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The Very Secret Areas of My Expertise

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“The main advantage that this book has over libraries, and indeed all of its almanackian predecessors, is that all of the historical oddities and amazing true facts contained herein are lies, made up by me. And it is this astonishing innovation that allows each entry to contain many more truths than if it were merely factual.” Pg. 17, The Areas of My Expertise


Good Evening.

My name is John Hodgman, and unlike many untrustworthy almanackers, I am not writing under a pseudonym. Reader, if you are familiar with my previous work THE AREAS OF MY EXPERTISE, and I assume you are, then you know that I am a former literary agent, occasional minor television celebrity, and current author. Now, I know, you must have quite a few questions for me, first among them, “Hodgman, why are you writing again? You already gave us COMPLETE WORLD KNOWLEDGE?!”  It’s true, I did provide you with all existent knowledge in my previous volume. But time marches ever forward, and with it comes more knowledge and even more made-up knowledge, and so it is that I have returned with more facts. And lies. And lies about facts. And facts about lies.

In truth, I have always expected THE AREAS OF MY EXPERTISE to be only the first in a series of COMPENDIA OF COMPLETE WORLD KNOWLEDGE.  For encyclopedia and almanacs, by their very nature, are serial. What is true in one year, may not be true, or may be even truer, in the next.

Even so, I did not expect to be addressing you so soon, dear reader, but recent events have required me to prematurely give up the life of television binge-watching, daytime nap-taking, and perpetual smugness that is the due of all PUBLISHED AUTHORS.

For you see, some months ago I came into possession of a mysterious and intriguing letter which has accelerated my need to update COMPLETE WORLD KNOWLEDGE. It began like any ordinary Monday. After soaking in my weekly gin-and-absinthe bath and consulting all relevant charts of omens and portents, I descended from my Upper West Side Observatory to collect the contents of my post office box in the hopes of finding that most treasured item, my monthly royalty check.

The royalty check was there and, as always, was smaller than hoped for, but that is not what made this day noteworthy. Nor was it the numerous unasked-for coupons and credit card offers. Nor even the three orders for commemorative bobblehead figurines from my days as a literary agent. No, what made this day worth recounting was the curious brown paper envelope, devoid of postage and with only the word “HODGMAN” scrawled diagonally across it in white chalk. Inside the envelope I found the following letter:

 

 

Dear Mr. Hodgman,

Your so-called “Compendium of Complete World Knowledge” was recently brought to my attention by one of my emissaries. She presented it to me as “an item containing dangerous half-truths and slanderous falsehoods about our people.”

Sir, I cannot help but observe that, although you vociferously claim otherwise, you have clearly done extensive research in order to uncover so much hobo history. You have learned a great deal, despite our best efforts to keep such knowledge secret. And further, despite your oft-professed disdain for hoboes, your affinity for the life of a willful wanderer, a life you have indeed lived while chronicling the history of these 51 United States, shines through.  Indeed, your obsession with our culture is writ across nearly every page of your Areas of My Expertise.

And yet, the scope of your misinformation and ignorance about so many details of hobo history is mind-boggling. Where, WHERE sir, are the hobo women? You fixate on Joey Stink-Eye Smiles as though his feud with Walker Evans was the centerpiece of the Hobo Wars! As though the Hobo King was the leader of all hoboes and not merely a ceremonial role! As though we all “left for the stars!” And can you really know so little about the role of the Hobo Queen? You write of her election as if it were a beauty pageant and not the culmination of a lengthy political campaign! Do you really believe Hobo Jo Junkpan was, in fact, “Hobo Joe,” or is yours an intentionally misogynistic cleansing of the long line of female leadership within the Hobo World? And underlying all of these points is my most pressing question—do you really know nothing of the Great Hobo Schism?

I find the gaps in your narrative troubling, and I am left wondering—are you a misinformed scholar who truly wishes to understand his subject, or merely a pervy hobo fancier obsessed with glorifying historical half-truths? Do you truly wish to know the truth about the Hobo Wars and our hobo society? If so, if you desire to learn the true ways and history of our people, then follow the signs that shall present themselves to you over the coming months. If you prove yourself worthy, then I look forward to meeting with you and discussing the history of my people.

