“You are a hobo,” declared my friend of a decade. I stared at her, perplexed, and racked my brains to figure out why she was calling me a bum.
Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I was planning a trip to Peru despite not having worked for several months.
She continued, “You know a picture of Charlie Chaplin shows up on my phone when you call me, right?”
I waited for her to go on, but she just looked at me sideway and said it again:
“You’re such a hobo.” For a moment I thought about making a sarcastic remark…but then a big grin broke out across my face.
“Really? Have you ever seen Chaplin’s movie The Kid? I love it.”
“That’s why you’re such a hobo.”
I corrected her, “Charlie Chaplin’s character was known as The Tramp, not The Hobo.”
She rolled her eyes at me and sighed.
Doing What’s Right
To be called a tramp in the tradition of Charlie Chaplin’s alter-ego is a compliment. The Tramp and the Kid are pure-hearted characters in downtrodden circumstances.
Yes, they may scam you and trick you but the mischief is always done with an honest spirit. Their dreams aren’t big and they live by doing what’s right.
The rub about these two characters that Chaplin created is that the Tramp and the Kid are lonely figures who somehow maintain their optimism.
Just about any journey that we undertake in life is done with a certain degree of loneliness, which is a nugget of wisdom that Chaplin intuitively understood. The Tramp and the Kid stand alone together.
The degree of aloofness that exists between strangers is slim when you think about it. Usually all it takes to cut that divide between two strangers is a “hello.” People on a train for twelve plus hours or tenants in a high-rise are intimate strangers.
We all stand alone yet together.
Through Thick And Thin
The world is beautiful and harsh in all its infinite possibilities. Whenever I travel, what I call “The Tramp and the Kid Doctrine” guides me.
They have taught me that life encompasses the good, the beautiful, the ugly, and the terrible, yet it’s the various journeys we undertake that purify and renew us again and again.
We travel many journeys, be it by plane, train, boat, or through our psyche. And, despite the mercurial nature of life, we march on.
We try to do what’s right, even if it’s sometimes lonely to do so. The spirits of the Tramp and the Kid are always with me, and I see their images everywhere.
On my first night in Florence I came across The Tramp and The Kid street performers. The Kid impersonator clung to the Tramp with a listless air while the Tramp looked harassed instead of charismatic.
They went through the motions of a sad routine, and though the mannerisms were perfect, the spirit just wasn’t there.
The Kid From Saigon
A year after the trip to Florence, I met a real-life Kid in Saigon.
One drizzly humid night, Van, my Vietnamese-American friend, and I walked through the industrious crowds of downtown Saigon, taking in the smell of moto-exhaust and steaming bowls of noodle soup.
A couple of feet around a corner sat an old man selling handmade pop-up cards. We stopped to purchase a few.
A young scrawny kid sat down next to us and asked in rudimentary English if we wanted to buy gum. What amazed me was that he then began to ask the same question in several different languages: French, Russian, Korean, Japanese and Chinese.
The kid grinned and told us that the card-man was overcharging us. The card-man sighed, lowered the price and waved the boy away. He scooted about six inches to the left, flashed a smile, and continued to talk to us.
I turned to smile back at the kid for his boldness. The drizzle transformed into hard-pounding rain and we ran for cover under a store awning.
Under the stern gaze of the store employees we quietly conversed in English and Vietnamese. The rain began to dissipate just as the store employees’ patience ran out and the three of us looked at each other, planning our next move.
A Hard Knock Life
We took the Kid to dinner with us. He led us towards a restaurant that he said was popular with Chinese tourists.
I didn’t question his choice, thinking he must be craving the food from there. However, I had to admit that it was likely he received a kickback from the restaurant for bringing in tourists.
Van and I thought the Kid was ten years old. He was fourteen; the oldest of several children. During dinner he pointed out the violinist in the restaurant orchestra as someone very kind who sometimes gave him money.
As our guest of honor, he told us his life story.
The Kid had been working the tourists since he was a toddler with his mom, and on his own since he turned five. Years ago his family was well-off but that changed when his dad had a disfiguring accident.
The Kid recalled how his mom was once beaten by another street peddler over a territory dispute. They lived outside the capital and everyday the Kid paid someone for a ride into the city to make money.
Almost 40% to 50% of his profit, depending on how much gum he sold that day, was spent on getting a ride back and forth.
We offered to kidnap him to America. He declined, because he needed to take care of his parents. His ultimate goal was to learn enough of several foreign languages to work at a hotel.
Hope for the Soul
We stepped once more into the drizzly humidity and said goodbye.
He walked past us and we moved forward. I turned around to see him, in his too big t-shirt and baggy pants, tugging on the arm sleeve of a man, asking in French if he would like to buy some gum.
In the silhouette he looked, for the entire world, like the Tramp’s Kid.
As the distance between us grew I realized that I had met a genuine Kid. His is a hard-knock life but there’s strength in it. He may not have much but his soul is hopeful.
Have you encountered Kids who “work the tourists” and survive by their wits? Leave a comment below!