Nobody is called a "hobo" anymore. If you carry all your possessions with you and roam from place to place, you are simply "homeless." I suppose that is better than being called a "bum," but there are some people who like wandering around and do not necessarily want a conventional home. Being surrounded by stuff in a house is their idea of hell. (They are the exact opposite of hoarders, who engulf themselves in stuff to feel secure.)
If you want to find some honest-to-God hobos in S.F., don't go to Civic Center or the Mission; head to Ocean Beach. Although I can't think of a worse place to sleep outside (wind, fog, sand, cold), I have met more hobos at the 18 bus stop at 46th and Judah than any other place in the city.
Nearby is, of course, S.F.'s premier dive bar, Pittsburgh's. It is exactly as it must've been in 1964, save a few updated sports signs and some microbrews. It's big and dark, with pool and classic rock. The bartenders are lifers and wonderfully friendly, even to newbies.
While the 'Loin gets encroached on by Bourbon & Branches, and SOMA gets sprinkled with Flour + Water, Ocean Beach remains the city's bedroom community, with rows of ticky-tacky houses and backyards jammed with surfboards. These motherfuckers need a bar, dammit, and Pittsburgh's delivers.
I have never once gone to Pittsburgh's without hearing locals talk about the neighborhood, either how it has changed or how it hasn't (it depends on your ethnicity). The real show is outside, where two or three people are sometimes propped up on 1986 hotel banquet hall chairs, smoking. Not to judge, but they often look like hobos who might've had some sort of windfall that enabled them to purchase some beer. In reality, I suspect, they are dwelling in their deceased parents' houses and existing on a limited income. Hey, I would give my left ovary for a situation like that.
"Hello, hello, hello," said the bartender with a big smile. Nice, nice man. It is possible, I admit, that the outside of the pub is so imposing (you have to ask yourself, "Do I really want to go in there?") that any gesture of kindness is immediately amplified by your realization that you will not be killed, or have to play "Tequila" and dance on the bar in '70s platforms.
The regulars at Pittsburgh's are old surfers, old blue-collars, and old maids. Although there is a more egalitarian vibe in Ocean Beach now, don't think that the WWII generation was happy to see its 'hood "invaded" by immigrants from Asia. I know a woman in the Sunset who regularly carries on about people from "Hong Kong-China-Japan" who took over her parents' Irish-Italian neighborhood. What people like this seem to completely block out is that their families, too, were once immigrants. They do not see the similarities in their situations; they only see the differences. The same goes for African-Americans who oppose gay rights. But I digress: No one at Pittsburgh's talks like this, but there is still an old-school vibe here, which is why it is so awesome.
Back to the hobos. I sat next to one on the bus out to the beach, and he said he was going to drop into the pub before he hitchhiked to Pacifica, so I said I would join him. He looked about 55, with the ruddy face of a man who has been a-travelin' and a-drinkin' — so maybe he was actually 35. He had his stuff in a grimy hiker's backpack. He wore long safari pants and a Niners pullover. His hands were filthy. I was unsure if he thought I would buy, but once we sat down he pulled out his coins and ponied up for a beer for himself. We had begun talking when I gave him the sports section of the paper I was reading and I told him I had no need for it. By the tone of my voice he could tell that I do not like sports — and he then proceeded to explain horse racing to me. (The cover story was about I'll Have Another.)
He wasn't much for talking once he had a drink in front of him, and I wasn't much for listening to any hobo tales, so in that sense we were a great match. I did, however, concoct a scenario in my head about Men Who Wander. I have been watching a ton of episodes of Hoarders online. The same feeling of safety and exultation that the hoarders feel when they acquire and then add to the pile must be the same as the carefree exuberance of zero possessions. The high in being a hobo comes from the daily score — a place to sleep that doesn't suck, a drink, a new pair of shoes found in a dumpster. Both situations result from never wanting anyone to tell you what to do, though, and Jesus, can I ever relate to that.
My new buddy struck up a conversation with the guy on the other side of him (what am I, chopped liver?) and he bought the dude a drink (dang, he was richer than I thought). Then the two of them discussed driving down to Pacifica together. Damn, this guy was good. I would have bought him drinks if he had asked. If I were that good with people, I might just be a hobo, too.
His driver slapped him on the back after he paid, and the two downed their drinks and got up. My pal grabbed his bedraggled pack and hoisted it up. He winked at me on the way out, the true sign of an unfettered travelin' man.