When I was five, I decided to run away from home.  I packed my most important items into my little blue suitcase (I don’t remember what, exactly–probably some tadpoles, a joy buzzer, and a really good stick), stuck a note on my reading lamp (“deer fambly i got boarred and did runned away”), and marched down to the end of the street to wait for a circus to come by and take me away.

The grand march took maybe all of three minutes (we lived on a dead end with a total of five houses), but it felt like venturing solo into darkest Africa.  I sat my little butt down on the red brick wall around Mrs. Wheeler’s house, fully expecting acrobats, elephants, and giraffes to come by at any minute.  I expected clowns, too, but that was an expectation mixed with dread; I’ve never liked clowns.  I’m told that clownophobia is one of the most common phobias around, so maybe you can second that emotion.

After about two minutes, reality began to sink in.  Ain’t no circus coming down my street.  I shambled back to the house and slunk into my room.  The note on the lamp was still there.  It was the grandest adventure of my life, and no homecoming?  I could have been eaten by gypsies or kidnapped by tigers!

“Excuse me,” I said to my mother, who was–as usual–washing dishes.  “Excuse me!”


“I ran away.”


“Just now.  But I came back.”

“Hm.  Didn’t notice.”

Any wonder I hate circuses?

I don’t hate hobos, though.  Nope.

We lived within spittin’ distance of the Chesapeake and ATS&F tracks.  I’d watch the cars rumble by and occasionally get a glimpse of a guy or two chilling in an open boxcar, and think “Dang.  That’s the life for me.  One of these days . . . .”

The neighborhood was discretely sprinkled (you had to know where to look) with cryptic hobo symbols–a drawing of a cat, for instance, means “Nice lady lives here.  Might give you pie.”  I was stupidly happy when I found a library book that translated the chalk drawings into English.

I respectfully redirect you to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hobo

I’m generally not a fan of wikipedia–not by a long shot–but I’m too tired to do any responsible research.  Mea culpa.

My fascination with the car-jumping life got me into some pretty serious dutch in fifth grade.  We had “career week”–or maybe it was a month–during which we were supposed to decide what we wanted to do for a living, interview people already in the field, find out what education and qualifications were required, and so on.

I thought long and hard about it–I really did–and finally decided to tell the truth.  When my turn came, I knew that I was going out on a limb, but I stood up in front of everybody and said, “Well, I want to be a bum” (this was before I realized the distinction between “hobo” and “bum”).

I got laughed at and shouted down.  The teacher rolled her eyes and shook her head.  They all thought that I was treating career week as a joke, but I wasn’t.  I was serious.  It was humiliating and disheartening, and walking home that day–not far from the tracks–was the closest I ever came to shedding everything, leaving all that kind of crap behind, and hitting the rails.  All I needed was a cool nickname and some chalk to draw cats with.

Looking back, I should have said “Well, I want to be a travel writer.  I want to experience life at its fullest and communicate my observations, attitudes, beliefs, and values to others, in writing.”  It would have been accurate, and I’m sure the teacher would have beamed with pride (“Dear diary:  I can’t believe it’s finally happening!  I’m reaching through to my most challenging student”).  But, you know–I was ten.

I still get wistful every time I hear a train whistle, and it still pisses me off that they did away with cabooses–you could always count on the brake man for a friendly wave.

I gave up on circuses a long time ago, but there’s always the Burlington Northern.