Some mornings I head for downtown especially early, either because there's important work to be done, or because I've slept especially well and just like the feel of downtown in the period just after dawn.
When I do this, I often run into another type of citizen when I step off the 4F bus onto the still-damp streets of downtown Minneapolis.
As I walk to the office from the bus stop, I frequently see two or three of the Wanderers coming up the street. From the freight rail right-of-way gully that runs through the heart of the warehouse district, these isolated men come rising up like puffs of fog into the downtown area. They will dissipate very soon—long gone by rush hour— so the only time to see these phantoms, with their backpacks and lean, hard countenances, is in the very early mornings.
I suppose these men technically could be referred to as homeless, but there is a distinct difference between these men and the beggers and schizophrenics you see in every big city—the ones who are usually referred to as "homeless" in most demographic studies.
A tragic percentage of homeless single men in large cities are Vietnam vets who were never re-embraced by society. This makes me fear greatly for what we're going to see from the current generation of Gulf War vets, for if anything we are now even more callous to the needs of veterans.
But the Wanderers I'm speaking aren't really in this group, though it is possible that here too a goodly number might be war veterans. This group, though, isn't very likely to ever be seen begging or doing hallucinatory mumbling on the midday streets of a city. The rugged Wanderers I see in the morning are more akin to the classic hobos or traveling cattle wranglers who once were so prevalent in the 1920s and 30s.
I'm told that it's now pretty hard for anyone to jump freight trains and ride cross country, but it's still true that the railway right-of-ways are the routes by which many of these modern hobos choose to travel. In our metropolitan area, some of the civilized bicycle paths occasionally run alongside the railway beds, and sometimes you will see the tent of some traveler pitched within 20 or 30 yards of the rails.
This continues to be a kind of no-man's land, where foot wanderers are rarely molested by policemen or other authorities. Nobody with political sway ever owns the land adjoining a railway bed, so it is one of the only truly free areas left in America.
Often the Wanderers look exactly like modern cowboys, with stetsons and cowboy boots, and it is entirely possible that they have traveled into this area on their way to seasonal agricultural jobs in the big farm lands in the southern part of our state. When I was a boy, the neighboring farmer hired a wandering Texan in exactly this way to do dairy chores for the better part of a year. Or maybe these fellows come into town simply take temporary manufacturing or construction jobs, just enough to make money for a few weeks at a time, before hitting the road for another city.
I always feel something like nostalgia, and a little bit of envy when I see this particular type of homeless wanderer. It's a hard life, I'm sure, but it also reminds me of the restless ingenuity and independence that settled this country originally. I'm quite fond of my own life, but I also very much enjoy lonely wandering from time to time.
This morning, a Wanderer in a battered felt stetson and faded Levis was sauntering up 5th street with a worn Limberland backpack over his shoulders. He was taking the last few drags off a cigarette (I imagined it to be an unfiltered camel), and as he tossed the butt into a city trashcan, he spied some other trash on the sidewalk, and paused for few seconds to tidy up the street a bit before heading onward toward the bus station.
He touched the brim of his hat to me just before I turned the corner and lost him to sight.