Nobody knows if there was such a person as “Boxcar Bertha.” Dr. Ben Reitman wrote her “as told to” memoir in 1937 and the feeling is that she was a composite of several women hobos Reitman knew from his day job as the clap doctor to the poor. Reitman is a fascinating man in his own right, an anarchist doctor; best remembered as Emma Goldman’s lover, who dispensed much needed care to the indigent and homeless. He once served six months in prison for advocating birth control. He was often branded as a “Red” for his strong pro-labor leanings, and one-time membership in a socialist league. Many feel “Bertha” was an honest invention created to bring the lives of itinerant women into high relief for the reader.
“Boxcar Bertha,” in his telling, was a spirited, highly sexual, free spirit who wandered the country consorting with Labor organizers, criminals, among other rounders. She took lovers freely and dispensed with them just as freely. In the movie Boxcar Bertha, made by the young Martin Scorsese, she is played by the young Barbara Hershey who spends a great deal of the movie in various states of undress. Thank you, Martin Scorsese. No woman ever looked better naked than the lithe and pert and perfect Barbara Hershey. It isn’t much of a movie, but it implanted the young and naked Barbara Hershey in my brain and for this I am truly grateful. In the movie, Bertha is a hottie. In real life, women hobos often had only the most ephemeral relationship with soap and water, and like other hobos, were often ridden with lice and rashes.
Dr. Reitman cared for many of them, mostly free of charge, and often plying his practice in “Bughouse Square,” the lovely park in front of the Newberry Library in Chicago. It is actually called Washington Square — but to all who inhabited that magical patch of American subversion for almost 100 years knew it as “Bughouse Square;” named so because every political crank, whack-job, poet, pontificator, hobo, whore, and union activist treated this park as the open-air marketplace of American ideas. It was here that the young Studs Terkel began to observe and listen to the human comedy. A lot of the talk was about labor and birth control and the venality of capitalism. It was this heady brew of ideas that informed the young Terkel and provided the beginnings of his world view. In his marvelous Touch and Go, his autobiography, he talks a lot about Bughouse Square and the people who inhabited this lively discourse. It is here that Studs became the witness to a century.
We lost Studs on Halloween. There were memorials, including one at Steppenwolf, hosted by the great Rick Kogan. In this memorial, actors from Steppenwolf voiced the roles of some of Stud’s most memorable interviews. I started the hobo pieces as a way to honor Studs–I couldn’t think of anything to write that would be adequate. Lots of artists have influences; Picasso, Van Gogh, Johns. . .mine was Terkel. I learned to look at the world around me from listening to and reading him. The important word in that sentence is listen. Studs was a marvelous storyteller and every morning I’d tune to WFMT to hear him continue those stories. But his real gift was for listening …and hearing the thing said, or not said. So much of the history I’ve unearthed in making the hobo pieces intersects with Studs’ Hard Times, the indispensable oral history of The Great Depression. So much of it mirrors the hunger and desperation we now see in 2009 America. He, in the last years of his life, was more prescient than ever. We’d collectively lost our memory; what Terkel called a “National Alzheimer’s.” While the greed and idiocy of the Bush years ran away with our country’s better self, Terkel dissented, long and loud. Bless him.
The Crucifix is the hobo symbol for, “Talk religious for food.”