Sincerely,

Joan Cougar Hobocamp, Queen of the Hoboes

My hands shook as I read the letter over and over again, fearing that I might be a helpless mark and this letter the start of an elegant and elaborate long con, yet also daring to hope that the hoboes were still among us. Each time I reread the letter I became increasingly shocked that this person, be she Hobo Queen or no, could see so decisively through the image I had crafted for myself in THE AREAS OF MY EXPERTISE. Damn her for perceiving that my research was not haphazard and my facts were not all lies!  For reader, I must now confess, prior to compiling my almanac I had spent years obsessively tracking down every rumor about the hoboes, investigating every whispered conversation about the lost state of Ar, analyzing every grainy cryptozoological photo I could find, lingering outside dozens of actuarial conventions, and so much more, all in my quest to discover, and hoard, the weirdest and most secret facts about our 51 United States.

The letter included no instructions other than to wait, and so I waited. At first I watched eagerly for the hobo queen’s signs, but with each passing day my eagerness turned increasingly to incredulity.

Then, the squirrels appeared.

Black squirrels, to be precise. As the days turned to weeks, black squirrels, those classic harbingers of hoboes, seemed to peer out at me from every tree and trashcan. Then, just as I had convinced myself that I was imagining them, one crossed in front of me on the sidewalk and neatly deposited a hobo nickel in my path.  

Reader, I will not bore you with an overly long description of the trials I underwent to prove myself worthy of the Hobo Queen’s confidences. After all this is an almanac, not a novel, and so I do not feel the need to pad it with unnecessary details like descriptions and emotions. Suffice to say that, like most journeys, it involved a great deal of code-deciphering, foraging through dumpsters, and traveling through Iowa.  

At times, I thought the hoboes were merely playing with me. Other times, I feared I had gone mad and there were no hoboes at all. But in these dark moments I would clutch the hobo nickel in my pocket, take a deep puff from my asthma inhaler, and forge on in search of COMPLETE WORLD KNOWLEDGE.

Finally, the hoboes came for me. Not, as I had expected, from the railroad tracks behind the highway rest area where I was chalking hobo signs on the bathroom door, but FROM THE SKIES.

As I chalked the last line of Mindbender Steve’s poem “The Hobo Code” onto the door, the skies above me darkened and a thunderbird descended with a trio of bindle-stick carrying individuals standing upon its back. They eyed me for a moment before the hobo in the middle, a gray-haired woman wearing a tattered top hat, asked, “You seek the hobo queen?” Before my mind could even process the scene, I answered, “I do.” And with that she extended an arm and hoisted me onto the thunderbird’s back.

I cannot tell you in which direction we traveled or how long the journey was, partially because such knowledge must remain secret, but mostly because I spent the majority of the trip with my eyes slammed shut in sheer terror and so frightened that I could only stammer out single syllables in response to the occasional question or request one of my hobo companions would shout to me over the rushing wind.

Just before sunset, a floating plateau of bauxite glittering above the clouds came into view, and I finally let myself believe what the presence of the thunderbird hinted at, that we were traveling to the lost state of Ar.

Later, after we had landed, as the hoboes and I warmed ourselves around a trash can fire and the shock of my journey began to wear off, I dared to ask, “Is this Ar?”

The hobo closest to me nodded while passing me a tin of beans. “Some call it that, but its true name is Hohoq.”

I mumbled my thanks, and as I devoured the beans I began to take in the bustling scene around me, wondering which of the beings coming and going through the plaza were thunderbirds disguised as people, which were thunderbirds disguised as hoboes, and which were hoboes disguised as thunderbirds. But the task proved too difficult, or perhaps I had taken too many sips from our communal flask of moonshine, for I found I became dizzy when I thought about it too hard.

I awoke the following morning not long after dawn to the sound of three quick raps on the tin door of the shanty in which I had slept. It was the top hat wearing hobo from the previous night, the most silent of my three reticent escorts. She pointed in one direction through the shantytown, turned, and started walking. I followed her as quickly as possible, taking in the grand architecture of Hohoq, its grandeur peppered occasionally with discordantly patchwork shantytowns and rail-yards. We turned left into one such railyard and weaved our way through groups of hoboes, some boisterously chatting over trashcans and others industriously knitting, whittling, or dancing. She stopped in front of a boxcar that was painted a particularly vibrant shade of green and gestured for me to enter.

