Hobo's life of wandering slowed in Rochester
In his final years, Billy Wells made Rochester the last way station in a lifetime of wandering.
It wasn't his inclination, one senses. For much of his life, Wells lived a foot-loose life as a hobo, riding the rails for more than two decades and traveling to every state in the nation but two.
"He couldn't stay in one place too long," said J.R, a Rochester man who came to be his best friend during his last years in Rochester. "Billy rode the rails and never got off — until he had to."
He died much the way he lived, beneath society's radar. The vagaries of a hobo lifestyle took their toll. He was known to have lived under a Rochester bridge at times, and his frequent drinking made him a regular client at Rochester's detox center.
In his last years, his restless nature slowed by ill health brought on by chronic alcoholism and diabetes, he spent his final months confined to an apartment couch with less than a dollar in his bank account.
"He couldn't run away from his problems anymore. He had to sit in that apartment. And he got depressed," said J.R., who offered only that name to identify himself.
When Wells died last month at age 51, there was no family to eulogize his passing. There was no ceremony or service for friends to gather to mark his time on earth. Wells' last instructions were that his ashes be delivered to J.R.
"He had a warm heart," said J.R., who was presented with a plain white cardboard box that contained Wells' ashes. "He was a good guy. I'll miss him."
Hobos are often thought of as a product of the Great Depression, but they have existed wherever there has been homelessness, dysfunction or tragedy. In some corners, the lifestyle is celebrated, the thought of a life unanchored to any place tinged with romance. Each year, the city of Britt, Iowa, hosts a convention of hobos, a gathering Wells made a point of attending until ill health prevented him from going.