ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
John Hodgman is a very funny man. You may know of him as a sometimes contributor to the public radio show This American Life and on cable TV to The Daily Show with John Stuart. Here he is on economics.
(Soundbite of The Daily Show)
Mr. JOHN HODGMAN (Writer): They don't economics the dismal science because it's fair.
Mr. JOHN STEWART (Host): Well, I suppose not.
Mr. HODGMAN: No, no. They call it after Sir Ustes Dismal, the 18th Century English economist who proposed making smoke stacks out of children.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. STEWART: I never knew that that was a -
Mr. HODGMAN: It was a very interesting proposal but ultimately flawed. I mean, if you make the smoke stacks out of children, who will you force to clean them? It's referred to as Dismal's Paradox.
SIEGEL: Hodgman is currently in an ad campaign for Apple. He plays opposite a relaxed, cool, slim young man who is a Mac. Hodgeman plays the tweedy, lumpy, awkward PC.
(Soundbite of Apple commercial)
Unidentified Man: Gesundheit, are you okay?
Mr. HODGEMAN: No, I'm not okay. I have that virus that is going around. You better stay back, this one is a dosey.
Unidentified Man: That's okay. I'll be fine.
Mr. HODGEMAN: No, no, do not be a hero. Last year there were 114,000 known viruses for PCs.
SIEGEL: Hodgman is a Yale educated former literary agent and he has the gift of being outrageously, quietly convincing. He begins at the absolute outer edge of credibility and as if he's holding your hand, he walks you over the edge into a very funny mix of reality and nonsense.
John Hodgman has written a book which is now out in paperback. It's sort of an almanac of random and fascinating and utterly unreliable information. As you'll hear, Hodgman reduced me to gasping speechlessness when he talked about his book starting with the title.
Mr. HODGMAN: Commonly it is referred to in the vernacular as The Areas of My Expertise, but the full title of the book is as follows. An Almanac of Complete World Knowledge Compiled with Instructive Annotation and Arranged in Useful Order by Me, John Hodgman, A Professional Writer in the Areas of My Expertise, which Areas Include Matters Historical, Matters Literary, Matters Cryptozoological, Hobo Matters, Food, Drink and Cheese, which is a Kind of Food, Squirrels and Lobsters and Eels, Haircuts, Utopia, What Will Happen in the Future and Most Other Subjects. End of title.
SIEGEL: There are subtitles that we could continue with.
Mr. HODGMAN: If you'd like, I could read the whole book for you. Let's start at the beginning.
SIEGEL: I want you to talk about one of the subjects, which is an area of your expertise.
Mr. HODGMAN: Yes.
SIEGEL: And obviously an area of fascination to you, and that is as you say, hobo matters.
Mr. HODGMAN: Hobo matters, yes. Well, in my book I chart some of the history of the hobo movement, as it were, in the United States, particularly at its apex in the Great Depression, although of course it has history going back to just after the Civil War, when Civil War veterans would tramp about on trains looking for work.
But by the Great Depression it had really become a singular subculture onto itself of largely unemployed men devoted to a lifestyle of drinking and writing bad poetry and wearing the same pants every day. They would move about the country for mysterious reasons all to their own, leaving hieroglyphic symbols to one another indicating where was a good place to get food or watch out, the sheriff in this town uses throwing stars, or other little warnings to hobo friends along the way.
Then probably the most famous hieroglyphic, of course, would have been the letter H surrounded by sunrays that they would draw on barn sides or picket fences or carved into mashed potatoes at diners. It was seen everywhere in the earlier part of the century and it indicated it was time for hobos to take over the United States government.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIEGEL: Which as you recount in your though and completely factious history of the hobo movement, they did succeed in getting the secretary of the treasury as one of theirs.
Mr. HODGMAN: Yes. Well, they took advantage of the bonus marches on Washington, D.C., when the World War I veterans marched upon Washington seeking their promised pay bonus. The hobos infiltrated along with the veterans and managed to take over some branches of the government, most notably the Treasury. They replaced the current Secretary of the Treasury with their own Hobo Joe Junkpan.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HODGMAN: He is to date history's only hobo secretary of the treasury. In fact indeed the only hobo cabinet member of any kind.
SIEGEL: And the hobos met their, it seems they met their match in Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Mr. HODGMAN: Oh yeah. Roosevelt was concerned about these armies of men who had left their homes behind and he wanted to get them to settle down. He wanted to get them to stop trying to take over the government, for obvious reasons, so he devised a secret weapon in his fireside lab, which of course was polio. But of course he never deployed it because he didn't have too. Pearl Harbor happened and the hobos disappeared directly thereafter.
No one knows what happened to them. Some say they joined the United States against the common enemy of Europe. Other say that they went to the stars or to another dimension. Others say they're still out there today traveling the rails singing bad songs from their rotted lungs. But most experts agree they went to the stars.
SIEGEL: But you do discuss the secret agent whom F.D.R. loosed upon the hobos in the guise Walker Evans.
Mr. HODGMAN: Walker Evans.
SIEGEL: Most of us think of Walker Evans as the photographer in James (unintelligible).
Mr. HODGMAN: That was his cover. That was how he infiltrated the hobo jungles and was able to assassinate many prominent hobo leaders via a blowgun of his own devising. And he also had darts that came out of his camera. He was really a very accomplished secret agent, but he never was able to get the leader of the hobos, Joey Stinkeye Smiles, who eluded him.
And it now speculated that Joey Stinkeye Smiles led Walker Evans on a cross country chase in order to distract him in order to create a diversion so that the rest of the hobos could escape to another planet where they presumably live now. But you know, I should stop here for a moment and just say -
SIEGEL: Please don't because I can't pick up if you. Go ahead.
Mr. HODGMAN: Hobo Joe Junkpan, Secretary of the Treasury never got credit for one of his most important innovations. A lot of his innovations are with us today. The repeal of the overcoat tax, that was one of his innovations. The repeal of the tax on the lakes of whiskey and stew. I mean if you have a lake of stew on your property, you don't have to pay taxes on it and you can thank Hobo Joe Junkpan for that.
But the one thing that really should have happened was he had a plan that would allow all Americans to make their own nickels out of wood or tin or lint. Hobos loved to make things out of lint. It was dismissed as hobo nonsense, but economists now say if it would have been put into action it would have ended the Great Depression just like that. Most economists agree on this now, I think. I would be foolish to disagree with that.
SIEGEL: That is writer and performer John Hodgman, who was talking with us about the fictional history of hobos, which is just one topic in his book The Areas of My Expertise. It's now out in paperback. You can actually watch a video that John Hodgman did for us about the secret life of public radio. It's at our Web site, NPR.org.
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