The Hobo News

The Hobo NewsOne day my husband, David, came home with The Hobo News.  In return for the dollar he had given to a panhandler on the street, he received a hand-folded, stapled leaflet. Inside were poems, drawings, thoughts, ideas and stories “written, distributed and printed by the homeless” – an attempt to enlighten a mostly disinterested public.

Such a variety of stuff: 10 questions for a local police officer; an Ask Bella column (a la Dear Abby); poetry, and a crass political cartoon. There was even a word search entitled “Death to all who oppose me.” Spend a few minutes circling words like alcohol, privacy, tribe, xcon, and fight.

The Hobo News got me thinking about all the characters I pass on the street during my daily walks to and from the office. Familiar faces, greetings, requests. I stop occasionally and contribute a buck, but I have yet to receive the next issue of The Hobo News. Here’s hoping.

One familiar face on Exchange Street is a women panhandler who always stands just about halfway between my office entrance and Starbucks. This means I walk by her often. On one particularly freezing afternoon, I offered to get her a cup of coffee.

“Oh thank you. I take it with seven sugars and seven creamers,” she said. Seven sugars? Seven creamers? Okay, one person’s caffeine fix is another person’s calorie fix.

On to Starbucks where I aimed to please. I stood at the side counter hoping no one would notice me tearing open seven sugar packets and emptying them into the same cup. Then I poured in what I hoped would be about seven creamer’s worth of white stuff, burning my hands as the hot coffee overflowed its cup. I managed to get the lid on and carried my coffee and hers back onto the street.

I handed her the coffee, but instead she asked me to pour it into her own well-worn to-go cup. “I don’t want anyone to see me carrying a Starbucks cup. They’ll think I have the money to buy coffee.”

Of course. Image is all, even when you are trying to keep afloat by panhandling on the street. Or maybe especially then. Because the public has no mercy.

I choose Starbucks over Dunkin’ Donuts because, well, that’s my brand. She, on the other hand, can’t be seen drinking Starbucks because it would hurt her brand. And she has a lot to lose.

If I were writing for the Hobo News, this is a story I would tell.

Life: The Remix

Two concepts I’ve been mulling over this week are “remixes” and “fan fiction.” Pretty mainstream, but also kind of radical when you think about it.

When my son Ben, part of the electronic music group The M Machine, first told me a few years ago that he was working on a remix of another artist’s song, I asked, do you have permission? Silly me. Yes, he said, they’re paying us to do it. Huh?

I associated this kind of thing with what we used to call mash-ups, like the Grey Album (Beatles White Album + Jay-Z’s Black Album = Danger Mouse’s Grey Album).  But that was so 10 years ago.

The M Machine remixes the tracks of other artists in their own unique style, creating versions of songs that suit different dance genres; and it happens the other way around, too: other artists remix their songs (sometimes by invitation, sometimes not). In fact, The M Machine just released a whole album of remixes of their own songs, each produced by a different artist: Metropolis Remixed.

Unlike the one-of-a-kind nature of a Picasso painting or a Tolstoy novel, these digital creations seem to be made to be remade, with the artist’s blessing, as long as credit is given where credit it due. There is a difference between stealing and remixing; permission is the key.

The universal availability of ideas – the fluidity of creativity – seems new, but of course it isn’t. In a Ted Talk from 2004, Kirby Ferguson offers an entertaining demonstration of how songs are rooted through the ages in earlier songs… and, let’s face it, everything is a remix.


So, what about fan fiction? My daughter Betsey introduced fanfic to me. You know about obsessive fans: Think “trekkies.” These fans write stories about characters or places – from movies, TV, literature – that spin off from the original creations. They keep the fictional universe intact, so to speak, but take the characters wherever they want them to go.

Mostly you will find these stories on the Internet. The stories aren’t commercially published, although sometimes there’s a break-through to the other side. The fanfic communities online are enormous and passionate and prolific. (Google fan fiction and you’ll see)

But unlike the remixing world, there is an uneasy relationship between the original authors and the fanfic writers. You don’t find authors paying other writers to remix their original works as fan fiction…at least not yet.

Fan fiction isn’t the same as music remixing, but there are still intriguing similarities. Ideas float out there in the universe, how hard should we try to hold on to them, maintain “ownership” and integrity? Perhaps life is a remix, in every medium, and as Kirby Ferguson suggests, we should embrace it.

Remixing the Medium

Here’s what got me thinking about remixes. Two weeks ago, our family came together to honor my father, who had passed away earlier in the summer. We went to Cape Cod to scatter his ashes in places that were precious to him in his life. It was not sad. It was full of laughter, love, poems, songs, and poignant memories.

So, is it a stretch to think of this as a remix of sorts? A body is transformed, ashes are tossed into the sea, energy is redistributed, the medium is new. I feel that something creative will come of this remix. I will embrace it.


First, can you admit to watching Borat, the movie starring Sacha Baron Cohen, and finding it hysterically funny? If so, then you will probably remember my favorite scene, when Borat meets with a “humor coach” to learn how to tell a Not Joke. Timing is everything.

This scene always comes to mind when I hear someone misuse the word “literally,” which is surprisingly often. For example, overheard recently at a restaurant: “There are literally infinite good choices on this menu.” “Not,” I want to yell. Why do we say “literally,” when we mean just the opposite?  I’ll tell you: because the word “figuratively” is too long and hard to remember…Not.