Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Lady Is a Tramp (of the Traveling Variety)

“I had wanted to know how it felt to be a hobo, a radical, a prostitute, a thief, a reformer, a social worker, and a revolutionist.”
--Bertha Thompson

No doubt the most famous book on American wanderlust was written by Jack Kerouac, who might have had a case of dromomania, that is, a psychological need to wander without real purpose or intention, as in (utilizing the lexicon of the times) “just for kicks.” America has always been a huge land, seemingly endless, and there is nothing more American than reinventing oneself in a new town, either legally or dubiously, and starting over. Dromomania is embedded in American DNA, striking the odd native child and setting him or her on a journey-- all Kerouac did was place our cultural pastime in a mythical, romantic context accessible to any sort of dreamer, the young, the penniless, the damned.

Little known today, Boxcar Bertha is the autobiography of one Bertha Thompson, her life story as told to and recorded by Dr. Ben Reitman. Bertha is a plainspoken narrator with immense curiosity, a terrific sense of adventure, and deep roots in the social justice moments in the first half of the 20th century, involving herself mostly in women's issues and the labor movement. She criss-crossed the country, a la Kerouac, but instead of riding shotgun with a madcap pill-popping drag-racing pothead, did most of her traveling hopping freight cars, sometimes alone, often partnered up with a social agitator beau, or conspiring among other “sisters of the road.” (Last night I watched the Martin Scorsese adaptation of her life's testimony, Boxcar Bertha, from 1972 and starring Barbara Hershey as Bertha-- I was shocked at the fictional liberties the filmmakers pursued, basically ripping off Bonnie and Clyde, turning Bertha into a hayseed moll in a bankrobbing Depression-era gang, ignoring the progressive do-right spirit that marks Bertha as a genuinely selfless champion of workers' and especially women's rights.)

This was in the 1920s and 1930s, a period of labor “agitation,” when workers often martyred themselves against police and a punitive justice system so that future generations might have better contractual rights, fairer pay, insurance benefits, and a decent pension. Bertha participated in these movements firsthand, but her real gift was her engaging, disarming personality, and either with a steeltrap memory or assiduous notetaking, became a reservoir of anecdotal biographies of wandering women from all kinds of socio-economic backgrounds. The odd (or dangerous) jobs aside, Bertha worked with researchers, incorporating her firsthand knowledge of the hardships of the road and her encounters there, compiling them into an account of anthropological provenance-- a 35-page appendix presents Bertha's findings on the sociological factors inspiring women to live nomadically, among them the specific differentiation between “hoboes” and “bums” (the former looking for work, the latter all-around ne'er-do-wells).

There is no shortage of characters coming into Bertha's life on her travels-- hopheads, murderers, anarchists, lunatics, punks, and wobblies. She wanders from rustic communes to firebrand union halls, runs with a Midwestern gang of thieves and parties with lesbians, poets, and “spittoon philosophers” in Greenwich Village. In New York City she encounters her father, a middle-aged philanderer running an unsuccessful radical bookshop. It is her first time meeting this wayward man, whom she chastises for failing to take on his parental duties. Defending himself, he identifies two different kinds of men, “'the uterine type'... the good father, home lover, monogamist” and the “phallic type” who “needs women. Any women would do.” He goes on: “there are no solutions to the problems of life. There are no goals. You just go on living and loving and doing the best or the worst you can.”

As much as Baby Boomers like to take credit for the sixties-era sexual revolution, all they'd really done is enjoy mainstream social acceptance of a promiscuous lifestyle. And though Bertha enjoyed numerous partners in “free love” hook-ups, she'd learned early on from her mother that the human body was not a vehicle for sin, but an instrument of pleasure, sharing, in fact, sexual liaisons with men who'd loved her mother. But it is one thing to have an open attitude towards sex, a whole other to be pimped out to “Johns,” which is something Bertha does in order to better understand this underground lifestyle. In a Chicago whorehouse, she turns forty tricks a day, seven days a week, sleeping with several thousand men in six weeks. Nearly all her money is confiscated by her “man,” she contracts syphilis and gonorrhea as well as becomes pregnant! She bears this child of an unknowable father, and her wayfaring instinct stronger than her maternal one, she makes the same choice of freedom over duty that her father had, dropping off her newborn daughter with her mother in a Seattle commune and hitting the road: “There's something constantly itching in my soul that only the road and the box cars can satisfy. Jobs, lovers, a child-- don't seem to be able to curb my wanderlust.” The road is a long one, but eventually for nearly all of us, it has a destination, even for a vagabond as mobile as Boxcar Bertha. But that tired platitude about the journey is true: it really does matter how you get there, and it was the lives of women like Bertha Thompson's that, cumulatively, have made the world a better, freer, more compassionate place.

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