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Nine years as hobo provided lots of material

By Brian Kluepfel, Special to the Daily Planet
Thursday July 11, 2002

Author is scheduled  

to play music tonight at Berkeley book store 


The Hobo, the Tramp, the Bum. He (or she) has been lionized and villanized by the American public; celebrated in the songs of Jimmie Rogers, Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan; iconified in the literature and art of the 19th and 20th century. In his decade-plus on the road, Eddy Joe Cotton (born Zebu Recchia) has lived the life, and shared the campfires, wine jugs and mulligan stews with these people who populate the margin of society, "a whisper beneath the wind."  

Cotton is scheduled to perform at Black Oak Books 7:30 tonight with his jug sideshow “The Yard Dogs Road Show.” 

Cotton’s first book, "Hobo: A Young Man’s Thoughts on Trains and Tramping in America," is an account of his life riding the rails, and otherwise making his way around the country. While it offers a coming-of-age story in its pages, the real art of the book is the rich language and homespun philosophies that explain the hobo life without ever descending into stereotype or cliché. While other literature exists on the hobos (Cotton provides an bibliography), this is hoboing for the 21st century.  

Most of the book details the first month Cotton spends on the road when he was 19. He gets angry with his father for firing him from their two-man construction business, and takes to foot down the highway outside of Denver, armed only with a "down Ford jacket, a couple of dollar bills, and a good pair of workboots."  

The time he spends traveling between Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and Nevada is populated with unforgettable characters: Half Step ("lost four of my toes falling off a train"), Alabama, Billy the Kid, Carny Chris, Bear and Yukon Sam. Cotton is adopted at first by the Vietnam veteran Alabama, who shows him some of the tricks of the wayfaring trade, and Cotton in turn takes a younger teen-ager under his wing for a spell.  

There is the menace of violence, the feeling of dispossession and despondence, the longing for home, the twin pangs of sex and love, and the screw-it attitude of a free spirit with nothing left to lose.  

One gets the feeling of what it's like on the road: the brutal clickety-clack of a train speeding through the Wyoming winter night; the painful wrench of the empty stomach with only enough change to buy a cup of coffee, and the disapproving stares of the straights in the roadside cafes.  

Cotton brings the beauty and ugliness of the landscape to life with his prose. A Rocky Mountain morning is described: "The evergreens were draped with the gowns of winter... birds were chanting as they untied the gifts that fell from the tree." Dodging the railroad police, he hops a car and "all my dark thoughts just passed overhead--like lonely black crows." Although he relies on his own description, some of the songs Cotton quotes are by Iggy Pop and J.J. Cale, two American music icons.  

In one of the "Journal Entries" that pepper the book without interrupting its narrative flow, Cotton distills his philosophy: "If you really want to have a good time, you’ve got to spill a little wine, sleep in the dirt, get pissed off and sad, and run across the great tundra like a castrated bull." He talks of living "not a dime past survival." His summary of the lifestyle is poignant and straight-talking: "The jungle tramp lives every moment as his last breath and looks for nothing more... than a hotshot to haul his sorry ass out of town." 

And if you don’t know what a "hotshot" is, there’s a rich glossary in the back of the book. Cotton explains the terms and their historical significance. He also imparts a good deal of practical survival wisdom throughout "Hobo." You might want to get yourself a "California Blanket" for sleeping – newspapers stuffed inside your clothes for warmth or to be used as bedding. If you need a fire, food and drink, let ‘em know at the nearest jungle fire that you’re "C, H and D" (cold, hungry and dry). This glossary shows the reader how greatly the American lexicon has been enriched by these itinerant gadflies.  

The only problem bump in the book was the section on Cotton’s brief dalliance with Misty, the go-go dancer/crystal methamphetamine freak who treats him to a few days of carnal bliss and then dumps him on the side of the road. Their sideshow in Reno is comical but this bit goes on too long and cuts the flow of the book.  

Cotton meets the challenge of a shattered heart by taking to the open road once again, and it is out there, among the carnies, speed freaks, broken angels, tricksters and outright criminals that he finds some measure of solace and truth. If his book makes you want to walk out of your cubicle and down the road, he offers only this advice: "I’ll give you enough information to have yourself a new trade. Your own personal truth will come later, when your summer of hoboing and sleeping in the dirt is over."