and sleep under the stars -- that's the "hobo jungle." Usually along a railroad track or out by a creek someplace. There's usually a collection of pots and pans there, so that they can cook some dinner. And when they get through using those pans, they wash'em and clean'em. They don't throw them on the ground and leave them dirty -- bums do that. Hobos wash and shine those pots and gets them perfectly clean, and hang them upside down to dry on a stick so dirt won't drift into them. They're clean -- ready for the next bunch to come in!

Many of the hoboes wrote little markers on a telephone post or a fence with chalk. They'd leave signs that meant: "This is a good place to turn in and get some work." And a good turn-in sign was a tic-tac-toe with an arrow pointing in. And a picture of an old top hat like Lincoln used to wear, that meant: "There's a good man living in here, and he's got work for you." And if there was a bad dog in there, they'd put two jagged lines for two sets of teeth: "There's teeth in there! Don't go in!" It was usually a dog, but it could be a bad man, two jagged lines.

It was extremely dangerous -- catching trains. A lot of it was hardship, so don't get too romantic about it. Many a man fell under the trains and was killed, and many a men had limbs cut off. Oh, the country was full of one-legged, one-armed men. And a lot of people died and a lot of men did get hurt, but I never did. It was a lot of hard knocks.

Those old days when men traveled to get work like that is over. The railroad people, they don't want you on their trains, wandering and wandering and wandering. And the towns down the line don't want you coming through, traveling and traveling. I'd say '79 was probably the last time I rode. I'm old and crippled, you know, and not strong like I used to be. One day I just said to myself, "You'll never do that again." But a lot of old men that are decrepit do stay out there and keep at it and keep at it. And a lot of men die out there. Just stay with it until they die. Yeah, it is hard to leave, but it's the smart thing to do. To stay home in a nice easy chair. I don't mind that.

Excerpted from HOLDING ON, published by W. W. Norton and Co. Text copyright © 1996 by David Isay; photographs copyright © 1996 by Harvey Wang.

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