The Ghosts of American Rivers

 
ADVERTISEMENT
 

Hank Kalet

Photography by Sherry Rubel and Hank Kalet

 
 

Jack Kerouac called him the Ghost of the Susquehanna. Came across him in Pennsylvania, outside of Harrisburg. Same city where I once spent a night in a bus station waiting for a ride home. It was a “soft Indian-summer rainy night,” and Sal/Jack came across the “shriveled little old man with a paper satchel who claimed he was headed for ‘Canady.’ ” The “Ghost” led, talked incessantly of food, his hat, “how he managed in this hard world.” A “semi-respectable walking hobo of some kind who covered the entire Eastern Wilderness on foot, hitting Red Cross offices and sometimes bumming on Main Street corners for a dime.”

A ghost. A tramp. Hobo. Homeless wanderer. A relic of a past generation. Echo of itinerant traders and workers. Of the Old West. Of the American past. A Great Depression relic. A muse of sorts. “I thought all the wilderness of America was in the West till the Ghost of the Susquehanna showed me different,” Sal/Jack writes.

No, there is a wilderness in the East; it’s the same wilderness Ben Franklin plodded in the oxcart days when he was postmaster, the same as it was when George Washington was a wildbuck Indian-fighter, when Daniel Boone told stories by Pennsylvania lamps and promised to find the Gap, when Bradford built his road and men whooped her up in log cabins.

The same wilderness college-friend Joe and I ducked into off Route 80 to smoke a joint as we hitchhiked to Jersey so many years ago. Same wilderness that housed the ragged, bearded iconoclast who wandered in nightly to the convenience store where I worked the overnight. He lived in an abandoned chicken coop, I was told. Wore a stained parka. Bummed cigarettes and sandwiches from us, which we gave him off the books.

It is the same wilderness split by the lower branch of the Metedeconk River. Adjacent to the rail track. At the edge of Lake Carasaljo. Once home to sawmills. Iron smelting. Then vibrant hotels for the vacationing rich.

 

We walk with the Rev. Steve Brigham along a path into the woods. A winding path down a slope from the road. We carry new tents, pass bicycles and trash, the rail line to our right. In the shrinking wilderness. Near warehouses and aging parks where kids play soccer and baseball. Where tract houses rise. And strip malls spread like moss. Small stretches of wild space. Dark spaces. Beyond sight. Beyond willing comprehension. They congregate. Claim the smallest of spaces as their own. Move on.

We move through brambles and pines. At the edge of the Pine Barrens. Woods open to us. Eight or ten tents, a dozen more flattened and destroyed. By rain. Wind. Disinterest. The detritus of so many lives lived off the grid by men, women, pushed there by capital’s neglect. Tents. Old mattresses. Milk crates. Bicycles and bicycle parts. Socks. Beer cans.

One might be tempted to see in this the collapse of civilization. To see the piles of junk as a sign that the men and women who find themselves in these woods are unfit. Pose a threat to order. To middle-class comforts. Or, maybe, one is tempted to just ignore them. To consign them to the edges of our vision. To see them as random and unimportant.

They are neither and both. Their presence is a threat, but not to our comforts. They threaten to pull the curtain down. To lay bare the real impacts of an economic system that assigns a price to everything, and then discards those pieces that lack economic value. Pushes the valueless to the margins.

 

We are deep in the woods. Find an old gas grill. No grates. No gas tank. Connections stripped. "Great meal yesterday made on that grill right over there,” Rashon Harris tells me. “Best meal I ever had.”

Harris is wiry. Small. A proud Black man living in the woods. A blur of constant movement. Dances. A fluid motion, all legs and arms swirling. Raps a little. Sings. He’s maybe five-six. Five-seven. In sunglasses. Black mask pulled below his mouth. Wears mismatched tights. So he can move, he says. Flow.

“I’m the happiest man in America. I’m the best man in America. God has put me in the best position to be successful. I have to be there’s no other way. Oh, I have to be. I tell you that I have to be successful. There is no way out. There’s no other option. I tell you, God, he’s gonna be in my life. I’m an artist. I’m already a preacher, a minister, rabbi. I just speak to any culture. I’m very diverse. I’m a chameleon.”

It’s hot, even deep in the woods. Even in the shade. Horseflies. Weedy vines. Ticks. He lives here. Both by choice and not by choice. Where else could he go?

