Smile Politely

Road kids and chalk outlines

I was roaming the streets of Champaign yesterday, waiting on Amtrak’s Illini to carry me home, when I chanced across a trio of road kids. It’s the Boneyard Arts Festival this weekend, someone had shared a bucket of sidewalk chalk with them, and they got into the spirit of the event.

One thing led to another; a greeting, finding out they weren’t camera shy, and then an offer of dinner in exchange for an interview. We had a fine time, but the conversation did turn serious at times …


That’s Felicia and her fiance Ryan, both of Pennsylvania, put out on the road by a landlord who didn’t keep up with the mortgage payments on the house they’d rented from him. Ryan from Nashville is both the youngest, just eighteen, and the most experienced rover of the three of them. This shot I caught before I began to introduce myself.

I sat with them, asked a bit about where they were from, and they arranged themselves for this snapshot. This is all part of the ritual when dealing with those who’ve never really been photographed before, but we managed to get one without the “Say cheese!” effect. They have their art, I have mine …

My hair is getting long, I was a bit ragged myself, having dressed for rooftop radio tuning work. I have a battered backpack and I suppose I could be taken for another sort of street person … they settled back into their creations.

Felicia was intent on her fairy reclining inside a cresent moon. The overcast skies and happy crowd flowing around us made light and mood just right. This one, she’s a self assured natural beauty — women labor in front of the mirror for the glow she had from fresh air, sun shine, and sleeping out under the stars the night before.

This one, he made the substitute teachers cry, and at seventeen he’d had enough of school. The camping pack and bandana to protect the skin of his neck from the roadside sun was the only sensible solution. The photographer in me liked how the curl of his hair got under Felicia’s big movie star glasses. And the beat hip generation aficionado in me was impressed — when we started talking about road stories over dinner he cited Hesse’s Siddhartha as his favorite. It was obvious he’d read it more than once and I believe he was the acquisitive force behind the copy of Kerouac’s On The Road they were passing between themselves at quiet moments.

We made our way to Merry Ann’s. The portions are huge, nothing costs more than $9, and road kids are always hungry.

We talked, me probing them for how they’d taken to the road, and them answering between bites of biscuits and gravy and huge sandwiches. They had the temperament for the road, all three, but unlike Tyler who’d hit the door as soon as he was able to do so, Ryan and Felicia had been pushed by the long, thieving arm of Wall Street. In happier times we’d have been having this same discussion, but they’d have had backpacks full of books for their classes at the University of Illinois rather than all of their worldly possessions.

When Tyler takes a break from trying to be noticed himself you’ll find he’s been paying close attention. The first to finish eating, he looked right at me and said “You’ve been out there.” I was forced to admit that I have a road story of my own, cut down to size from my 224 diaries in 2008, but not yet massaged into book form. I promised them a link to it as well as their own story when I published; forgive my seeming self promotion, but after an hour with them the urge for the road is strong in me.

Ryan and Felicia had just hopped their first train, having received guidance from Tyler on the methods and safety considerations. I felt compelled to caution them — Banjo Scott’s girlfriend slipped beneath a train in Seattle, losing her leg below the knee.

And I’ve never told the story of the death of Garrett Kyle, except in the letter to his parents I wrote ten days after his death in 2006, but a train was involved in this case, too. That’s him on the right, with singer/song writer Mike Mineo beside him. No more on this, but to say that if one wishes to be a hobo one should find a proper hobo to school them in the art of riding the rods.

I was sitting next to Felicia and while this was a good day I sensed they might need a bit of luck. I set out on the road with many things in 2008, including a stash of old silver coins. They’d been sold or traded along the way, and I’ve given one of two Morgan silver dollars I had to Banjo Scott back in Brattleboro, Vermont almost two years ago now. The other had ridden in the watch pocket of my jeans, my last dollar, should it come to that.

I pressed the coin into Felicia’s hand under the table, wishing I’d had my camera ready to capture the puzzled look on her face at the weight of the thing, and then the luminous smile when she took it out to study it under the light. There was a quick digging among pockets and compartments and they more than returned my gift — I have a little carved Buddha medallion now, almost exactly the size and shape of the silver dollar, and it’s safe in my watch pocket.

I’ve got their cell phone number and they’re headed west to Boulder, where Ministry Of Truth has just alighted, bearing with him the laptop I carried for my adventures in 2008. Perhaps this story is only beginning …

[Ed. note: This story first appeared on Daily Kos on Sunday, but Neal sent it to us, and it’s definitely worth re-posting here. Hope you enjoyed it as much as we did.]

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