As my eyes adjusted to the dim light inside, I noticed someone rapidly chalking hobo code onto the far wall. The figure slowly turned to face me, and I found myself standing before a dark-skinned woman in her late fifties, judging from the way her face was beautifully lined around the eyes and her dreadlocks were just beginning to turn silver at her temples. She was wearing a red-and-white gingham shirt, black suspenders, and jeans, and her only ornamentation was a necklace of soda can tabs. Despite this common-place hobo attire, I knew from her air of dignity and power that this was none other than the Hobo Queen.

"Ah, Hodgman. I was wondering when you'd arrive," she said, almost bored. "Welcome to Hohoq. And welcome to the Hobo Empire."

Thus began a very long conversation between me and Hobo Queen Joan. Queen Joan dazzled me with her wisdom and insight, patiently answering each of my questions, even the questions I had not thought to ask. She told me of the long-standing alliance between Hohoq and Hobo-dom—how over the decades, that alliance had blurred into one united itinerant community, always choosing to be separate from, but also secretly wandering amongst, the other 50 states. She told me of the Hobo and Hohoq observers, those emissaries sent out each generation to monitor events in the Stationary United States, reporting back on them, but also intervening in times of crisis such as the Meister Schultze Incident and The Great Depression. And, finally, she told me of the Great Hobo Schism, when the widening divide between the rebel followers of Joey Stink-Eye Smiles and those loyal to Queen Myrna Strange culminated in Smiles' followers being driven to the Stars and Strange's followers retreating to Hohoq to allow the dust—both literal and figurative—to settle after Smiles' long meddling with the government and economy of the Stationary United States.

She told me many dazzling and wonderful secrets, secrets I had long sought, and the secrets behind the secrets I thought I already knew. And what I learned changed me, as I sense she knew it would. And so now, reader, I will share my final secret. Which is that you are me. And I am you. And that you were made for the life of a hobo. And that that very hobo (the you who is me who is a hobo) are the only one who shall ever read this, THE VERY SECRET AREAS OF MY EXPERTISE. For you see, Queen Joan was right, I have heard the siren call of the life of wandering and lint-knitting and myth-making ever since my childhood, but that youthful yearning had long-ago turned to bitterness at being born in the wrong era, long after the golden age of hoboes.

But now I have learned that the Hobo Empire lives on. That, much like the thunderbirds, hoboes walk among us, hiding in plain sight (and that some thunderbirds are hoboes, some hoboes thunderbirds). That many great hoboes have maintained illusory public personas within the stationary world using their positions to sow the intertwined seeds of Hobo and Hohoq mythology in popular culture and, of course, participating in secret world governance. And that it is my destiny to join them.

Upon reading THE AREAS OF MY EXPERTISE, Queen Joan sensed that I had the true spirit of a hobo, and so she had summoned me. Though at the time I could not, she saw the parallels between my desire to write a true, false almanac—my inclination to hide my truths in elaborately crafted riddles and lies—and the ways in which hoboes communicate. Why, WHY tell a merely true story when one could instead make it EVEN TRUER by hiding it in fanciful falsehoods, or chalking it in soon-to-fade hobo code? This is the maxim around which I have built my entire career. And it is a central tenet of the hoboes as well.

Thus, like the esteemed archaeologist Franz Boas before me, I shall take up the mantel of Hobo Bard. And so I shall continue to wander the country investigating the weirdest parts of history and telling truths through carefully crafted obfuscation. Much about this new life upon which I am embarking is unknown, but one thing is certain: it is time for me to stop wearing shoes and to grow a beard.

And so, reader, it is time for me to once more bid you good evening. I shall almost certainly write additional COMPENDIA OF COMPLETE WORLD KNOWLEDGE. And perhaps I shall even continue this MOST SECRET, and scandalously merely true almanac. But, for now, THAT IS ALL.