It’s ninety degrees. Jersey humid. Paula Neilly sees us. Rushes forward. Asks Brigham if the tent is for her. We have two tents, could use a half dozen or more. Neilly is forty-eight. Maybe five-six. Grew up in Lakewood, chased to the woods by gentrification. Rapid redevelopment. Turnover.

She stayed with friends. Family. But “sometimes you’re not allowed to stay in there, you can only have so many people in the house and the people that are on the lease or whatever.”

“Or they want you to babysit their kids for free or they say you’re not welcome. So I’d rather not do that.”

She lived in Western Pennsylvania for a year. Near the Ohio border. Near the trails trod by the Ghost. She came back to Lakewood. Had to. Fled for her life. “I knew racism before, but never on that level.”

She tells the story. Says no one believes her. Says they tell her it wasn’t like that. But it was, she says. It was real.

 
 

“It seemed like the world was coming to an end one day but it wasn’t an important thing right now. I was in recovery or whatever and I’m walking down the street—and I don’t know—that had like a levee or a dam or something. But it broke and it started raining. And all of a sudden these guys with guns, they just start running after me. From out of nowhere.”

White guys. Chasing her. Like a scene from a movie.

“I didn’t know why they would take me, and I call 911 on my phone.” She runs to the police station. Tells police three guys with guns are chasing her. They don’t believe her. “How come you called 911 they said to me. They tell me it didn’t happen that way.” They hold her for twelve hours. Public intoxication. She was clean. In recovery. Wasn’t using anything. “And they put me in this chair and they would electrocute me out of sleep.”

She prays. “God, you said you’d never leave me nor forsake me.” Says she “never prayed so hard” in her life. “I was afraid that the guy would ask his lieutenant or sergeant, ‘Let me just shoot her in the head.’ He’d say, ‘because nobody knows her. She just came here.’ ” They’d say to her that she “ ‘won’t even be listened to not even by your minister.’ ”

Two ghosts in the shrinking American wilderness. Ghosts both of the American past and its present. Of deep-seated racism. Of an economy that chews up and spits out people like gristle. Ghosts in a kind of urban wildness dotted by tents and trash. Empty water bottles. Remnants of old tarps and shredded tents. There is a shopping cart stuffed with old clothing. Everything is beat up and broken down. Not beat in the sense of beatitude. Not Kerouacian neatness. These are not Kerouac’s fellaheen. Perhaps not even victims. Just the detritus of it all. They are beat and broken and brutalized, but persevere.

We head out. Past bicycle tires and other discards. There is a stray shoe on the path. A single gray slip-on. A ghostly leftover.

 
 

Kerouac tramped the American highways in the postwar years. Hitchhiked. Lived off the land. In tents. For him it was movement. Romance. Myth of an American West, an American wilderness. Chance meetings with dharmic ghosts.

Sal/Jack meets the “Ghost of Susquehanna,” old hobo of the American night who tramps along the great byways of the nation. Moving to his own rhythms. Unencumbered. Free. Catches a ride with two farm boys from Minnesota. An open flatbed with a collection of tramps and kids. Workers and adventurers. Meets “Mississippi Gene and his charge,” a pair of “hobo kids” without cigarettes, money, whom Sal/Jack sees as an icon of an American past. A “traveling epic” version of the Times Square hustler Elmer Hassel (Albert Huncke),

crossing and recrossing the country every year, south in the winter and north in the summer, and only because he had no place he could stay in without getting tired of it and because there was nowhere to go but everywhere, keep rolling under the stars, generally the Western stars.

The hobo as romantic trope. Residue of historic wandering American past. Huck Finn as adult in a new era, experiencing the fullness of America because they cannot abide society’s strictures. A mythology that lingered through the sixties, the seventies, the eighties.

The romance had a pull. On the Road caused a “rucksack revolution,” says Marc Olmsted, a poet I met through a Kerouac group on Facebook. A decade-plus of young men and women “hitchhiking, across Europe and Asia.” Hitching on “next to nothing.”

Hitching. Moving. For Kerouac it more than just a mode of travel. Not just, as writer Richard Modiano says to me during a phone interview, a way of connecting points A and B:

When I was a teenager in the 1960s it wasn’t unusual to hitch to the beach with friends or places around the city. In those days you were more likely to be braced by the cops, especially if you looked like a hippie, but otherwise the danger was minimal (but not necessarily for women).

