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A How-To Guide for the Happy Hobo

By Kathryn Geurin, Chet Hardin, Cecelia Martinez, Josh Potter and Shawn Stone

Illustrations by Trevor Paul

Walking to lunch today, we saw a grown man bend down and pick a cigarette butt off of the sidewalk, and smoke it. He was wearing a suit, and we wondered: Is he a hobo? A guy who had recently lost his job, his wife, his home, or his mind? Maybe all of them? And while he obviously didn’t have the good sense to not smoke sidewalk cigarettes, we couldn’t help but be a little impressed by his disgusting behavior: Times are hard, money’s tight, the end may be nigh, and a little of this man’s flexibility will go a long way. We’ve all known financial hardship (trust us on this one), but like the wise old adage claims, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” And we’ve learned a bit through the years about making do, making fun, and making the best of what you’ve got. So, to help you through this economic crisis, we at Metroland present you with some hard-earned tips and tricks to help you find your inner Happy Hobo.

The other, other, OTHER white meat

If you find that chicken or beef isn’t in your budget, and the only “meat” you’re getting is the spice packet in your creamy chicken ramen, there are some alternatives for those of you with a braver palate. Lesser-used cuts of beef like tongue, tripe, and feet have been widely used in Mexican cuisine, as well as in Romanian, Philippine, Russian, and German dishes. Tongue is a cheap meat—albeit 75 percent fat—and can be boiled, roasted or pickled and served in tacos or straight up with gravy. Tripe (also known as intestine) is served fried; large tripe (also known as tripas de leche) is used in the Mexican soup dish menudo. We’ve all been a little curious about those pickled pigs feet in the ethnic food aisle; use the recession as an excuse to branch out with your proteins.

Urban Fishing

Embrace the can-do spirit of the intrepid hobo, and catch your own food. Urban fishing can lead to a tasty dinner—when served with hobo beans, of course. And there are plenty of places to fish, from Washington Park Lake to the magnificent Hudson River. Just remember not to eat too much Hudson River fish, and don’t eat anything caught north of the Troy dam, because it’s grown á la PCBs. As a considerate hobo, we know you’ll follow all state laws and seasonal restrictions.

Home on the Range

True, camping might be glorified hobo living—sleeping on the hard ground, cooking in tin foil, no electricity, no TV, no video games—but it’s damn good fun, and can be a much-needed respite from our plugged-in lives. True, camping is the most budget vacation there is, but it can also be the most romantic (alone in the moonlight, huddled together against the rain) and the most bonding, family friendly, creative and refreshing. Leave the cell phones home, pack a daylong picnic, really talk to each other. Teach your kids to whittle. Make s’mores. Tell ghost stories. Worst that can happen: a monsoon hits. You’ll still have something to laugh about after your skivvies have dried.

Pass the Hat

Just because you don’t “do” anything “entertaining” that people might conceivably give you money for doesn’t mean you can’t be a sidewalk star. Buskers have been getting by on little more than patience and a welcoming grin for years. All you need is a schtick and a choice slice of concrete. Sing a song. Dance a jig. Offer advice or tell a joke. Got something lying around that makes noise? Bang on it. Remember, it’s not panhandling if you’re producing something of value. At the very least, folks will pay to make you shut up.

Plan for Emergencies

Chances are if you can’t afford birth control, you can’t afford children, and nothing is a bigger drag while hitching a ride on the railroads than a collection of unwanted mouths to feed. Planned Parenthood is offering free emergency contraception (also known as Plan B or the Morning-After Pill) for those looking to back up their regular birth control. Emergency contraception is not the abortion pill, and it can help prevent pregnancy up to five days after unprotected sex (although it’s most effective within 72 hours). Plan B can cost you up to $50 at your local pharmacy—that’s a mansion’s worth of cardboard for your hobo home. If you’re younger than 18, you’ll need a prescription or a doctor’s visit, and free emergency contraception is available only while supplies last. For more information and to get your free Plan B, call 1-800-NOT2LATE.

