Back in the beginning of January I was walking around Little 5 Points with Elizabeth Wilson and Melissa Harward when we came across some kids who looked to be about our age panhandling. I had my film camera with me at the time and asked if I could take their photo with it if I gave them the dollar they requested. The obliged and we started talking while I set up my camera for the shot. The group was really friendly and it gave me an idea to do a story about them. I asked if they’d be okay with it, and they were so I returned with my digital gear later that day.
I then spent the better part of two days hanging out with them to document how they killed the time before hopping a train to take them to their next destination. The captions in this one are going to be a little more detailed than usual just because I thought what they had to say was so interesting.
“In order to be out here, you have to lose all sense of shame.” Emilee, two semesters shy of dual associates degrees in Psychology and Philosophy, has been traveling since she was 18. “I started college early and had a high bright future,” she said. Although she worked two part-time jobs, one as a head hostess at a restaurant and another as an assistant manager at a Christian bookstore, she lost her apartment when she wasn’t able to make rent.<
Jacob, right, tosses a cigarette to Amy, left, as she drinks a mix of orange juice and vodka from a bottle. Jacob, originally from Stayton, Oregon, is 19 and has been traveling for nearly three years. Jacob expressed the necessity of appreciating the little things, such as a clean pair of socks. “Sometimes I worry I’ll end up in the middle of nowhere and die, and my mom will have no way of knowing.” Jacob calls his mom when he can, as does Emilee whose mother pays for her cell phone so the two can keep in touch and so her mother knows she’s still alive.
Nicodemus, left, shares pizza donated from Little 5 Points Pizza patrons with his group as Jacob grabs a slice for himself. Nicodemus, affectionately called “Pretty Boy Money Maker” by the others says hobos are the best food critiques as he analyzes the type of bread used to make the bun of a donated hamburger. “Pretty Boy” has associates degrees in Political Science and Studio Art and is easily the oldest of the core group at the age of 28.
Dimas, Attorney at Law, licks Emilee’s face as the two sit outside a store in Little 5 Points in Atlanta in early January. Dimas, who was adopted by Emilee when he was a puppy, has been on the road his entire life. “The first time I put him on a leash as a puppy and walked him down the road, a trucker pulled over and gave me $100.”
Traveling and owning a dog almost go hand in hand it seems. Besides companionship, dogs provide protection for their owners. “People always think the dogs aren’t taken care of,” said Nic. “But if you think about it, the dogs are on the longest walk of their life and spend 24 hours a day, seven days a week with their owner. They’re really happy and really loyal. The dog and the owner need each other equally.”
“Some people have to be travelers permanently,” Nic says in reference to Jason, a tangential member of the group. “He got beat up by skinheads in Richmond, Virginia and now he has brain damage, he walks with a gimp and can’t talk normally now.” The group takes care of him and brings him along on their travels, but he’s usually off on his own during the day. “No Christian or yuppy will walk someone like him into an SSI office to help him fill out the paperwork.”
Amy, aka “Fun Size” takes some black eyed peas and collard greens from a local who decided to share her leftover new years food with the homeless and travelers at Little 5 Points. “We try to separate ourselves from humbums,” said Nic. Humbums, as he calls them, are those homeless people who stay in the same town always asking for change. “We try to be in and out in a few days, by the time people start recognizing us, you know you’ve been there too long.”
While the “humbums” are generally nice to the travelers, another group isn’t. The Freight Train Riders of America regularly throw younger travelers off of trains.
Knowledge is passed around from traveler to traveler. Rex, who was on his way to Athens, Georgia, looks at a card given to him by Emilee that will allow him to bring his dog onto a city bus so he doesn’t have to walk the full way to I-85. Another item of interest was the crew change book for CSX trains. The book, published once every two years, is primarily distributed by photocopy and handed down from hobo to hobo. Being spotted on CSX property by the train crews can be hazardous and the book lets hobos know when it is safe to jump on certain trains at various railyards around the country.
“Stray,” left, smokes a cigarette while “Dogfood,” right, hangs out on its owner Shay’s backpack. Cigarettes and alcohol help make the world go round when you’re on the road. “You need a certain amount of booze not to feel bad,” said Nic before channeling Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones, “You can’t always get what you want, but I get what I need. I’ve never gone a day without eating, smoking a cigarette or drinking.”
Jacob, left, flirts with a girl he’d seen throughout the day as she passed by while shopping. Jacob and Nic met while in Los Angeles through a friend and later ran into each other again in New York City a few months later. The two have traveled together for about a year now while the rest of the group solidified about six or seven months ago. His mother, who lives in San Antonio, Texas, thought he would be over traveling by the time he turned 18. She ultimately just wants him to be happy, he says.
Jacob occupies time on the street by practicing on a skateboard with no wheels, and fingerboard. “I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up,” said Jacob, “but I was a little hell raiser in school.” Jacob, expelled four times from his public schools has a GED and no interest in going to college. “Sometimes I wonder if I’m missing out on a normal life,” says Jacob who hasn’t lived in a house since he was 14, “but then I look around and everyone looks so bored.”
Nic poors a 24 oz. can of Schlitz into a can of tea in order to be able to drink in public without being suspicious. To combat boredom the travelers make fun of other people and each other, they say, play with their dogs or their guitars and generally conversing among themselves. Before he met the group, Nicademus was married. While at a rainbow gathering he got drunk and married a girl he met. The two divorced soon after.
Jacob cleans out and marks up a pitcher to collect donations in. Sometimes the donations aren’t money though. While on the street Jacob spotted a man walking by with a Pittsburgh Steelers knit cap and struck up a conversation with him, the man returned 20 minutes later to give him the hat.
A police officer instructs Nic and Jacob to move for the third time that day. Nic thought about traveling for awhile before he started hopping trains. He was living on a fishing boat making about $30 a day when he decided it was time to try something new. “When I quit, my friends bought me a Greyhound ticket from New Jersey to San Francisco, I took the trains home and kept going from there.” His dad is the Treasurer of the Sheet Metal Union and he says his father “respects the hobo way.”
After several days in the city, Emilee carries Dimas to the car of a former traveler whom the group had been in contact with. The contact, who also picked them up when they jumped off the train, was taking them back to the train yard so they could make their way down to Jacksonville, Florida before heading further south. Emilee, Jacob and Nic called me a few days later to let me know they made it safely to Jacksonville.