Modiano hitched across Ireland, and across the West. Olmsted joined him on one of these trips. Olmsted tells me he was encouraged to read On the Road by a friend. The book inspired them to take to the road themselves. “The first impulse is the hitchhiking, which I did a fair amount of.” He traveled “long distances up and down the California coast, and to Colorado and back.” Nothing compared with Kerouac.

“I never lost sight of the 1947-to-1951 time frame of the novel,” Modiano says. It was a book about “an earlier counterculture, one that had forecast the present.”

When I graduated from high school that June I took a road trip with a friend where we camped at Yosemite, Lake Tahoe and Mt. Tamalpais, from where we made forays into San Francisco and Berkeley. We didn’t have to say it to each other, but we were sure we were reliving the Dean Moriarty–Sal Paradise experience in our own modest way.

Dean and Sal. Janis and Bobbie McGee. Woody Guthrie. Dylan. Road-wandering. I hitched some. Penn State to home. Penn State to West Virginia and back. With different friends at different times. Caught a ride with a Russian Orthodox priest who talked like a feminist in 1981. Shared a pickup bed with a German shepherd named Cocaine. Smoked dope in the woods off Route 80. Played harmonica as the night descended. I don’t want to romanticize these moments. This wildness. I’m nearing sixty now, and I value something different. Stability. Connection. The kind of life Kerouac seemed to desire but could never find, even in the end, even in his late-life marriage with the sister of his childhood friend, even as he made a home. He drank himself to death for want of something that remained, always, out of reach and, for most of his life, kept him on the road.

Kerouac’s road. Kerouac’s vision of the American West. Of America itself. It was fleeting, always tied to a national past that exited more on screen than in reality.

Americans had always taken to the road. “The homeless have been a part of American civilization almost since the founding of the first English colonies four hundred years ago,” writes Kenneth L. Kusmer. Driven by the need for work. Depression. War. Moving on foot. By horse and train and car. Accepted. Rejected. Idle beggar. Wastrel. Vagrant. Vagabond. Bum. Benign. Neglected. Violent.

These were the tropes. The imaginary. From Revolution to Civil War. Through the repeated depressions of the late-1800s. Into the Great Depression, with its rail-riders and lost souls and Okies tramping west, fleeing drought for the fields of California.

[The end of World War II] and structural changes in the economy led to a sharp decline in the number of persons riding the rails. After 1945, homelessness would undergo a drastic change as an aging population of destitute men became confined, for the most part, to the deteriorating skid row areas of cities. Homelessness, which in the 1930s had reemerged as an important national issue, now reverted to what it had been before the Civil War — a strictly urban problem.

The road still beckoned for some. In dwindling numbers. Montana Slim or Mississippi Gene and his charge. Relics of the Depression. The road in On the Road is in transition. Kerouac, as Ferlinghetti says in the 1986 documentary What Happened to Jack Kerouac? A time of motion. After the war, the Depression, but caught in a romantic past. A prewar American literary tradition of the road. Kerouac. Thomas Wolfe. Hemingway. Twain. Woody Guthrie. Tramps. Travelers. Hobos. Searching for work, or not. Searching for adventure, or not.

Like the kid who stopped at the Tex-Mex restaurant where we worked. Had a road tan. Came from money. Was hitchhiking around the country. Was chasing something. Like Bobbie McGee. “Lookin’ for that home, and I hope he finds it.” Forty years ago. His name was Merritt. An apparition. A brief visitor. Our own “Ghost of the Susquehanna.” Possibly rich, or dead, or still on the road, “a shriveled little old man with a paper satchel,” like Sal/Jack’s ghost, “a semi-respectable walking hobo of some kind who covered the entire Eastern Wilderness on foot.”

Just an echo from my own past. A point where history and mythology collide. Merritt on the road, chasing something. Like James Fenimore Cooper. Mark Twain. Thoreau. The covered wagons wending west. Striking out into the territory. The road meant freedom. Wilderness meant being unencumbered. “Got my home in my hand,” sings Dallas Frazier in the sixties. Roger Miller proclaims he’s “King of the Road.”

 
 

“I’ve got some real estate here in my bag,” Simon and Garfunkel sing. And they all “walked off to look for America.”

