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“A freedom most of us would not be able to handle”

The classic image of the hobo of folklore is the lonely figure walking down the railroad tracks, his life possessions gathered in a kerchief tied to the end of the long pole slung over his shoulder.

For John Lennon, a doctoral student in Lehigh’s English department, the hobo is much more: a romantic figure who pursues a life a freedom, an outcast who finds no comfortable home in traditional society, a class warrior, or maybe a victim of abuse.

“There is no one hobo figure—there are many different types who are on the road,” says Lennon, who is traveling across the country this summer to delve into the hobo lifestyle for his doctoral dissertation. Through his journeys, Lennon is engaging in a philosophical questioning of the hobo subculture resistance in the late part of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and exploring the U.S. rail riding community of the 1990s.

He’s met such colorful subjects as Jessica, a woman who has “hoboed” through the ‘90s and now teaches special education classes in San Francisco. The cast of characters also includes New York Slim, a Vietnam veteran who hasn’t had a permanent home since he returned from the war, and Malachi, a man who lives on the road with his two dogs—“excellent train hoppers, by the way”—and ekes out a living singing on street corners.

“What their collective experiences tell me is that the reasons why they are on the road are as individual as they are,” he says. “They’re all just trying to live their lives.”

Lives in the balance

Despite their stubborn resistance to characterization—or perhaps as the result of it—Lennon found himself increasingly in awe of the inner strength of the hoboes he’s met and interviewed over the course of his two-year study.

“I am amazed by these men and women who are willing to risk their bodies to travel to move. Their lives are in the balance but they are willing—for a variety of reasons—to sacrifice comfort and safety in order to get their bodies and their lives in motion. And by existing beneath the radar, by becoming invisible for a time, they are touching on a freedom that is hard to come by. It’s a freedom that most of us would not take or be able to handle.”

That freedom doesn’t come without a cost, he quickly adds. There is the constant threat of physical danger, and the fear of being “caught” leading what some might consider an illegal existence.

“I do admire the fact that this is a distinctive lifestyle they’ve chosen to lead, and that they’re willing to deal with those consequences,” he says.

The concept of “lostness”

Lennon became interested in the topic while taking what he termed “some much-needed time away from academia to evaluate what I wanted to do with my life.”

After earning his undergraduate degree from King’s College and his master’s degree in English from Lehigh, Lennon knew that his educational quest didn’t have a finite end, or goal.

“It wasn’t about just getting a degree for a specific reason,” he says. “For me, the educational experience provides so many opportunities: to think, to question, to meet passionate people thrilled to talk about ideas. So I needed time away to think about my path.”

After a few false starts, Lennon ended up in Cork, Ireland, where he worked for seven months in a 24-hour emergency shelter. He describes that period as an “intense, amazing experience” that left him much less romantically idealistic and much more practical.

“I met so many great men and women who carved out their existence in ways that would have killed me—lives that are invisible to most people,” he says. “But these men and women found ways to survive and to live, keeping themselves as safe as possible, away from the gazes of those who would harm them.”

When Lennon returned to Lehigh for his doctorate, he realized that his focus had narrowed to the survival of subcultures, and of the larger concept of “lostness.”

“We live in a time when everything is being watched and counted—between reality TV and constant surveillance when you walk into a store, or even when you walk down the street,” he says. “But there are whole groups of people who are lost and live without being seen.”

Faculty encouragement is key

Lennon began to question both how and if it is even possible to live without being seen in the post-9-11 world, where, he believes, sweeping governmental changes threaten the freedoms Americans tend to take for granted.

“Thanks to the Patriot Act, men and women who are caught on trains could be considered terrorists now,” he says.

Working with his advisor, Dawn Keetley, assistant professor of English, and a group that includes English professors Seth Moglen and Betsy Fifer and history professor John Pettegrew, Lennon is refining his project.

“It’s an eccentric topic and Dawn has been with me every step of the way, giving me encouragement and support and great insight,” he says. “This project wouldn’t be anywhere close to what it is without her.”

Ultimately, Lennon hopes to finish the project by the end of the fall semester, and then explore the concept of lostness for a book.

“What continues to amaze me is the fact that there is this subculture that exists and that is coordinated, but most of us have no idea that people like this are out there,” he says. “We are oblivious to whole societies and subcultures that exist right next to our world. And they are able to use our blindness to their advantage.”

--Linda Harbrecht

Posted on Thursday, July 29, 2004

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