Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette

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Poem: "The Hobo King"

This poem was written outside the regular prompt calls, inspired by the "Five of Bows - Empowerment" square in my 4-30-19 card for the Tarot Bingo fest. It has been sponsored by Anthony & Shirley Barrette. It belongs to the Big One thread of the Polychrome Heroics series.

Warning: This poem contains some touchy topics. Highlight to read the warnings, some of which are spoilers. It includes hobos, the aftermath of the Cascadia Cataclysm, discrimination against hobos, rude language, exhausted rescue workers, scarce supplies, impromptu leadership, tent village, road damage, disaster housing, and other challenges. If these are sensitive issues for you, please consider your tastes and headspace before reading onward.

"The Hobo King"

[Saturday, May 28, 2016]

Camo Dan was in the hobo camp
just off the High Wheeler trainyard
when he heard about the Big One
hammering the West Coast.

The bulls came by rattling
on fences and posts, hollering,
"Hey, everybody! There's been
a bad earthquake on the West Coast
and the tracks are all torn up there.
Nobody head that way, we don't
want anyone getting stranded."

Camo Dan thanked them
for the warning. These guys
were all right for bulls, which
not everyone was in the Heights.

He packed everything up, slung it
on his back, and headed for town.
He'd been planning to catch a camo car
to Salt Lake City, but this changed his plans.

Camo Dan hiked and hitched his way
to the Heights SPOON base, which was
swarming with teleporters and other soups.

He stopped the first empty-handed man
wearing a teleporter's armband and said,
"Can I get a lift toward the West Coast?"

The man turned, revealing a name tag
that read Dustrider. "Why the hell
would they want more hobos?"

"Cause we work our asses off,
ya dumb square!" snapped Camo Dan.
Then he shook his head. "Never mind.
I ain't catchin' out with the likes of you."
He turned and walked away.

"Excuse me, are you looking
for work?" someone called.

Camo Dan spun around and saw
a cute girl with deep green hair.
"Yes ma'am, I am," he said.
"My name's Camo Dan."

"I'm Viridian," she said,
holding out a hand. "You
can ride with me. I'm headed to
the relief hub in Mercedes, California.
What's left of the West Coast needs
all the help it can get right now.
Where are you headed?"

Camo Dan took her hand.
"Wherever I can get work."

"All aboard, then," she said
with a mischievous smirk.

The world blinked and reformed.

"Off the chalk," Viridian said, urging
Camo Dan away from the landing pad
drawn on the ground in sidewalk chalk.
"Traffic runs heavy here. We had to get
the safety specs from the teleport airport
in the Maldives to know how far apart to put
the pads for passengers and cargo."

Hours after the quake, it had been
long enough that people had organized
some stuff, like chalking pads for teleporters
after they ran out of compass rose rugs,
and there were some signs up for
different parts of crisis response.

Camo Dan followed Viridian, and
when he saw the cluster of medics,
he stuck two fingers in his mouth and
gave a shrill whistle. "Hey, patch!"

One head turned. "You need
a street nurse, bro?" a man asked.

"Nah, need to borrow a skin pen
if ya got one," said Camo Dan.

A neon green pen was produced.

"Hold out yer hand," Camo Dan said,
turning to Viridian. "I wanna let
folks know that yer a safe ride."

"Okay," Viridian said,
and held her hand still.

Camo Dan doodled a cat.
"This says yer a nice lady,"
he explained. Then he drew
a train engine, adding stripes
to suggest a teleporter's armband.
"This means folks can catch a ride out
with ya." Finally he put two shovels.
"And that says there's work to be had."

"So if I go looking for your kind of people,
I could find other workers fast?" she said.

"Yep," said Camo Dan. "Mind the difference,
though: hobos travel and work, tramps travel
but don't work, bums don't do neither."

"Understood," said Viridian. "I'll
show you to the Logistics station
before I pick up my outbound."

Logistics had a sign posted
by a pavilion that sheltered
several card tables along with
a crowd of citizen responders.

"This is Camo Dan, and he's
looking for work," Viridian said,
then patted his shoulder and left.

"What can you do?" asked the man
holding the Logistic clipboard.

"Pretty much whatever you need,"
said Camo Dan. "I was in the Army.
I can set up a camp, clear out debris,
do basic first aid if you're shorthanded --"

As soon as he mentioned camp,
someone else butted in and said,
"Come with me. We need people
who can pitch tents and not make
a complete maze of the place."