America. Kerouac’s primary subject. The road. Movement. A fast car driven by Dean heading west. Bus terminals. Train stations. Covered wagons of the Old West. He writes in the early postwar years, during new boom times, but with a vision tied to the Depression and its forced migration. Steinbeck Okies and the itinerant hoboes. These are the angels of Kerouac’s American dreams, like his Susquehanna Ghost tracking back and forth across the country, angels of sadness dissolving into the past. Angels. Archetypes.

“The vision of America in Kerouac is the same vision as in Thomas Wolfe,” says Ferlinghetti . “Not the same exactly, but it is a vision of a prewar America that hardly exists anymore except in Greyhound bus terminals and small lost dusty towns.”

Wolfe’s era was the interregnum between the wars, was writing at the dawn of the automobile age, when carriages were still common and trolleys lined city streets. Wolfe wrote during the 1930s, Kerouac just ten years later, Ferlinghetti reminds us, but still “it was the same vision seen from the window of a speeding car.”

A vision of loss. Of changed times. On the Road is the saddest book I know because the joys are tied to an underlying fear — of change, of the bomb, of having to forsake youth for a straight life. He hitchhikes across Middle America, across the belly of the American beast at a moment when the homecoming GIs are buying tract houses and literally changing the landscape. When conformity was the central American value.

He pushed against this. Takes to the road to find something that is disappearing, but also to re-place himself among the nonconformists and rebels he admired. Kerouac, said Gary Snyder, was fascinated with the myth of the American West. With the sense of possibility presented through the Western pulp magazines and B-movies of his youth. Kerouac, Snyder says, was a “twentieth-century American mythographer,” and he saw in Snyder an “archetypal twentieth-century American of the west, of the anarchist, libertarian, IWW tradition, of a tradition of working outdoors and fitting in already with his fascination with the hobo, railroad bum, working man.”

The hobo, for Kerouac, was “one of the few models—myths—of freedom and freshness and mobility and detachment, detachment from the world of scrambling for power and prestige—that was available to us at that time.”

Modiano argues in an email that “Kerouac’s admiration for the hobo as a near-mythic figure was sincere, profound, and enduring.” Kerouac, he adds, occasionally “liked to think of himself as a hobo, ‘but only of sorts,’ and he finally conceded that he was never ‘a real hobo.’ ”

Kerouac, in his essay “The Vanishing American Hobo,” links the “American hobo” to his conception of the fellaheen poor. Simpler. Unencumbered. Closer to god or enlightenment. “Ancient inspirational precursor and contemporary poet-hero survivor,” Modiano says.

The fact remains that Kerouac, more than any writer of his generation, exalted the hobo as an exemplar of freedom, and urged young people everywhere to respect and emulate hobo ways and wisdom. His naivete notwithstanding, Kerouac stood solidly on the side of the ‘bos.

 
 

Flashback:

The cops are here. A regular sweep. Like clockwork, as the cliche goes. They ticket volunteers. The news crews. Part of an increasingly aggressive clampdown on the tent encampment that sprouted in the woods on public land. This was Lakewood, NJ, 2012. It could be anywhere. In New Brunswick, they’re chased from river bank to library, from rail underpass to rail station, and back again. Black, Latino. White. Men. Women. Kids.

In New York, I drop a couple of fives in a can. Young couple thank me. Avert their faces. They don’t want to talk. Are folded in upon each other. A cardboard sign at their feet asks for help.

Biennial counts of the indigent tell us there are between 500,000 and 700,000 homeless on any given night. Tell us they suffer addiction and mental health problems. That there is something wrong with them. Many do struggle. Some succumb to their struggles. Others persevere. “Recent studies have shown that many persons living on the street or sleeping in shelters are able, from time to time, to find accommodations with family or friends” (pp. 4–5). Many can work, but can’t find jobs. Haunted by past failures.

Like Kevin. Lives on the streets in New York. Homeless ex-Marine. He sits on a sidewalk. Midtown Manhattan. Holds a cardboard sign, a plea and a simple proclamation. Counterintuitive, perhaps. “Homeless Vet, Please Help” and “God Bless America.”

 
 

We talk. He sleeps where he can. Has a criminal record. Divorced. A story I’ve heard so many times. Almost banal in the repetition, but these similarities mask the slights, small and large, that lead a man to this. He’s smart. But that record. Nothing major, but no one will hire. He panhandles. I give him a $5. This is not ideal, he says. Once, in a Brooklyn shelter, he was robbed—laptop, good clothes, jewelry. Stolen from a locker while he was looking for work. Now it's sleeping on the subway. Parks. Sidewalks. “I've been in the Marines. It's not that bad. I've slept worse places.”

