You Can’t Win: The Autobiography of Jack Black
Boxcar Bertha: An Autobiography
When the great westward push of settlement in the United States was finally completed, a process that occurred roughly between 1890 and 1920, it left in its wake a large number of people who couldn’t stop moving. They were cow-boys, miners, loggers, scouts—itinerant workers who had spent their lives migrating toward the next frontier. When there were no frontiers left to breach, they found themselves constitutionally incapable of settling into town or farm life, and so they became hoboes, ceaselessly crisscrossing the country by freight train, taking work along the way. They were joined by a host of others who had any number of reasons for avoiding the constraints of a fixed residence, and these mostly became tramps: adventurers, thrill-seekers, petty criminals, drug addicts, confidence men, itinerant gamblers, anarchists, Wobblies, remnants of various communal experiments, victims of different sorts of discrimination (blacks, homosexuals, Germans during World War I, Russians after 1917), victims of primogeniture, sons cast out by fathers, runaway husbands, runaway wives, debtors, pariahs. In hard times the ranks would be swelled by the unemployed, for whom vagrancy was a temporary condition.
All these groups and types intersected and overlapped. In the popular mind they dissolved into the image of the alcoholic chicken thief; in their own world the distinctions were finer. According to Ben L. Reitman, the Chicago physician, anarchist fellow-traveler, and sometime tramp who for nearly a decade was Emma Goldman’s lover and road manager: “There are three types of the genus vagrant: the hobo, the tramp, and the bum. The hobo works and wanders, the tramp dreams and wanders, and the bum drinks and wanders.” An author who called himself “A No. 1, The Famous Tramp” further identified forty-seven subclasses, from the Mush Faker (“Umbrella mender who learned trade in penal institution”) to the Wangy (“Disguised begging by selling shoestrings”) and from the Wires (“Peddling articles made of stolen telegraph wires”) to the Jungle Buzzard (“The dregs of vagrantdom”), which still represent only a fraction of the wandering population. Jack Black, whose autobiography was originally published in 1926, was a singularly articulate representative of subtype number 41, the Yegg, a “roving desperado.”
His book, written from the vantage of his reform in later life, is rare for its time in being, while rueful enough, almost completely devoid of real contrition. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most criminals’ memoirs were of the kind published by tract houses in cheap editions, serving up a small amount of titillation buffered by a great deal of testifying unto Jesus Christ, thus swindling the young readers they lured with titles like My Thirty Years on the Bowery and Confessions of a Bunco Artist. The youthful Black was just the sort of kid who would have raced through such documents looking for the good parts.
Growing up motherless in St. Louis, the only child of a remote and forbidding father, he was nursed on dime novels, the Police Gazette, newspaper accounts of the exploits of Frank and Jesse James, and reminiscences of Civil War veterans about the likes of Quantrill the guerrilla. This literature far outdid the influence of the nuns who taught him in school, and it guided him by degrees to the underworld. He worked as an errand boy in a saloon, then as collection agent for a dairyman, and in a mix-up was imprisoned for the first time, albeit wrongfully. This incident led through convoluted circumstances to his rescuing an unwilling prostitute from her brothel, but then the two were intercepted by his father, who had a godlike habit of turning up suddenly at uncomfortable moments. That night, Black took to the road.
He was a naive and self-conscious youth when he started out, and in a way he remained one throughout his career of crime and vagrancy. When he wrote his book he was finally pursuing the narrow path, working as the librarian of the San Francisco Call after twenty-five years of trains, flophouses, saloons, opium dens, and jails; his voice is that of someone who has just awakened from a dream. He is amazed by his former life, and he recounts it as a long education, in which he is always making mistakes, being trusting or impetuous or overeager, benefiting from the instruction of older men, and trying not to repeat earlier errors. There is a rich tension in his writing between the sober adult who feels cheated of the comforts of the square life but is determined to be proud of his past and the adolescent fantasist, impressed and dazed by exploits he can’t believe were his:
Looking back at it, it seems to me that I was blown here and there like a dead leaf whipped about by the autumn winds till at last it finds lodgement in some cozy fence corner. When I left school at fourteen I was as unsophisticated as a boy could be. I knew no more of the world and its strange way than the gentle, saintly woman who taught me my prayers in the convent.
Before my twentieth birthday, I was in the dock of a criminal court, on trial for burglary…. At twenty-five I was an expert house burglar, a nighttime prowler…. At thirty I was a respected member of the “yegg” brotherhood…. At forty I found myself a solitary, capable journeyman highwayman.
His prose has the simplicity not of naiveté, but of sophistication; everything marks him as a reader.
