I once had a tee-shirt, now long lost, that I picked up at the annual gathering of hobos in Britt, Iowa. On the shirt was an image that showed a hobo with a staff striding down the railroad tracks. Around it were the words “Graduate of the School of Hard Knocks and the University of the Road.”

Hobos, being wanderers, have a special claim to the sort of wisdom that wandering imparts. After the assembled hobos crowned their king, I went to interview him back at his campsite. He was preparing to feed his dog and I began to pester him with questions while he did so. Getting a bit flustered, he held up his hand and said, “One thing at a time. One thing at a time, my friend. You can only do one thing at a time.”

I thought this a bit ridiculous (and the King a bit dim-witted), but I waited patiently while he carefully opened a tin of dog food, looked for his dog’s dish, and then slowly spooned out the meal. He then crushed the can, put it in a trash bag, cleaned off the spoon and then stored it away. At last he turned his full attention to me to answer my questions. I have never forgotten the lesson, though many times I have failed to heed it.

I first fell in with the hobos while hitchhiking. Laid over in Texas and not having any luck getting a ride out, I went down to the train yard. I saw a motley bunch of vagabonds under a tree. I approached but before I could get close a man picked up his small rucksack, separated himself quickly from the group and said, “Come on. Let’s get something to eat.”

Getting something to eat meant walking over to Pizza Hut and offering to sweep the parking lot in exchange for food. Abe grabbed the broom and made short work of the job; soon we were sitting in the shade and eating a pizza. While walking back, Abe grabbed my arm: “Don’t walk so fast: if you have a long way to walk, better to walk slowly.”

Abe may have saved my life several times. (I was innocent and dreamy and did not yet know how wild the world could be; thinking back, it was fortunate that it was Abe who took me under his wing and not one of the other vagabonds he was so anxious to get me away from at the trainyard.) The second time was when someone crawled up on our campsite in the thick underbrush at night in Yuma. He was almost on top of us before we heard the tell-tale crack of a twig; only Abe’s well-honed animal instincts saved us: before a second twig would crack, we were fleeing down the embankment.

When Abe delivered me safely to my home in California, I invited him to stay on. For a week he rested, got shaved and washed and enjoyed the company of my girlfriend’s French roommate. Then one day he was gone, taking with him a Nikon camera and a Seiko watch my father had worn.

Even angels have to charge a fee.

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