A team was already laying out
a grid with cans of spray chalk,
making transit lanes lined with
numbered squares for tents from
the Castle Civil Defense Base.

The burly woman in charge
of turning the vacant lot into
a camp pointed Camo Dan
toward a pile of folded tents.

"Start pitching those, one in
the center of each square,"
she said, and left him to it.

So Camo Dan set up the tents,
and he had just finished the first row
when someone showed up with a crowd
of exhausted rescue workers who had
just come off shift somewhere bad.

They were covered in dust,
some of them sporting bandages,
and they flopped down into the tents
like puppets with their strings cut.

It made sense to transport workers
who'd been through the worst to
somewhere farther from the coast,
but if that was going on then Camo Dan
had better hurry up the tent pitching.

More hands showed up, though,
so that helped spread out the work.

Bedroll Ben arrived just as the job boss
was trying to teach a bunch of lambs
how to make bedrolls to send out with
teleporters heading to other locations.

Camo Dan whistled him over, then
put him in charge of the bedroll detail.

Not long after that, Hollie the Hood
came in wearing her signature hoodie.
"You got work for me?" she asked.

"We're runnin' low on tent pegs
and rope," said Camo Dan. "Yer
a great scrounge, so go see
what ya can rummage up."

"I'm on it," said Hollie the Hood,
trotting away through the tents.

Twenty minutes later, she returned
with a whole bucket of stakes.

"I found some junked road signs,"
she said. "So I got a guy to cut them up
with a hacksaw. No rope yet. I'll have
to make another loop for that."

Camo Dan looked at the pegs.
They had been sawn to short lengths
and then cut at an angle to make a point.
"These'll do great, thanks," he said.

There were other hobos, too,
some he knew and some he didn't --
more than he would have expected
for a town as small as Mercedes, though
it was booming with first responders now.

Appalachian Kane arrived, his dark skin
standing out among the mostly lighter faces.

He wasn't much use in town, although he
could do gruntwork just fine. Camo Dan
would have to ask around about jobs
somewhere out in the wilderness.

"I heard you made tracks here,"
said Appalachian Kane. "Nice gig,
even if I'd rather man a chainsaw."

"I'll see what I can do," said Camo Dan.
"You got any idea why folks keep askin'
me what they should be doin' though?"

"Yeah, put this on," Appalachian Kane said,
offering Camo Dan a reflective yellow vest.

"Get away from me with that shit,"
Camo Dan said and waved him off.

"Blame Viridian," said Appalachian Kane,
not going away. "She kinged you, man."

"What?" Camo Dan said, staring at him.

"Viridian's going all over the tracks,
telling everyone there's good work here
and they should come see you about it,"
said Appalachian Kane. He shook out
the vest, which read HOBO KING in
magic marker under a jagged crown.

"Jaaayyysus Christ," said Camo Dan.
There was no arguing with acclaim, though --
if the other hobos considered him the king
of these parts, then a Hobo King he was.
"All right, help me into the damn thing.
I've about wore out my shoulders."

Appalachian Kane held the vest open
so that Camo Dan could slip his arms into it.
"Now all you need is a coffee-can crown."

"For that we'll need Mr. Yue," said Camo Dan.
He gave a loud whistle and called, "Page!"

A bunch of town kids and a few hobo kids
were volunteering as pages to fetch stuff
or carry messages back and forth.

Half-Pint trotted over to them,
which meant that her mother
Penny the Pint must be around.
"What do you need?" she said.

"Need an empty coffee can,"
said Camo Dan. "Go ask Mr. Yue
if he's got one he can spare, and
find EMT scissors or tin snips
so we can cut it for a crown."

Half-Pint dashed away.
She might have a hard time
sitting still for anything like school,
but she could outrun even bigger kids.

Soon she came back with a coffee can,
which Camo Dan handed over to
Hollie the Hood to make a crown.

He felt a bit silly wearing it,
but he had to admit that
the tall red points made it
easier for people to see him.

"Hey man, it's getting dark,"
Appalachian Kane said.
"What's to eat here?"

"Chinese food or rations,"
said Camo Dan. "We've
done enough to earn a meal."

That was the thing about hobos:
they didn't beg, they worked for
a living. They just didn't do it
all in one place like most folks.

The bread line dished out
all kinds of good chow --
chicken fried rice, black beans,
veggie shrimp roles, and coffee.

"Good eats," Appalachian Kane said
to Camo Dan. "I don't mind staying
where the work and food are this good."

