Hobo Living in Alphabet City

  • Posted on: 1 April 2020
  • By: Justin Patrick Moore

(This is a guest post by Kid Krusty, a traveler, hobo, and deconstructor of alternative living spaces for transients, tramps, and people who couldn't make rent. This article originally appeared in the pages of Hobo Living, the premiere lifestyle magazine for train hoppers and those who live on the road. As Kid Krusty is a big fan of the Green Wizards website and philosophy he gave us permission to reprint the article here.)


In the era of anorexic buildings (read: supertall, undernourished, skinny skyscrapers) the robust cardboard shacks and multicolored tents clustered in groups in the alleys and sidewalks below them tend to stand out. No two shacks or tents, situated beneath the high-rises of the moneyed and managerial elites are the same. The haphazard cluster of makeshift dwellings becomes progressively incongruous as the latte wielding women in yoga pants navigate their way to the entrance of their downtown lofts.

Taken as a whole the block of tents at the bottom of the building looks unstable, as shaky as the arms of the guy with DT’s coming out of his box looking to spange some money for a bottle of Wild Irish Rose. The sight tends to remind the pedestrian fortunate enough to walk through it of a bunch of alphabet blocks thrown around the floor at random during the height of a hangry toddlers temper tantrum.

“This community was iconic before it was even built,” says Crawdaddy, the hobo mayor and leader the of the deconstruction council. Looking out from the flap of his expansive Boy Scout tent to the squatted sidewalks around him he is filled with a sense of pride. He grabs an old tin cup and fills it with some Folgers instant coffee crystals and hot water from his coleman stove.

“It’s an extraordinary feat of human will to survive off the scraps of those above us, all while shoving it in their foie gras fed faces.”

What Crawdaddy brought to the sprawling tent city, with its oil drum fire pit, its battered and duct-taped camp chairs, its plastic piss-and-poop buckets stashed behind the bushes, was the typical can-do sense of a weather beaten man who has ridden the rails back and forth across this great continent of ours.

“The first of us who moved in here had the idea that the typical American finance banker and his revolving cadre of trophy wives have never had the good fortune of tasting the freedom that comes from living on the streets. They don’t know the beauty that comes from holing up inside a hobo jungle, or hunkering down in the storm drains beneath Las Vegas. And since it ain’t likely they would ever come visit us or stay at one of our air bnb’s –that stand’s for box and a beer, bye the way- we thought we’d bring the jungle to them.”

Crawdaddy designed the Manhattan street jungle space to be an exciting educational experience for the whole family. He played to the tastes of the stock market trading parents and their love of vapid contemporary art and meaningless combinations while providing sensory stimulation to the children by having his friends in the folk-punk band Rat Picker’s Union play their typical mix of washboard and saw, with electric mandolin for accompaniment.

“You can’t be too polished in a family friendly jungle,” Crawdaddy said. “Sure, you can still have your moonshine and your crack rocks, your opioids and whatnot. But kids will be kids. So we try to keep the fornicating and shooting up inside the tents where it belongs.”

He also said he tried to sidestep a “Fisher-Price” color palette by incorporating a scheme of freshly spray painted hues based on whatever cans of rustoleum he was able to swindle.

Because contemporary transient architecture tends to favor a salvaged and trash picked sense of aesthetics, Crawdaddy could not have hoped for a better location , close as it was to the skyscrapers dumpster. In the entry to his rag-tag collection of dwellings he sought to create a “warm, down home” welcoming feeling with a playful mural tagged by street artist Konnie Memester. To create a soothing, “you never have to work again” atmosphere for the permanently laid-off Crawdaddy made tikki torches out of old socks stuck on top of mop handles. The socks had been doused in a potpourri of petroleum jelly and paraffin to help them burn.

“When you come into this community you get the sense that it’s going to be relaxing and you can let it all hang out, and there is going to be a big adventure.”

A left turn into the cardboard shack of his friend Soapy confirms this notion. The open expanse is a medley of plain pale brown with a hint of the exotic due to the tiger-print duct-tape holding it all together. A sofa that had has had most of the stuffing chewed out of it by Soapy’s pit bull Ragnar anchors the space. Crumpled cans of malt liquor hang on fishing wire from the ceiling to give the place a party vibe.

Since the tent city is technically illegal and haphazard at best, moving between the vignettes of each domicile is a seamless experience. As in a Gothic Cathedral the open spaces around the oil drum fire pit act as a kind of apse from which the chapels of the outdoor kitchen (where ramen noodls, hot dogs and sardines simmer together in a Korean inspired update of the classic mulligan stew). The entertainment room radiates off the kitchen and is conveniently located next to the bush-latrines.
When not working on their homes the hobos like to play dice, cards, and arm wrestle. If the wine has been flowing too heavily things sometimes escalate into knife fights so there is also an open space where people can spread out to watch the brawls.