Cardboard is the New Wood

Hey hobos, those cardboard boxes aren’t just for living in: Chairs, tables, bookshelves, even couches can all be yours with a ready supply of discarded boxes, a hot-glue gun, some sharp scissors, and an understanding of basic engineering principles. The first step to good cardboard construction is the selection of materials: start with sturdy double- or triple-layer electronics boxes or produce boxes (orange boxes are ideal because they are usually covered with a waxy finish that helps keep out moisture). Next, sketch out your project, keeping in mind that cardboard supports significantly more load when the weight rests perpendicular to the run of the corrugation. If you’re building a chair or couch, you might want to double up the load-bearing elements by hot-gluing two pieces together or by rolling the cardboard into columns, hot-gluing them and lashing them in cat gut or rags until the glue dries. And remember to include structural elements, like trusses and beams, for extra support. Once you are done, to protect against the damage from a leaky roof, we suggest that you splurge and buy some bargain-basement paint and fancy up your new decor.

The Joys of VHS

It’s like a conspiracy: First, they end analog TV broadcasts and force millions of people with old sets to buy a fancy-pants converter in order to receive digital broadcasts. (Provided, of course, you can get a digital signal in your neighborhood—and it doesn’t rain too hard.) Then, they try to make DVDs obsolete with Sony’s Blu-ray discs. What’s a hobo to do? Pick up a used VHS player (they’re cheap) and scour the second-hand shops for VHS tapes. You can find high-quality, studio-made VHS tapes that are nearly new for next to nothing. Sure, there’s no “menu.” Sure, you have to watch the movie from beginning to end. But you’re one of “the poors” now, you’ve got nothing but time.

Cheap Community Chow

For those of you looking for a cheap meal, many churches are now offering more substantial fare than the body of Christ. Churches, neighborhood associations and community centers offer cheap or free community dinners. Some even have activities to keep the kiddies busy while you chow down. Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church on 10 N. Main St. in Albany will hold its next free community dinner on May 21 at 5:30 PM. While you’re there, check out the shop for low-cost, gently used items. And in Troy there are enough community meals throughout the week that no smart hobo ever has to go hungry.

Everything’s Better With Jell-O

If our grandmothers taught us anything about living through a depression, it is this critical equation: One can tuna plus one can fruit cocktail plus one can cream of mushroom soup plus one box Jell-O equals a balanced meal for four, with leftovers. We’ve all got to eat. But we don’t have to eat filet every day. We heard a statistic recently (albeit, we’re not sure where, or even if it’s accurate, but it sure sounds good) that when an average American declares there is nothing left to eat, that they actually have enough food in the pantry to eat for four days—if they get creative. So get creative. And nostalgic. Tucking into a plate of tuna-on-toast while a Jello-O mold chills in the fridge will cost you pennies a serving, and can give you that cozy feeling that only comfort food can—like you’ve clicked your heels straight back to childhood. When you’ve eaten your fill, don’t dump the balance. That pot holds a nice little lunch for tomorrow. Think of leftovers as a blessing, not a curse. Skip the expensive deli meats and roast a chicken for two. You’ll have a hearty home-cooked meal one night and chicken sandwiches the next. When you’re down to scraps, mix up a chicken salad and throw the rest in a pot for soup. Nom.

CDTA Can Be a Day-Tripper’s Cheap-o Treat

Had a hard hobo week? Begging got you down? Running low on plasma? The sperm bank turned you away again? You need a mini-vacation. But what’s that you say? You don’t have a car? Not to worry, you have the next best thing: public transit. Picture all the places you will go! You can catch the bus to lovely Scotia, chase the geese and throw an old hubcap around in Collins Park. Or take the bus up to Saratoga and snag your free door prize at the races this summer or visit the historic battleground. Want a day at the beach? The bus will even ferry you out to Grafton State Park. Stop by your nearest public library to pick up a schedule to plan your next depression-be-damned getaway.

House Sitting

The perfect vacation for those you can’t afford one: Find a still-employed friend or acquaintance who is going away, and offer to stay in their house. Just remember to be scrupulously good about feeding the cat and not leaving Cheetos crumbs everywhere.

