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There in the Jungle
When I was as lad, my cousin Bob and I searched for adventure in the wildlands among the large, undeveloped tracts of land beyond his suburban Sacramento home. Those wilds are covered over with development now, but in those days, the life there consisted mostly of thatches of unkempt growth and of birds finding their lives among the criss-crossing levees and railroad tracks that cut through the otherwise empty wildness. There was also human life there…a small, squalid concentration of it. My cousin (who has always been more worldly than me) told me it was a “hobo jungle.”

I only glimpsed it once, in a Tom Sawyerish moment when we hunkered down just below the top of a levee and peered with wonder into this alternate reality. We couldn’t see much, just the smoke of campfires and dark forms moving about the encampment. What life might be like in that world was seen only in the unreal realm of our own imaginations.

The hobo jungles of today are not so mysterious. “Homeless camps” is the new term, and their world is now close enough to see clearly — at least if we look quickly enough as we speed by on the freeway. The Tom Sawyer flavor of my adventure is nowhere to be seen. That taste was also a product of our young imaginations. These are simply people, mostly down on their luck and mostly willing, even eager, to work.

My grandfather was a hobo for awhile, before he finally landed a solid job. He rode the rails all over the country, even to the Klondike gold rush in 1899. I know it was a tough life, though I don’t remember him talking about it. He worked wherever he could and slept wherever he could get away with it. He had no shame about that life, my father told me, but was always careful to distinguish between a “hobo” and a plain old “bum.”

That distinction is well-made today as well. There are, to my eye, plenty of hoboes among the homeless, people who are a good break or two away from grabbing hold of the bottom rung of the ladder. For now, though, they are rubbing elbows in the camps with other hoboes, and with bums, and with the mentally ill.

There may even be a few adventurers among them as well, people (men mostly, I would guess) who are curious to dive into a world free of any expectation or the need to obey. That was me, once. It was a real adventure, that is certain. I wanted the freedom at the time, and I wanted the uncertainty. So I hit the road with just a backpack and a vague destination. I slept in places I was not supposed to be, and miraculously I was never hassled by the law.

But I was no hobo. I knew I could return to my old life any time. I could simply hop a flight and end my experiment with disconnection. I was never seriously up against any of the real trials that the involuntary homeless face. There was no chance I would go hungry. I had some money and some friends along the way and people I could call to bail me out. There was some danger, but nothing I couldn’t escape by just moving on. No hobo has that kind of freedom. A bum does, but I suspect he will have an even harder time escaping his way of life.

Believe me, it is a hard existence, even if your time there was spent as a bit of a lark. I was relieved when it was over. I won’t be going back, not if I can help it. My grandfather and all the other hoboes in the jungle didn’t have that choice, nor do most of today’s homeless. They want out of the life that circumstance has dealt them.

There are no easy solutions to their predicament, but as long as they are there, it is our predicament too. Even if we catch only fleeting glimpses of them, they are here with us in the community. Right over there by the freeway, in the jungle.

Please Note: Tim Eagan will read your comments but he is currently not publishing them.

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Trump supporters are people who know what they believe.
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