The competition is tough for the title of “Armpit of Iowa”, but little Britt is determined to win the title. They started off over a century ago by issuing a “what were they thinking” invitation to the hobos to bring their convention to Britt every first weekend of august. Yup, too late to help with corn de-tassling and too early for harvest, and on a branch line to nowhere to boot!
So a century and change later a hobo convention purportedly still annually occurs in Britt, but given that the peak years for hoboing were the depression, they’ve had a shortage of real hobos of late. I first answered the call of the hobo convention over a decade ago, when real live hobos like Steam Train Maury and such shared their stories, and it was a treat. But anybody who rode trains back in the depression when over a million americans rode the rails in desperation has most likely already “caught the westbound”. And unlike the old days when the hordes of hobos almost overran Britt in a good way, attendance seems to have stabilized around a hundred or so.
Most of that hundred hard core “hobos” has at best only a vague connection to hoboing. We have the youthful “anarchists” who get stoned over on the west end of the “jungle”, while the better behaved and mostly senior “hobos” settle into a relatively civilized existence with a park shelter, cook shack, and even showers. To the east was relatively quiet camping, though overly lit by the City of Britt with the intent of keeping the hobos on their best behavior. Arriving at this week long event on friday ’bout dinnertime, I was stuck with accommodation at the far east end right under a streetlamp.
Now the “hobos” made a good try at putting on an evening variety show, but it mostly wasn’t an experience I’d want to repeat. That was thankfully over by 10pm, so I walked the couple blocks uptown in search of WiFi… Whole damn town, even the library, was locked down. hoping to kill off any semblance of hobos at the hobo convention for decades, they had booked a Beetles tribute band against the “hobos” variety show in the same time slot… They were no more entertaining, and fortunately only moderately amplified. But not to be outdone, the local bar had booked a slightly more talented 70s rock band, but with too much more amplification. So I retired to my tent, and by 11 I’d given up on getting any signal from both AT&T and Sprint and tried to sleep.
Now despite the volume, the 70s rock might have eventually bored me to sleep. When the band took a break, I was “serenaded” by the country muzak that some business the other side of the tracks thought their customers would appreciate. And further east, some misplaced “anarchists’ were arguing about something, perhaps which chain of gas stations it was most ethical to commit driveoffs from? The loud band finally knocked off at what must have been a liberal local enforcement of the 1a.m. bar closing time, allowing me to enjoy uninterrupted the anarchist’s growing argument. About that time I was wondering what the hell I was doing there… If the argument proceeded to the level of great bodily harm, how the hell was I going to call the police with no cell service? “S’pose I could hop on the bike and ride over to the courthouse, only to be mistaken as an attacker in this paranoid western Iowa hell hole and ventilated by the whole department’s inventory of bullets…
Sometime around 3a.m. or later the anarchists collapsed silent, and I got a couple hours of good sleep. ‘Twas a night of “good sleeping weather”, so I was able to squelch the streetlight’s over-illumination with my faithful sleeping bag. Then some “neighbors” on the other side started up… Their generator! Like I said, with few real hobos still available, the hobo convention tends to draw various misfits and “counterculture” folks with rather vague if any connection to hoboing. The noisy generator sported a heavy gauge electrical cord leading to a massive tent, out of which was clearly visible what appeared to be the vent hose of a cheapo portable air conditioner. The cord ran under a genuine Caddy hearse, and given these “neighbors” Ozzie Osborne inspired black gothish costume complete with cape and scepter, I can see where they might desire some air conditioning. But don’t they take that stuff off at night when they’re hopefully sleeping?
Tossed fitfully ’til 7 when I got up. slammed down a Dew to reach some temporary semblance of consciousness, made myself sorta presentable, and walked the couple blocks over to the Casey’s C-Store. The best thing to happen to Britt in decades, Casey’s served up a portion uncontrolled slice a breakfast pizza that was a meal in itself. A good thing, ’cause when i got back to the “jungle” around 8 breakfast still hadn’t happened. Pretty certain that saturday would bring the parade, boredom, and a repeat of friday night, I packed up while I still had a chance of staying awake for the 200 mile ride home. As I left about 9 the anarchists were slowing awaking from the chairs they’d slept in, and the goth wannabes had yet to appear in today’s daylight…
OK Britt, quit trying so hard, you’re officially the armpit of Iowa. And “hobos”, you might want to take some lessons from the reenactors and require at least an attempt at recreating the honorable history of the great hobos of the past. And a block away from the phony jungle, a few of today’s hobos slept in their big rigs awaiting loads or travel trailers plugged into the local farm co-ops expansive buildings waiting to bring in the harvest… They’re the closest thing we’ve got to hobos anymore.