Although his book is stingy with dates, it seems probable that Black set out on his journey around 1890. It is possible that he crossed paths with the equally youthful Jack London, who wrote up his own tramping experiences in The Road (1907), although Black headed west and then mostly traveled longitudinally from Arizona to British Columbia with only scattered ventures eastward, whereas London wandered latitudinally, from sea to sea. London, whether conscious or not of training for his future career, earned his bread by imaginative lying, while Black by his account quickly got involved with the road’s active criminal element and always gravitated toward the underworld wherever he landed. London was morally affected by what he saw, and his espousal of social causes in later life may owe something to his experiences with Charles P. Kelly’s Industrial Army, the western branch of General Jacob Coxey’s widely publicized but ultimately doomed 1894 mass movement of the migratory unemployed from the Midwest to Washington, DC. Black only got deeper into crime, meeting the same characters again and again in the jails and flops of the West and learning from them the finer points of all the sciences of larceny, as well as acquiring addictions to booze and hop that made him doubly dependent on theft.
Black nevertheless sees robbery as a craft, its practice circumscribed by strict rules of conduct and workmanship, the same as plumbing or barbering or stonemasonry:
To any thief who reads this and criticizes me as being over-thoughtful of the “sucker,” I reply that he is probably one of those guys that beats his victim up after robbing him; who strikes down women and children if they get in his way; who destroys paintings, vases, tapestries, and clothing wantonly, and winds up by letting some housewife chase him under a bed, where she holds him with her broomstick till the coppers arrive. He is not a thief, but a “mental case,” and belongs in a psychopathic ward.
The regularity with which Black’s cronies—the Sanctimonious Kid, Soldier Johnnie, Foot-and-a-half George, among others—turn up in obscure Western dumps suggests the solidity of bonds in a widely scattered underworld. In fact, these thieves had something like a guild; they called themselves the Johnson Family. A Johnson would never fail to help another Johnson in trouble; they directed each other to jobs, and were scrupulous about dividing shares. In addition, Johnsons always paid their room rent, as well as for food and drink whenever possible; they consciously strove to prey only on the well-to-do. The Johnsons stop just short of a theoretical defense of their pursuit. Sometimes they sound like the individualist anarchists who were their contemporaries, like Bonnot and Georges Darien, although they had no interest in smashing the state; and sometimes they seem in thrall to middle-class notions of propriety, which makes them rather touching:
I say they [his cronies] had character because, while they did wrong things, they always tried to do them in the right way and at the right time. The thief who goes out and steals money to pay back room rent rather than swindle his poor landlady has character. The one who runs away without paying her has no character. The thief who holds out a lady’s watch on his pal to give to his girl has no character.
As a result of his connections, Black was introduced to the legendary fence Salt-Chunk Mary, of Pocatello, Idaho, so called because she always kept a pot of beans and salt pork simmering on the stove, and insisted that visitors eat before stating their business, after which she would buy whatever watches, gems, bonds, or postage stamps they unwrapped, on nonnegotiable terms.1 She was a character out of Western legend. A formidable businesswoman most of the time, she relaxed by going on periodic sprees:
Leaving her hack at the curb, she walked into her victim’s saloon and ordered all hands to drink. When the drinks were disposed of and paid for, she put both hands on the inner edge of the bar and pulled it over on the floor. Out of the wreckage she gathered an armful of bottles. One of them was accurately hurled into the mirror, and the remainder at anybody in sight. The boss, bartender, and saloon bums disappeared out the back way and Mary stalked out the front. On the sidewalk she threw away her hat, tore up whatever money she had left, and crawled into her waiting hack. Inside she kicked all the glass out, lay down on the back seat, and, with her feet out through the broken window, was driven home in state while the town stood mute.
Black’s luck later in his career got worse and worse. At one point, he carried out a solo job at great risk in a small town in Canada, buried the take, and then took a long, circuitous route to get back to his cache; when he returned, he found a new house on the site. His jail sentences were getting longer and longer, and his opium addiction more onerous. With increasing frequency he asked himself why he didn’t simply take whatever money came his way and invest it in a straight business, but the question was rhetorical. Finally a self-imposed white-knuckle detoxification cured him of his drinking and drug habits and a chance meeting with philanthropists while in prison effected his reform. These reformers appeared to have been straight-forward people who trusted Black and hated prison conditions. Certainly Black himself is as eloquently direct and unapologetic on this point as his prose is throughout: he was tired; he was not a convert. By the time he wrote his book he was fifty years old:
If some of these details sound familiar to readers of William Burroughs's novels, it is because he read the book as a teenager and years later infiltrated bits of it into his own books, regurgitating whole slabs in The Place of Dead Roads (1984).↩
If some of these details sound familiar to readers of William Burroughs’s novels, it is because he read the book as a teenager and years later infiltrated bits of it into his own books, regurgitating whole slabs in The Place of Dead Roads (1984).↩