Riding the Derailers

Any hobo will tell you that freedom’s an open boxcar headed west on a cool September morning, but when across town is as far as you’ve got to go, a bicycle will do. It doesn’t take gas, it’s great for the bod, allows for sweet wheelies, and can be hitched to a rickshaw if you need to haul junk and paying passengers. But if you tweak your crank or blow a spoke, you can’t so much as pawn that piece of scrap. Lucky for us, there’s the Troy Bike Rescue (on 3rd Street in Troy and Trinity Place in Albany). A jolly band of hobo sympathizers, the volunteers will hook you up with spare parts and show you how to grease your own chain. They accept all manner of donations and stand as a fine example of the burgeoning hobarter economy.

Not Trying to Make a Fashion Statement

Depressions are tough on clothes. The hobo life is one of a grime and sweat and hard work, and that wears out clothing fast. Being hobo poor, you can’t afford to buy a new pair socks just because your toes are sticking through the holes in your old ones. But you do have options if you’re finding Wal-Mart brands to be too high-end nowadays: your friendly, local churches. Many of houses of worship have makeshift clothing stores in their basements, selling their wares ridiculously cheap—$1 for a brimming-full grocery bag—and some even have days when they give the clothing away for free. If you are feeling relatively affluent, or you need some fancy dress for a night out on the arts-night circuit or job interview at the Sunoco, you can always head over to the Salvation Army or other area thrift stores for some super-cheap deals.

One Man’s Trash . . .

. . . just could turn out to be the treasure you didn’t know you needed. You could furnish an entire apartment with trash-pickin’ finds. We recommend you steer clear of upholstered furniture—cat-piss stink and bedbugs are the STDs of trash picking, so always pick safe—but you can find herds of bookshelves, computer desks, potentially-functional electronics and delightful curiosities gathering curbside. Once it crosses the sidewalk it’s free for the taking, and if you don’t salvage it, it’s headed for the landfill. Trash day is a happy hobo’s wet dream, and we find absolutely no shame in joining in that roadside free-for-all. Some right cool things we now have instead of shame: a bank of school lockers, a vintage wine rack, a hardwood rocking chair, a fully functioning air conditioner, a somewhat-functioning accordion, four beefy rubber arms, a mirror off the McDonald’s merry-go-round and a Sigue Sigue Sputnïk LP.

Just Don’t Eat the Lead

Dollar stores are indeed a great bastion of cheap crap. They might not have the selection of the Wal-Marts or K-Marts of the world, but they do usually offer a comprehensive smattering of the bargain products every cardboard-box household needs. And, as The New York Times and others are reporting, the owners of the big dollar-store chains are treating this current economic catastrophe as an opportunity to expand their reach, by putting new stores in choice population centers and cleaning up their downtrodden image. New paint, better lighting, more variety—some are even installing freezers and coolers to offer more foods and food-like products. Just try remember, when you are in the depths of a shopping frenzy, that not all of the stuff at dollar stores are great deals—a lot of that stuff you can still get for cheaper on sale at the grocery store—and, if TV has taught us anything, it’s that the secret ingredient in those off-brand Mexican cheese curls sometimes might be bull semen.

Brew YOB

There’s a saying among progressive alcoholics that goes: Think globally, drink locally. But these days, the more you contemplate macroeconomics, the more you’re gonna need something strong and handy to wash those blues away. A good hobo is a resourceful hobo, so rather than collecting all those stinky cans for another jug of Carlo, harvest Washington Park. The place is chock full of dandelions. Pick a bunch of those lovely buggers, soak the petals in hot water, toss in some yeast, citrus, and raisins (if you’re feeling bourgeois), and bottle it up. The streets are virtually lined with free containers after all. Here’s the catch: It doesn’t become fire water for about six months, so find a secret place to store your cache. Inside old furniture, at the bottom of a drainage ditch, or in a conventional hole will do. All you’ve got left to do is huddle up around the barrel and wait. Six months from now your 401k might actually be worth something. If not, you’ll be glad to wet your whistle.