Up above them all are the palatial spaces of the bankers, stockbrokers, designers and architects.
Crawdaddy admits that the Alphabet City project was one of the more challenging of his thirty-year career as a hobo and deconstructor of improvised homes. Balancing the sophistication needed to mesh with the tower above, while maintaining the integrity of their own street community, and making sure form and function fit together was not easy. In the end he was able to make sure none of the gorgeous vistas on view in the jungle were obstructed. It was a lot to juggle, but it also made the project fun.

“Designing this tent city,” Crawdaddy says, “Was like playing with alphabet blocks of my own.”


Justin Patrick Moore's picture

Thanks for sharing this article Kid Krusty!

Tude's picture

Ah, the good old days..

Justin Patrick Moore's picture

Thanks for reading Tude!

ClareBroommaker's picture

If I were to live in this Alphabet City, would I have to be a more sociable person? I've got a home with solid walls, but I have to admit that sometimes I scout for hidey-holes where one might sleep at night. In my imagination it has never been alongside other people, but a solitary thing. My brother died homeless. He was somewhat like me and therefore did the solitary thing. He had told me where he had last stashed his gear. I always kind of hoped someone who could use it would find it.

A few years ago, a solitary person set up a tiny wood shack next to the railroad on the end of my block. A neighbor, who had woodcuts in his home done by an artist known to have a big heart for homeless people, practically knocked my own heart out of my chest when he adamantly told me how awful it was that the guy was by the railroad and that we had to get him out of the neighborhood. People have to live. They will be somewhere.

Justin Patrick Moore's picture

I've often imagined being on some journey and having to hole up in different spots. I'm like you in that I wouldn't want to be around that many people all the time. I definitely like my space. I hated living in a dorm for my brief experience in college. It probably contributed towards me dropping out (what a great decision that turned out to be!)

I have a cousin whom I was very close with growing up who is now homeless in San Francisco. Addicted to heroin & crack too. I worry about him a lot. I don't think he stays in a camp, but more in different spots. He had a PO Box set up by my aunt so we could send him food & stuff. There is a camp buy my workplace under a bridge, and then another in my neighborhood near the mill creek also under a bridge. Yes, people will build communities -which can offer protection to each other- and find places in the cracks left behind.

Thanks for reading Clare.

Les Phelps's picture

Robert A. Heinlein, in his 1966 SciFi novel “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress,” coined the acronym TANSTAAFL: (There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch), and there really isn’t.

Food, clothing, tents, tarps, cardboard boxes, shopping carts, blankets, sleeping bags, knives, wine, beer, liquor and various drugs, all require a combination of effort and energy to produce.

There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. If you want to be completely free of expending the effort or energy to produce the things you need to thrive and survive then you have to find a way to get other people to expend the effort and energy to produce those things for you. Perhaps that is the idea that produced the word freeloading.

Over the course of years, I’ve spent more than a few weeks living in a tent in the wilderness. In order to enjoy that “freedom,” I worked to earn the money to buy the equipment and food I needed to sustain the trip and thoroughly enjoyed myself.

The nearly homeless people that I relate to, understand and occasionally envy, on some levels, are the boondockers, people who choose to live out of a car or camper. Many seem to be partially, or entirely self supporting and boondocking camps are usually cleaner and better maintained. Simply put, they seem to put some effort into their free lifestyle.

What I seen when I see a homeless camp in a city is, for the most part, the worst cases of mental illness, alcoholism and drug addiction, in our society, and how badly we manage it. Perhaps there are a few people in the lifestyle who don’t fall into those categories, but I haven’t run into many.

I don’t see what I would describe as sustainable and admirable freedom.

Justin Patrick Moore's picture

Hi Les,

Thanks for reading my article. This was originally published on April Fools, and was meant to be in a spirit of jest and humor, a kind of absurd take on the kind of articles you can find in lifestyle magazines like "House Beautiful" or "Elle Decor" that you might see on a magazine rack or at the doctors office. I actually modeled the article here on one found in those magazines.

I understand what you mean about TANSTAAFL and agree with you completely. Living the hobo life is a lot of work. Even the folks I see around where I live flying signs --its a lot of "Work" to be out in the elements all day begging for hand outs. It's not something I envy.

I do love the lore and language of the hobo tradition in America though. That tradition isn't what it used to be though. I saw a good article in Backwoodsman Magazine recently though about Van Living, and the people who are adopting living out of cars and such as an alternative to the rat race, finding it cheaper and more congenial to their values and lifestyle.

Yes, being homeless is no joke though, and if you want to do it in style, it would take a lot of work, as anything does. However, e even though this article was written in a spirit of jest, there are a lot of homeless camps and tent cities. It would be interesting to see if these people could take up some Green Wizard tech, as it were, and incorporate that into their living situations.

All the best,


Les Phelps's picture

Thanks for the clarification Justin. I completely missed that it was in jest. Yes, living outdoors is exhausting, even when you are equipped and prepared. It takes me two or three days on a wilderness trip, to get use to the extra effort and I’m in fairly good shape.

I see a fair number of homeless and boondockers when I’m in Arizona. I feel sympathy for the homeless. As a society, we should have a better safety net.