I have to admit that my view of hobos and the hobo life have been colored somewhat by reading John Hodgman's hilarious and wildly inaccurate history of everything, "The Areas of My Expertise." Hodgman has kind of a thing about hobos -- the book espouses at length on various bits of hobo lore (Did you know that during the Great Depression, the hobos once tried to overthrow the U.S. government, infiltrating the White House and installing one of their own agents, Hobo Junkpan Joe, as Secretary of the Treasury? That was something I did not know.)
The book also contains a list of some 700 hobo names, including Wicked Paul Fourteen-Toes, Ol' Barb Stab-You-Quick, and The RZA. Go to e-hoboes.com (yes, really) and you can see the full list, with accompanying illustrations of every one.
But I digress. All this hobo trivia has caught my attention because there's an actual, real, not made up documentary about hobos and hobo art called "Westbound" that's playing for free at the Wisconsin Union Theater, 800 Langdon St. at 7 p.m. tonight.
Filmmakers Shelly Young and Jim Rivett made the film about Adolph Vandertie, the Grand Duke of the Hobos, who was born in Lena, Wisconsin and grew up poor in Green Bay. He eventually ran off to join the hobos, a romantic notion at the time, and soon became one of the most famous and prolific practitioners of hobo whittling, creating over 4,000 elegant little "whimsy sticks" that hobos carved out of soft wood using their pocket knives.
Later in life, Vandertie turned his Green Bay home into a museum for hobo and folk art, and eventually sold most of it to the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan. Vandertie passed away in 2007, but some of his work is on display at the Kohler Center as part of its "American Story" exhibit.
For those interested in outsider art, or just the memories of a man who led a very unorthodox but full life in the American 20th Century, "Westbound" seems like a must-see.