Public Libraries

There is no better place to while away your unemployed days than in one of our fine public libraries. Read, attend a lecture, and keep up with current events; you can even use a public computer to find a job. Just remember to wash first—and not in the library restroom, please.

Viva la Revolucion Horticultura

There was a time when all you had to do to find a workable plot of land was drive your wagon out onto the range and stake your claim. Friends, that time is now (er, minus the wagons, range, and literal stakes). While upper-crusters bemoan our collapsing infrastructure, lousy real-estate market and dilapidated urban centers, you can go Zapatista on their asses (er, minus the guns and scary black ski masks). It’s called guerrilla gardening, and it’s all about using what is otherwise going unused. That traffic island, vacant lot, or space around the roadside tree: It’s yours to till, plant and harvest, so long as you don’t get caught and don’t mind others helping themselves to the spoils. Sounds radical, huh? Well, a hobo’s gotta eat, and canned beans don’t just grow themselves.

Walking the Art Walk

Just because you’ve hit the skids, it doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a little high culture. In fact, now that you’ve got modest digs and no disposable income, you’ll fit in with the artist set swimmingly. Remember those 1st Friday art walks your hipster friends have been telling you about? Well, go out, get yourself some square rims and a second-hand tweed blazer, and get your browse on. Here’s the trick: Enjoy the fine art, but don’t forget the cheese platter. That will be your surest source of protein. Next, go for the finger sandwiches and chocolate. If all they’re serving are pretzels and Cheez-Its, then mutter something about the death of painting and mosey. You’re bound to score some pinot if you work hard enough.

Sock Puppet Theater

Children are so damn picky. “Where’s my Wii?” “Where’s my XBOX?” “I want Bioshock for my birthday—and a pony!” Well, tell your ungrateful brats that economic collapse means change they’ll have to believe in: change for the poorer. We suggest sock puppets: “Hey, kids! It’s time for Family Sock Puppet Theater! Tonight’s story is about the bad little children who asked for dessert—and got a spanking!”

Fair Trade

We’re willing to bet you have stuff you don’t use. Humans are pack rats at heart, holding on to things “just because,” or “just in case.” Or just to keep from discarding a perfectly good vase (even if you have four others) or a book you’ve read and don’t plan to revisit. You’re not the only one. Your friends, your family, your neighbors, they’ve got stuff they don’t want too. The brilliant secret is: maybe you want the stuff they have, and maybe they want what you’ve got. So hold a good old-fashioned potluck swap-meet. Have everyone bring a dish to share and a few nice things—books, jewelry, toys—that are just taking up space. Enjoy good food, good company, and trade your old stuff for something new-to-you.

Keep Your Friends Close

Any veteran of the streets will tell you that a sure sign the hobo life has beaten down a fellow traveler is when they pull away from their community. It is easy to get discouraged, and hard to ask for help. So check in on your mates; make sure they aren’t dead and that none of their bones are broken. Don’t let them go all lone wolf on you. And keep your own social life active, even if that means joining a church or the 10 AM vodka circle in Barker Park. Tough times call for good friends, so make and keep as many of them as a bum like you can.

Home Sweet Home

A hobo would be happy just to have a home, and we all should be too. Never forget the simple pleasures of enjoying what you have. Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Finding joy and wonder in the everyday is better than budget-friendly. It’s fulfilling. So pull out the sidewalk chalk, open a good book, people watch, play a game, build a fort, tell stories, hunt fireflies, dance in your kitchen, wrassle the dog, curl up with someone you love. Life isn’t always glamorous, but it sure can be beautiful.


Don’t Be a Sad Hobo

A list of opportunities and temptations to avoid if you want to survive the economic crisis

• Signing up for medical testing

• Throwing yourself under a bus just to sue the city

• Hooking

• Selling crack

• Selling your organs (you’ll need those someday)

• Selling your children

• Home surgery

• Gambling on those Nigerian prince e-mails

• Using indoor fires for cooking or heat

• Stealing electricity

• Resorting to cheap intoxicating agents, like huffing glue

• Thieving

• Counterfeiting

• Pirating

• Drinking all the half-empty drinks at bars

• Smoking cigarette butts off the sidewalk

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