Maury Graham was a day laborer in his 50s with a wife, two kids and a bum hip that kept him from laboring very much. Hanging around their little house while his wife worked got old fast; thoughts of the open road started to prey on his restless mind.
So one day he simply hopped a freight on the edge of town, fully expecting to come back to his wife, Wanda, in a few weeks.
That was in 1971.
In 1981--10 years and thousands of Conrail miles later, mostly in a well-worn rail loop he followed from Iowa to Ohio--a full-fledged hobo called Steam Train picked up a phone in the Toledo rail yards and called Wanda.
Old and ill, that bum hip making it tougher and tougher to be Steam Train, the man who by now had become King of the Hobos wanted to come home.
Wanda hadn't talked to him since he had boarded that first freight, and she hesitated. She had written him out of her life and had been making ends meet on her own with clerical jobs. "Nobody knows what that was like," Wanda says now with regret and a trace of anger.
Her Maurice was long since gone; this man who suddenly appeared with the long beard, ragamuffin clothes and carved walking stick was someone else.
Still, she agreed to pick him up and go out to dinner to talk.
"Of course, I paid for dinner," Wanda says. "He didn't have any money."
Later, she called their two grown daughters, by now living out of state with lives of their own.
Should she take their father back, she asked in anguish.
"They both said, well, you are the one he left, so it's up to you," Wanda remembers.
It took her a few days to decide. But her Maurice was still too charming, too lovable to refuse.
"It was better than living alone," she quips now.
Hopped Freights as Teen-Ager
That was eight years ago.
But Steam Train Maury's romance with the road had begun a long time before then--and it may not have ended yet. As a teen-ager, Maury had hopped freights and had met some real old-time hobos; although he had stopped riding the rails when he married, Graham had never gotten it completely out of his system.
"What gets you hooked is the outdoors," Maury says now of his long years on the road, an attraction he concedes he still hasn't lost. "A hobo is just a guy who went camping and never came home."
An irrepressible Santa Claus look-alike with a flowing white beard and a travelin' man tale to tell anyone who will listen--long and tall tales about old friends like Frying Pan Jack, Cardboard McClary and the Hard Rock Kid--Maurice is best known along America's right of ways as the five-time elected (and now retired) King of the Hobos.
Not Like Homeless
And genuine hobos, Graham wants people to understand, are on the rails by choice; they are not like the new homeless who have lost all. "It's so sad to see these homeless people today, women and children," Maury says, shaking his head. "They can't take care of themselves on the road."
Now 72, and with an artificial hip that makes him feel younger than the day he came home, Maury has a new life. Living off Social Security, he spends his days visiting Toledo schools to tell his stories to children and often travels--with Wanda--to folk festivals to re-create the hobo life. At Christmas, he's a natural Santa Claus for school kids and seniors in nursing homes, although he no longer takes Santa jobs in shopping malls.
But despite his busy schedule, Maury Graham is dangerously restless again.
He says he wants to ride the rails once more this summer, maybe hop a freight headed to the North Woods of Michigan.
"I'm dreaming about it pretty heavy," Maury says. "But I don't want to get on the wrong side of Momma. I think she'll let me do it, but I don't want to get a divorce.
"I just think I'll go up to northern Michigan for a few days. I just want to go for a little while.
"Of course, I went before for a few days, and I didn't come back for 10 years. I know that's what she's afraid of."
Wanda has nothing to say.