Tommy Maras, a.k.a. "Inkman" was voted the King of the Hobos at Britt, Iowa's 109th Annual Hobo Convention Aug. 6. Inkman works on train cars in West Seattle and lives here, too.
King of the Hobos reigns in West Seattle
On Saturday, Aug. 6, few heard the big news here but they sure made a lot of noise in Britt, Iowa, where nearly 500 hobos and local residents voted by applause following a two-minute speech for the 2009 King of the Hobos.
It was the 109th Annual National Hobo Convention when a hobo king is selected every year. About 100 hobos, former hobos, hobos-in-spirit, plus a few 100 curious tourists converged on the otherwise tranquil town of 2,052 that hosted the annual event.
Tommy Maras, a.k.a. “Inkman,” for his many tattoos, a union freight train welder and mechanic who lives and works in West Seattle, was coronated with “Stray Cat” the Hobo Queen. He was passed the former king’s crown, a red Folgers Coffee can cut to shape, resting regally atop a straw hat with red bandana.
Inkman follows in the footsteps of many a colorful hobo, at least by name. There was “Scoop Shovel Scotty,” who won intermittently beginning in 1936, “Fry Pan Jack” in 1984 and “Preacher Steve” in 1999.
“Many dear hobo friends wanted to be the king but passed on,” said Maras, 51, a former paratrooper raised in blue-collar Chicago. “I am honored, and carry the title with dignity. I’m proud to be a hobo, an American, and a railroad worker. I’m liked. I’m happy.
Part of Maras’ responsibility included joining his royal predecessors in laying the ashes of Preacher Steve in Britt’s official hobo graveyard. Preacher Steve "caught the westbound" (hobo lingo for passing away) last year and was loved deeply by his fellow travelers, according to Maras.
“We’re all travelers in life, as a baby crawling, some people more than others,” said Maras. Now an apartment dweller with a steady job, he said some hobos are “dun rovin’" and have settled down.
While he used to ride the rails, he said those days are behind him. He has, however, managed to attend 25 hobo conventions in a row. This time he took Amtrak to Minneapolis, a bus to Mason City, Iowa, and from there got a ride with his lady friend Rita to Britt.
Most camp in the “Hobo Jungle” set aside for them in town for the four-day fest.
“I don’t promote riding rails,” said Maras sternly. “It’s so illegal its not even funny. They throw you in jail. Everyone is watching everyone else in the rail yards, especially since 9-11 because of homeland security. They even ask me to watch for ‘people who look like they don’t belong’ when I’m on the job.”
Some say that’s part of being a hobo, not belonging. But Maras has a job and a roof over his head, so how can he be a hobo, let alone the king?
The Inkman explained in the third person, “The King of the Hobos wants you to know, ‘The bum drinks and wanders. The tramp dreams and wanders. But the hobo, with the same spirit as a pioneer, works and wanders. That’s the difference. He’s a worker. And the King of the Hobos says ‘Be kind to others.’ There’s too much hate, fighting, killing in the world. I’m against all this. It could have been prevented a long time ago."
“The hobo is a good soul,” said Linda Hughes, curator, Hobo Museum and president, Hobo Foundation, both in Britt, Iowa. She said she was glad Inkman was crowned this year and that the crowd made a great choice.
“I was born and raised here, and consider hobos my extended family but I never rode the rails. My sister, Mary Jo and I invited the hobos to stay in our yard the Wednesday night before the convention got started. She owns Mary Jo’s Hobo House Restaurant which displays historic hobo photos and paraphernalia on its walls.”
“The hobos started appearing right after the Civil War,” he said. “They were former soldiers and got jobs on the railroads, and many worked on the small towns along the tracks. As former infantrymen they were used to sleeping outside, roaming and traveling.
“Two of my best friends in their 90’s remember during the depression hobos coming to their door on the edge of town when there were hundreds riding the trains, looking for work. All they wanted was to eat. My friends’ mother would have them chop wood and do what ever, then she came out and fed them.”
Maras explained some well-known hobo symbols. They were like hieroglyphics and etched on trails and in towns to indicate work, food, and illness in the area. Two parallel shovels connoted work available.
A smiley face with a long mouth indicated that you could sleep in the barn. A kitten sketch told hobos of a kindhearted lady nearby, like his friends’ mother.
There is even symbolism in hobo stew.
“Your meat and carrots and potatoes are all diced,” said Maras, a former “crumb boss” or head chef who cooked with Rita in the Hobo Jungle. “So when you take your ladle and go into the pot everything is equal. Otherwise you have these meat-hogs.
“People are always talking about the freedom, the thrill of the ride, but it’s not great having no job or anything to eat. I’ve been there. I’ve been riding the rails at least 30 some years of my life. I did it to get to work.
“I’ve done every kind of job from working offshore oil rigs in Louisiana to picking oranges in Florida, working ranches in Texas, as a roustabout for Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus. I set the three rings up, and the high wire.”
Two of Inkman’s hobo colleagues live in the Chicago area, “Milwaukee Mike” and “Oats.”
“I started riding trains again about a month ago as a recreational rider,” said Milwaukee Mike, 70, reached by phone. He collects hobo paraphernalia and said he has the largest collection of hobo books in America. “I ride the Union Pacific Yards out to Clinton (Illinois.) Once you do it you can’t quit.
“They couldn’t have picked a better guy to be the Hobo King,” he added. “Inkman has been very active in the hobo community. I’ve known him for at least 15 years. I met him out in Britt, Iowa. I was there when he was coronated I was there cheering him on.”
“Inkman is dedicated to preserving the memory of the hobo,” said “Oats,” whose non-hobo name is Cliff Williams. Williams is a philosophy professor at Trinity College, a distinguished school in suburban Deerfield, north of Chicago. He wrote “One More Train to Ride: The Underground World of Modern American Hoboes” and “Around the Jungle Fire” which includes hobo poetry he gathered from the conventions with proceeds going toward the Hobo Museum in Britt.
He said he has dabbled in riding the rails, and has attended the Hobo Convention since 1990 when his curiosity was sparked by a Chicago Tribune Magazine pictorial on the event.
“The convention is a sociologist’s goldmine,” said Williams. “Inkman is part of two cultures, the one with a regular job, but also part of the hobo world. He doesn’t fit into regular society, but tunes into the ethos of hobo culture. He’s traveled, been restless, and thinks for himself.”