Write the Rails

The educated hobo still survives: Meet Eddy Joe Cotton.

Scrounge around the waiting area of any decent-sized airport and what kind of reading material are you likely to find? The “Lifestyle” section of the current USA Today, maybe Robert Ludlum’s latest spy soufflé. But forage alongside railroad tracks, or in the “free” shelves of homeless shelters, and you’re likely to sample literature’s brightest and best. “Steinbeck’s the one I really ended up getting into,” recalls Eddy Joe Cotton, “and I read Midnight Cowboy. Catcher in the Rye, I actually found that on the railroad tracks. It didn’t have a cover and it was really beat up. All the pages were all dried up and curled over.

“In the shelters,” he continues, “there’s really a lot of literate and well-read tramps.” Now you can add Cotton, né Zebu Recchia, to that lot. His debut novel, Hobo, is a lush tale of adventure and transformation. Cotton starts out riding the rails at eighteen, a boy running away from something, and ends up not just a grown man, but also a poet, a philosopher, and an anachronism. “When I first came out of the whole train world, I’d tell people I’d been riding freight trains for the last ten years, and most of them had a real look of surprise. Absolute astonishment. They really thought that nobody did that anymore.”

Nowadays, Cotton keeps body and soul together in an only slightly more ordinary way, managing and performing in San Francisco’s Yard Dogs Road Show, a jug band and vaudeville outfit that travels for most of the year. With one book in Cotton’s pocket and another in the works, it would seem that this junction of the road and the boards is one his train has been heading toward for a long time. “I was just kind of more of a tramp and a storyteller,” he admits, “and when I got to San Francisco I found these incredible individuals who had the same traveling spirit. And they decorated the whole idea with more theatrical environments.”

Eddy Joe Cotton reads today, Wednesday, July 23, at 7:30 p.m. at Cody’s, 2454 Telegraph Ave., Berkeley, and the Yard Dog Road Show plays Saturday night at 150 Folsom, San Francisco. Doors open at 10 p.m., with the show at midnight. For more information: Codysbooks.com

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