The North American Hobo


I had been waiting for a train a year before, in the same yard heading in the same direction, but nothing seemed particularly familiar. The Minneapolis Burlington Northern yards stretch northwest from under the university and they go on for miles; ten, fifteen, twenty tracks wide; spurs heading north, spurs heading east; and somewhere in the maze a main line that carries the hotshot out of Chicago through Minneapolis to the west. I stood in the shadows of huge grain elevators, out of sight of the control tower, and I waited for a train due at midnight.

Back in the early 1970’s, sociologist Douglas Harper jumped freight trains, to get to orchards in the Pacific Northwest so he could do harvest work picking apples. He documented his conversations with the tramps he met and photographed the life he saw. In 1982, then again in 2006, his outstanding piece of ethnographic narrative was published as Good Company: A Tramp Life.

Courtesy of Harper, American Ethnography is privileged to present our readers with an excerpt from the book. Here’s Waiting for a Train.


[Book cover of Good Company shows a tramp in an empty box car, sitting on the floor and looking out through the open door at the passing landscape.]

Southern California Lowriders

In 2005, while he was doing fieldwork among lowriders in the southwestern states of USA, American Ethnography’s owner and editor Martin Hoyem photographed the people he met and their cars. We made this gallery of his photographic documentation: Southern California Lowriders: Los Angeles 2005.


Bajito y Suavecito

Jack Parsons is the grandson of pioneering anthropologist Elsie Clews Parsons, and tells us he has “a soft spot for cultural anthropology.” Check out this gallery we have put together, with his photos of New Mexico lowriders. (From Low ’n Slow: Lowriding in New Mexico; Museum of New Mexico Press, 1999).


Abstract Leanings

With a distinct bouquet of gasoline fumes and burnt rubber, these Robt. Williams’ automobile related oil paintings will chase you down like ethnographic hallucinations, vibrantly artistic, generously fantastic.


Hot Rod Kulture Culture

“A good thing about Polaroids,” artist and photographer Jack Butler says, “is that you take the picture and it’s ready right away, so you can use the photo to initiate a conversation with your subjects.”

  • American Ethnography Quasimonthly is published by the Intercontinental Institute for Awesome Anthropology and Ethnographic Excellence
  • © 2010, 2011, 2012