Hobo jungles are springing up again
Off the interstate, near the old freight yards
Where homeless people gather together
When there’s nowhere else left to go
Bivouac tents and tar papered shacks
Huddled together for the safety in numbers
Once the last addresses of drunkards and madmen
Now host families of husbands and wives and children
The old man in the tattered boondocks cap
Crouches over his evening fires
Minding his batches of mulligan stew
As they simmered in recycled gallon sized tomato sauce cans
“Potatoes, beans, squash, turnips, carrots, celery and onions
In a broth made from beef bullion, flour and butter;
We call it mulligan stew but there’s no meat in it.
Poverty eventually makes everyone vegetarian.”
He stirs his tomato can pots in strict succession
With a handmade long-handled spoon
Carved from the heart wood of his wife’s rose bush
After she died from the emphysema.
“I was a civil engineer, if you can believe that,
Before my company folded up in one night
And we lost our health plan coverage
So the bills just did us in but things worked out.”
“We get the wood from broken shipping pallets,”
He said, as he fed the pine slats into the fires.
“The wood’s no good for anything else,
So we might as well use it to cook with.”
The wind catches the crowns of the trees
A few brown leaves come trickling down;
We watch them falling into the fire and rising again
As they catch fire and burn like so many fire flies.
Sparks rise, sparks fall, and rise again
The trees whisper, the leaves fall
The fires crackle as the winds find us
No one says anything but we all know: winter is coming.
He looks me straight in the eye over the flames
“Yes, indeed. Things worked out for the best
Because she died before they foreclosed on us
So I never had to bring her to a place like this.”
He waves his long-handled spoon like a baton:
“We’ve got all kinds here, engineers, clergymen,
School teachers, carpenters and construction workers,
Roofers, masons, brick layers, and business executives.”
The evening’s darkness was closing in
People were moving around in the shadows
Some coming, some going, some waiting around
There were eyes in the shadows, ears in the gloom.
“For some people this is just a way station,
But, for others, this is their final destination.
We take them in, show them the ropes and
Those who can leave while the others stay behind"
He passes me a soup can with some stew in it
And it is quite good: the vegetables blending together
In a sauce that says peppers, curry, vinegar and salt
With some noodles and things that I hope are raisins
“Everyone puts in what they can when they can and
No matter how many show up, there’s always enough
And that’s always what surprises me more than anything else
Because, you see, I used to be a self-reliance Republican.”
“And, now, if you don’t mind, you have to move on,”
He said, cocking his head toward the road I came in on.
“Dinner’s ready but no one else will come in from the dark
As long as there are strangers hanging around here.”
I felt a tightness in my throat when I said,
“But what about you? Are you staying or going?”
He pointed to his cans of Mulligan stew and said:
“I’m not going anywhere when there’s food on the fire.”
I climbed back up into the bulldozer’s cab
Fired up that big old Cummins diesel engine
Lowered the scraper down into position
And drove through the camp, as instructed.
The hobo jungles are springing up again
In the empty places where only homeless people go
To sleep in bivouac tents and tar papered shacks
Huddled together in an illusion of safety