"I'm happy to hear that," said Camo Dan.
"We can use all the help we can get."

They worked another shift after supper,
pitching tents in an empty parking lot.

After they finished, the job boss
asked if they had a place to stay.

"Nah, we'll just pitch camp
somewhere," said Camo Dan.

"It's easier to provide services
with everyone clustered together,"
the job boss said. "Why don't
you pick a row here if you want
to keep your people close by?"

"Alrighty then," said Camo Dan.
He found a board and wrote
Hobo Camp on it, then added
the symbol for safe camp.

The job boss marked the row
as theirs and promised to direct
other hobos where to sleep.

Each tent contained a pair of cots,
mattresses, pillows, and blankets.

"You wanna share a flop with me?"
Camo Dan asked Appalachian Kane.

"Sure thing," Appalachian Kane said,
and they moved their packs into the tent --
not that they needed the bedrolls with
all the stuff already provided.

Camo Dan stretched out with
with a smile. The West Coast
might be flattened, but he'd
had a good day's work, and
he was proud of that.

[Sunday, May 29, 2016]

In the morning, Camo Dan
and Appalachian Kane rolled
out of bed bright and early.

Breakfast wasn't donuts or
cold cereal, but some sort of
rice soup dished out of big pots.
You could pick all kinds of toppings,
though, like a salad bar, so Camo Dan
buried his in egg and onions and
decided that it was just fine.

After that, they went back to work.

Camo Dan managed to get a place for
Appalachian Kane on a chainsaw crew
hoping to clear part of Highway 17, which
ran through dense forest from San Jose
to Santa Cruz. Highway 9 was a loss
as it crossed over the San Andreas Rift,
whose shift had torn the road apart.

At least there were teleporters
to rescue people from places where
the roads and rails had been destroyed.

Camo Dan was hauling supplies toward
a newly designated place for refugees
when he spotted Viridian's green hair.

She wore a tank top that left both arms bare,
and a rainbow of signs marched from wrists
to shoulders in skin pen and body paint
where other hobos had decorated her.

Camo Dan recognized the symbols
for housewife feeds for chores,
good water, and help if sick.

A new pendant hung from
a chain around her neck,
too, a hobo nickel charmed
to promote safe travel.

Viridian must have been
the one who brought in
Penny the Pint, since Penny
carved nickels like that to pay
for things that she needed.

"Will you redo my ink?"
Viridian said. "This stuff is
supposed to last, but I held hands
and washed so much yesterday
that it's already starting to fade."

"Sure, no problem," said Camo Dan.
He cadged a green skin pen from
the nearest medic and went to work.

As he did so, Viridian caught
a glimpse of the words on his vest.

"I didn't know you were the king!"
Viridian squawked. "I wouldn't
have bothered you if I did."

Camo Dan laughed. "I wasn't,
'til you went and made me one."

"What -- how --" Viridian said.

"Hobos don't stand on ceremony,"
Camo Dan explained. "Whenever we
get together, someone just sorta floats to
the top. Usually we pick who it is based on
who we turn to for advice. Once in a while,
though, an outsider puts somebody up and
the hobos agree on it. So I'm the Hobo King for
these parts, 'cause ya told 'em all to ask for me."

"Yikes," said Viridian. "I'm sorry if I made
trouble for you. I didn't mean to do that."

"It's fine," Camo Dan said, waving off
her apology. "I'm gettin' the job done."

"Well, I have two more guys for you --
or had," Viridian said, turning around
to look for her missing passengers.

Papa Wheelie had stopped to give advice
on how to build portable ramps, where
someone had set up a workshop to make
those and send them with response crews.

Dean the Beans had stopped so that
he wouldn't lose track of Papa Wheelie.

"It's okay, I know how they get,"
Camo Dan said to Viridian. "Go on
back to work. I'll take care of 'em."

So Viridian popped off to wherever
she needed to go, and Camo Dan went
to get Papa Wheelie and Dean the Beans.

It was tempting to ask Papa Wheelie
to take over. The older man was
a real American nomad who had
been just about everywhere -- but
he hated any kind of leadership,
saying he had gotten enough
of that in the Marines and it
wasn't a happy memory.

If Camo Dan tried to put him
in charge, Papa Wheelie would
probably punch him in the crotch.

So instead, Camo Dan just strolled
over and said, "Ya lookin' for work?"

"We sure are," said Dean the Beans.
"I'd like cooking if that's on offer,
but I'll take what I can get."

