By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Going from ‘King of the Road’ to the dregs of civilized society
New Dennis Wyatt picture 2022
Dennis Wyatt

Dad called him Mr. Jim.

Roger Miller would have called Mr. Jim “King of the Road.”

The country singer in 1964 had a No.1 hit singing about men like Mr. Jim, who was a hobo.

And in what some would say was a romanticized version of being a hobo, Miller sang about a hobo who was “a man of means by no means” who reveled in his freedom.

Mr. Jim stopped by my dad’s hardware store twice a year. The store was located on Vernon Street, Roseville’s main street of commerce in the early 1960s. The store was a half a block away from the edge of what was at the time the largest marshaling yard west of the Mississippi River. That’s railroad jargon for a massive yard that is somewhat fan-shaped. The network of tracks and switches is where railroad cars were sorted and then put back together in new couplings to head toward their ultimate destination.

Southern Pacific also maintained their locomotive shop in Roseville dubbed “Pride of the Sierra.” It also included a the time what was once called “the largest railroad icehouse in the world” where large cubes of ice were produced and used in boxcars to keep produce fresh that was headed for eastern markets from California.

By the time I met Mr. Jim, the icehouse was on its last legs thanks to the invention of refrigerated cars powered by today’s boogeyman of global warming — dinosaurs et al reincarnated as fossil fuel.

Mr. Jim rode the rails. He’d end up passing through Roseville twice a year or so.

At one point in the late 1950s he walked into Wyatt Hardware and asked Dad if he had work.

The first encounter, I was told his task was sweeping the sidewalk and washing the store windows for $1. The store was 40 feet wide, if that. Mr. Jim asked Dad for more work. At some point Mr. Jim let it be known he was an expert at hand-waxing cars and what today we’d call detailing the inside.

Dad arranged for Mr. Jim to wax Mary Follow’s car. She lived in an apartment above Citizens Bank of Roseville.

Dad liked Mr. Jim’s work so much he had him wax our family’s 1957 copper brown Chevy Bel Air station wagon. Dad paid him $20. My mom was a bit furious. Keep in mind this was 1962 and minimum wage was $1.25 an hour.

Dad got mom to agree given the job Mr. Jim did — the car literally looked seemed like a rolling mirror when he was done and the fact he needed the money —  it was a worthwhile splurge.

That is how for the next three years Mr. Jim would stop by the store twice a year on his way through Roseville and earn money to support his self by waxing the family station wagon and that of several other people.

I was rather talkative as a kid. I could, as my grandmother often would say, talk a mile a minute. I was told several times to leave the poor man alone while he was waxing the station wagon, but Mr. Jim said it was OK. To be honest, I wish I did a little less talking and more listening as I’m sure I’d have a better memory of what he talked about.

He did seem happy, resourceful a hard worker and he certainly was well kept despite being — and here’s the word — homeless.

Of course, he didn’t refer to himself as homeless and neither did my parents. He was a hobo. To the police he was a vagrant.

Vagrant, transient, homeless, derelicts and hobos are all people without homes. Beggars can be homeless as well. The common thread is being homeless. But the connotations the words carry are different

Hold that thought for a moment and fast forward 20 years.

I’m working as a reporter at The Press-Tribune on the other side of the marshaling yard. A photographer and I were sent by our editor to the city library two blocks away where the police scanner broadcast referenced an unstable individual on the premises.

We go there just as the police did.

The man had left the library and had walked across the street to the railroad tracks.

When the photographer got a shot of him, it showed a youngish man with long flowing hair walking barefoot down the middle of the tracks wrapped in white bed sheets he had purloined from a clothesline and fashioned asa robe. 

Second later as the officer approached, he threw off his robes, raised his arms to the heavens and proclaimed he was Jesus Christ – a very naked Jesus Christ I might add.

The police determined he was a little out of it. He was arrested and booked for trespassing and public nudity.

Five years after that the Roseville City Council became embroiled in one of the most raucous debates it had been involved with at the time.

A church wanted to open a soup kitchen on Riverside Avenue. That’s where almost every auto dealer in Roseville was located before the auto mall was built. To say it was a spirited debate would be putting it mildly.

There were those insisting that it would only make Roseville a bigger magnet for the homeless.

Others argued it would reduce the homeless from scrounging through garbage cans and foraging on private property — read that stealing items — to sell to get food.

The soup kitchen prevailed. And it did seem to help somewhat.

At the same time, it didn’t hurt nearby businesses such as the popular Carmelita’s restaurant. That was mainly because the city committed police resources to make sure it didn’t. The transients got the message.

This followed a 20,000-plus word story that one of our reporters did after living for a week as a transient in the various hobo camps near the railroad and along city creeks.

The reporter was a former Army soldier who admitted there were times he was more than a little bit unnerved when he saw the knives many transients carried.

No harm came to him.

In the weeks’ time he spent living and sleeping on the streets — although the homeless weren’t as visible as the homeless were now by sleeping on sidewalks and in easy view — he observed they had a code of conduct and  enforced their own standards.

And those homeless who were trouble makers, drug abusers, or couldn’t control their liquor were booted out of many encampments.

What does this all mean?

• Homeless people aren’t anything new.

• There are those that do take on odd jobs to support themselves just like a handful have been known to do so over the years.

• There have always been the mentally ill on the streets but back 30 or so years ago the threshold for arresting them was a lot lower.

• The homeless didn’t seem to stick around the same places although in Roseville’s case it may be because it was a hub to catch trains that were stopped or slowing down.

• Homeless abusing alcohol and drugs is nothing new.

• Perhaps most important of all as communities grow  — Modesto, Turlock and Ceres — the number of homeless grow as well.

All of that said, what would Roger Miller think of “hobos” today if he were alive?

Better yet, if Roger Miller released “King of the Road” today would it reach No. 1 on the country charts and No. 4 on The Billboard Top 100?

It’s doubtful given nobody romanticizes the homeless today.

This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinions of The Courier or 209 Multimedia.