Ignored. Passed by. You know what they think, he says: drug addict, dirty, diseased. “It’s the negativity,” he says. “They don’t know me, so they shouldn’t judge me.”

There is nothing romantic about any of this. No holy hoboes of the Kerouacian night. Nothing mythic in the trash and rusted bicycle frames in the woods. This is raw economics. Human beings reduced to numbers on a spreadsheet. To mathematical equations. The homeless as remainders. As the leftover material to be discarded.

Chased. Beat down. Disappeared into the American night. The hobo, Kerouac writes in “The Vanishing American Hobo,”

has a hard time hoboing nowadays due to the increase in police surveillance of highways, railroad yards, sea shores, river bottoms, embankments and the thousand-and-one hiding holes of industrial night.

Police as defenders of order. As prime government response. “Great sinister tax-paid police cars (1960 models with humorless searchlights) are likely to bear down at any moment on the hobo in his idealistic lope to freedom and the hills of holy silence and holy privacy.” Are still likely to do so. To roll into tent encampments or roust men from their sleep under railroad trestles or along riverbanks.

Little has changed. Crackdowns are part of the continuum back into the 1800s. It is an imposition of structure, of social conformity. A response by a culture that sees the homeless not as natural outgrowth of the American condition, but as pests to be exterminated.

Kerouac might romanticize the indigent, see them as something more than they are. “There’s nothing nobler than to put up with a few inconveniences like snakes and dust for the sake of absolute freedom,” he writes.

In America camping is considered a healthy sport for Boy Scouts but a crime for mature men who have made it their vocation.— Poverty is considered a virtue among the monks of civilized nations—in America you spend a night in the calaboose if you’re caught short without your vagrancy change (it was fifty cents last I heard of, Pard—what now?).

His American ethos remains tied to a narrative of individualism. To a mythology of pluck and grit and men making their way without societal constraint. To a romantic sense of the past that is not fully born out by the actual history of homeless men and women in the United States. He critiques materialism, but fails to make the larger connections, mostly because he does not acknowledge that most of the men and women living off what we now call “the grid” do so because they have little choice. Because the American economy does not — and never has — valued its workers, valued anything but profit. Under American corporate capitalism, everything must have an assigned value tied to the bottom line, tied to how it contributes to profit.

This approach is unsustainable, says Minister Steve. Sucks up resources. Grinds them out. Drives men and women to the streets, the woods.

He’s been at this twenty years. More. Providing. Helping. I met him in 2012 when a massive, ramshackle tent city rose in the woods off Cedarbridge Avenue. On public land. Near the minor league baseball stadium and the small downtown. More than a hundred tents at its largest. Organized. Structured. A place of last resort for men and women deemed valueless.

Until it was bulldozed. Plowed under by Lakewood officials who decreed it a nuisance. They provided a year of housing to some. Many fell through the cracks. Most are back in tents, scattered around Ocean County.

No one in these Lakewood woods is seeking Canada. Or even California. Few are happy where they are. They want something more. Just a house or small apartment somewhere. Just shelter.

Harris tells me he’s waiting for a tent. New tent. Brigham says he’ll have one for him. Points to a spot between two tents.

“Right there. I’ll be quiet. I can’t wait.”

“God bless you for coming here,” he tells me. “I needed to see you today. I needed to see some positivity today. A lot of things in my life are not positive. I can’t tell you with the art, because it’s confidential. I think God has put me through going through this to realize when it does get better. I’m gonna be, I’m gonna sit down and do some coffee. And I’m gonna sit down and drink a tall lemonade. I want some lemonade in the shade.”

 
 

Spring / Summer 2024



Hank Kalet

Hank Kalet lives in New Jersey, with his wife Annie and their dog Alice. He’s a poet, essayist, journalist, and author of As an Alien in a Land of Promise, a collaboration with photographer Sherry Rubel. His work has appeared in The Progressive, TLR, The Bangalore Review, Adelaide, and elsewhere. His essay “As I Learn From You” won the James Baldwin prize for creative nonfiction from TaintTaintTaint magazine, and his essay “The Philosopher’s Stone” was shortlisted for the Adelaide Literary Award Best Essay in 2019. He teaches journalism at Rutgers.



support evergreen

 
ADVERTISEMENT