"Bread line's down that way,"
Camo Dan said, pointing. "Ask
Mr. Yue if he can use ya -- might
be serving if ya can't cook Chinese."

"Well, I can make ramen noodles
just about any way you can imagine,"
said Dean the Beans. "I'll go try."

Then Camo Dan turned to Papa Wheelie.
"I know they need people to help sort
refugees, and there's a pavilion up for
disability services already. That work, or
you want me to try for somethin' else?"

"Put me on the disability booth, if they'll
have me," Papa Wheelie said, patting
his wheelchair. "Folks need to know
that this ain't the end of the world."

The woman running disability services
was thrilled to have a veteran volunteer
to take over the wheelchair cases and
whatever else she threw his way.

Camo Dan tipped his crown to her
and went to work on refugee quarters.

Overnight, someone had brought in
a truckload of pop-up geodesic domes.
Each one could house one or two adults,
plus one or two kids in a sleeping loft, and
they could be connected for larger families.

Although Camo Dan had never worked
with these things before, he found
them straightforward to learn.

It was a good job, and it let him
help people who had lost everything.

Humming happily, he set up the next dome.

[Saturday, June 24, 2016]

A month had passed since
the Big One hit the coast.

Mercedes had ballooned
to more than twice its size.

So had other towns in the valley,
because they were the closest points
usable as staging areas for the coast.

Farther west, there wasn't much left.

San Francisco had survived, but
most of Westbord was gone. Portland
was a wreck and Rain City was nothing
but dust and rubble. Several coastal towns
built on sandspits had literally slid into
the ocean when the sand liquefied.

It was strange to think of a world
without Los Angeles or Rain City.

Life went on, though. People
were beginning to recover, even if
it would take years to rebuild the coast.

Camo Dan hoisted a bag of concrete
onto his shoulder and headed to the site.

New regulations had been set so that
everything rebuilt on the West Coast had
to stand up to earthquakes and storms.

That meant mostly domes, whether
geodesic or monolithic concrete.

Of course there were still tent cities
everywhere, filled with refugees, but
now new neighborhoods were beginning
to go up to replace those lost in the Big One.

Because the coastal areas wouldn't have
utilities for so long, many people chose
to resettle in the central towns instead,
so those needed new housing to cope
with the sudden increase in people.

Hobos from all over America
poured into California, following
the trail of work. There was enough
work for everyone, and it came
with food and shelter too.

Camo Dan was settling into
his role as Hobo King.

He sent people where
they were needed, helped
them find the right kind of work,
and interfaced between hoboes and
squares when it became necessary.

He was stripped down to an olive tank top
and camo cargo shorts in the California heat,
but he still didn't regret coming here.

A flash of deep green hair snagged
his attention, letting him know that
Viridian was on her way over.

"Hey there," said Camo Dan.
"Can I do somethin' for you?"

"I hope so," said Viridian.
"I've been working more and
more with hobos recently. This
is less frustrating than engineering
and more exciting than modeling."

"Good on ya," Camo Dan said.
He'd heard that she was a good lift,
but not that she was an engineer.
"We can always use allies."

"That's what brings me here,"
Viridian said, raising her hand.
"I'm wondering if it's okay to get
tattoos of hobo signs like this."

Camo Dan looked at her hand.
Nobody else had drawn anything
below her wrist, whether out of
respect for his work or her refusal.
She still had the cat, the train,
and the pair of shovels.

"It's okay if yer a part of
the community," he explained.
"Leave off the shovels, because
work changes -- but ya'll always
be kind and good for a ride."

"Okay," said Viridian.
"How do I ... what ...?"

Camo Dan left off hauling
concrete for a bit and took
her to the first aid station.

There he scrubbed off
the shovels and replaced them
with his own personal symbol:
a D with a wavy diagonal line
to mean camo, and above it,
a jagged drawing of a crown.

"There ya go, blessin' of
the Hobo King," he said.
"Ya done right by us, so
wear 'em in good health.
Yer inker can go right over
them lines cause this is
the same kinda stuff they
use for tracin' out patterns."

"Thank you," Viridian said.
"I hope that I can become
a good ally of the community."

Camo Dan imagined her
a few years down the road,
knitted into the hobo network,
with a red coffee can crown
setting off her green hair.

"Ya sure will," he said firmly.

* * *


This poem is long, so the character, location, and content notes will appear separately.
Tags: cyberfunded creativity, fantasy, fishbowl, poem, poetry, reading, weblit, writing
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