Mostly, we hear about people wanting to escape small towns (as in "My Little Town"). Our speaker here wants to escape the major city of Detroit.
The speaker seems to be a janitor, perhaps in a restaurant: "Sweep up! I've been sweeping up the tips I've made." He's "dressed like a schoolboy," but perhaps is not one any longer, having graduated or dropped out; he simply cannot afford newer, adult clothes.
But he also has aspirations, is seems, to be an athlete: "I've been living on Gatorade." Even though Detroit is a "basketball town," with "a hell of a hockey team," he is not looking to be discovered by a hometown team; "I've been planning my getaway... I'm in the road."
The other thing Detroit is, of course, is a "car town," and the song starts off by discussing the town's major paradox-- the very "carbon...monoxide" that is the town's "perfume" is also killing the people of the town: "it lays you down by noon."
Likewise, the car industry can lure people to their doom: "Got a left-handed way of making a man/ Sign up on that automotive dream." But it remains a dream-- not many make it from the factory floor to the executive suite.
This is the "natural reaction" one learns, being treating this "left-handed" way (the term seems to mean something different here than in "Phillipic," which contains the line, "I'm a Communist 'cause I'm left-handed.")
Sports becomes the escape route, either as a distraction or possible alternate career. But basketball and hockey are both marked by quick changes in a player's status from offense to defense-- one's fortune's change too quickly, and are affected by both one's own team and one's opponents, both out of a player's control.
Our speaker is left feeling like a "clown," disillusioned by the left-handedness of the auto industry and disappointed by sports.
Even science offers no certainty. In "The Only Living Boy," we find the line, "I get the news I need on the weather report." Here, we find, "the weatherman lied," and our speaker finds himself in need of a "ride" out of town.
Enter Papa Hobo. A "hobo" is a drifter, a transient, in older parlance. Today, we would use the word "homeless," but while many homeless are stuck in one city, a hobo would hop on passing train cars and ride to another town on a regular basis.
Papa Hobo is not necessarily anyone's father, but is some sort of father figure among the local or hobo population. Our speaker sees in him one last hope-- self sufficiency. Complete self-reliance, even in poverty.
So he finally, we presume, makes it out Detroit for parts unknown. The final irony? His escape is made in a car, the very reason he is leaving altogether.
Next Song: Paranoia Blues