Sometimes you write for a while and then discover that what you’ve written is irrelevant. Here’s something I worked on for a few hours before tipping it into the trashcan.
The ambivalent fascination with the tramp as an embodiment of hyper-mobility persisted into the twentieth century fed by tramp autobiographies such as Ray Livingstone’s, Life and Adventures of A-no. 1: America’s Most Celebrated Tramp Written by Himself, “the true story of a blasted life.” Livingstone was known nationally by his moniker, A-no.1 even before publishing his memoir at age 37. The New York Times reported Livingstone had “traveled more than 500,000 miles, at a total cost of $7.55, riding on top of cars and underneath freight and passenger cars” (April 5, 1908) though his own account was slightly more modest: “I ‘hit’ the road on the 24th of August, 1883, and the total mileage on the 1st of May, 1910, was 471,215 miles, and my cash expenditures for transportation, exclusive of unavoidable street car and ferry boat charges were $7.61” (137). Livingstone’s narrative relates his travels through South America, Germany, the continental United States and the Klondike, episodes replete with strange figures and remarkable events which illustrate his initiation into life on the road.
The journey begins when, after getting in trouble at school, he leaves home and books passage aboard a river steamboat to Sacramento, where he spends several days until learning “there were bears to hunt in the Sierra Nevada, eighty miles east” (6). Carrying his .22 rifle, he buys a train ticket to Colfax. His funds depleted, he trades the gun to a brakeman for a ride to Truckee. He sleeps all night under a berth in a sleeper car, and by the time he wakes up in Winnemucca he is hungry, dead broke, and homesick. Struck by his youthfulness, the station agent’s wife feeds him. Already Livingstone is adapting to the road. He tells her that his parents are dead and he is bound for Chicago to find a lost uncle. The station agent, his wife and some of their friends take up a collection and he departs, arriving days later in Omaha where he is unsuccessful in finding work. “I resolved there and then to hustle,” Livingstone remarks, “as I had an idea that this world owed me a living, work or no work” (11). Hopping a stock train to Chicago. his money once again spent, he sneaks into saloons for free lunches and sleeps in the bushes of public parks. “I was forced to associate with the off-spring of the slums,” he notes, “and quickly forgot the refined English used in conversation at home, and in its stead acquired the argot of the toughs.” The weather grows colder. Livingstone resolves to head south.
Arriving in New Orleans on Christmas Day, 1883, he survives by stealing bread and milk from the front steps of houses and sleeps on the wharves “under the tarpaulins covering the cotton bales” (12). A chance encounter with the master of the Laura Jane, a schooner bound for Central America, who is in need of a cabin boy leads to employment. For two weeks they sail, Livingstone beaten repeatedly in order to push him to work harder, until the ship reaches Belize. Once in port Livingstone promptly deserts. He writes his parents a pathetic letter explaining his plight. He meets a woman who, struck by his resemblance to her recently deceased son, takes care of him. Casting about for some means of subsistence, he convinces her husband to employ him as a clerk in the commissary of a mahogany camp. With a crew of laborers, they paddle up the Rio Hondo in dugouts, camping in the jungle along the way. Livingstone boards with Captain Jones, the head of the mahogany camp and discovers such fare as “roasted baboons, fried parrots, turtle and armadillo stews, tapir steak, iguana, monkey soup, etc.” yet he refuses to eat fried snakes (22). Stricken with “Black Swamp Fever,” he returns to Belize for medical care and learns his parents have sent him a draft for 100 pesos. At the suggestion of Sr. Gonzales he travels to Champerico in Guatemala to depart homeward from the Pacific Coast.
A series of reversals– the outbreak of a Yellow Fever epidemic, a hurricane– eventually compel Livingstone to travel to Mexico City, 1200 miles distant, on foot and, occasionally, muleback. In el DF he learns an election has stoked antagonisms between Catholics and Protestants and he exploits this social tension to his own advantage, alternately claiming to those whose charity he seeks that his father is a bishop or a mason. The narrative takes on a much harder tone at this point. Livingstone, roughly twelve years of age, appears to be a competent operator. He begs secondhand clothes which an acquaintance sells so that they can split the profits. In this way he purchases his own suit in expectation of a return to the United States. “I didn’t dare show myself with my Mexican outfit before white people,” he explains (29). Over the next several weeks Livingston lives in a “nice boarding house, and [has] a fine time in general” until, having “‘done’ the city,” he writes, “I left on a ‘hobo-ticket’ via the Mexican Central for El Paso, Texas” (30).
He gambles away all of his money at roulette in a Socorro, New Mexico gaming house, going so far as to beg money and sell his suit– an experience that puts him off gambling altogether. In Albuquerque he is arrested for vagrancy and again, he is rescued by strangers. The owner of a carpet store rescues Livingstone from prison, outfits him in a good suit and extracts from him a promise to work for at least a year., a pledge he is unable to keep:
Faithfully I kept this promise for three long days, then the strange, irresistible something called the ‘Wanderlust’ seized me, and after supper I pulled off the fine clothes he bought for me and donned my old ragged overalls in their stead, and after leaving a note telling Mr. Hellwig how steady life and sudden ‘Prosperity’ were killing me, I slipped away into the darkness– an irredeemable wanderer. (32).
Days later he arrives in Salt Lake City whence he crosses the desert and comes to Lathrop, California, 97 miles from San Francisco. Yet Livingstone is not going home. He meets a tramp named Frenchy, a recent parolee from San Quentin, headed South who convinces him to come along. Frenchy becomes Livingstone’s tutor, teaching him, for example, that “‘a Gay Cat… is a loafing laborer, who works maybe a week, gets his wages and vagabonds about, hunting for another ‘pick and shovel’ job. Do you want to know where they got their monica (nickname) ‘Gay Cat’? See, Kid, cats sneak about and scratch immediately after chumming with you and then get gay (fresh). That’s why we call them “Gay Cats”’” (34). Frenchy gives instruction on the best methods to ride a brakebeam and has Livingstone say a prayer every night: “‘I solemnly promise never to associate with anyone in whose company I would be ashamed to pass my mother’s home in broad daylight,’” a moral code he is convinced spares him from “joining that army of tramps whose inevitable destination is the ‘Abyss’” (38). They arrive in Pensacola and before parting Frenchy gives Livingstone his nickname, A-no.1. Newly christened, he goes to Jacksonville, Savannah, and Atlanta, where he sells newspapers. In Charleston he signs on with a German steamer transporting phosphate as a waiter, though it turns out the captain is actually seeking a coal passer. After four and half weeks at this dirty and difficult job he arrives in Hamburg where he is cheated of his pay and threatened with arrest as a stowaway. “I never forgot this lesson,” Livingstone recalls, “and made good use of my new hard earned knowledge later on” (51).