GOOD COMPANY by Douglas A. Harper


Email this review


In the sociological tradition of Nels Anderson's The Hobo: an inside look at the railroad tramp's life--its cycle of working, drinking, and migrating. Sociologist Harper, then a Brandeis graduate student, came to riding the trains after briefly studying skid row bums in Boston. We see his ""apprenticeship"" develop out of his friendship with a ""beat out old tramp"" named Carl as the two join with others migrating West to work in Washington's apple harvest. Despite Harper's inability to record conversations, we learn, with him, about the world of hotshots (fast direct/freight trains), jungles (tramp camps), and bulls (railroad police)--a demonstration that ""mastering the trains"" involves learning a complex culture. Among the lessons: ""how to reduce the mazes of yards to comprehensive systems in which trains can be located""; how ""to 'read' trains to predict their routes""; how ""to ride the variety of cars on the train itself."" Perhaps most difficult is telling ""good company"" from bad. Boston Blackie is definitely bad company, a ""bullshit artist"" and sponger--by contrast with himself, says Carl. ""Like those guys we came up to this morning? If I had something the first thing I'd ask them: 'Well, come on, let's eat'. . . Now, old Boston Blackie, he'll have a packsack full and he'll eat out of yours, and then he'll take off and eat his own."" Bad company are tramps who can't control their drinking, jackrollers looking for easy marks, and hippies riding the trains for a lark. Good company is often to be found among the old-timers--who understand the protocol that balances friendliness with distance--and the working men, as opposed to the drunks (""You've got to look at their hands; their hands give it away every time""). Harper views the tramp as one element in the American social landscape, related to the ""nature of the immigration, a national ideology of individualism. . . and a lack of a hereditary and conservative ruling class. . . ."" While today's tramp is threatened by the faster train speeds, by the ride-proof design of many new cars, and by automation of the last remaining sources of migrant work, he remains ""somewhat of a hero in his rejection of the routine, regulation, and boredom of a life lived in the carefully protected niches of an increasingly organized society."" Passing a Winnebago trailer, Carl asks Harper, ""Would you like to live with that?"" A culture on the edge--with photos that promise (from the sample) to sharpen the focus. Good sociology and good company.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1982
Publisher: Univ. of Chicago Press