alone and a freight

May 23 2014

I am filthy, my hair is thick, oily and unwashed.   My shirt is covered in grease and dirt.  My 6-week-old beard is a crusty.  The lines of my fingerprints are filled in with a black soot that has been there for a while.  My face probably looks a shade or two darker than normal but I haven’t seen it in some days.

Through the glass of the car window I see two guys a couple of years younger than me step out from the side door of the  building we are parked in front of and I become aware of our contrast in appearance.  Both are dressed sharply in brand new uniforms, clean-cut and shaven with stylish sunglasses on the tops of their heads.  As they slyly step out into the sun they lower down their glasses to the level of their eyes with calculated movements to give off a cool, confident appearance. One of the fellows betrays the impact of their image by letting the glasses slip from his nose and over the railing he is comfortably leaning against onto the floor a few feet below.  A smile creeps onto my face and I turn my head to pretend I didn’t see.  The smile is not out of joy of his embarrassment but of the natural humility that I imagine has come with the cracking of his delicate façade, cracked by a simple slip up.

The back door of the car opens and I’m told to get out.  As I step out I once again feel the warm breezy air of this arid desert town.  The sun is bright and I don’t have the luxury of sunglasses.  I am led into the small building and pass the two uniformed fellow humans.  I look them both confidently in the eyes and give a warm courteous smile.  Inside, desks with computers and piles of paperwork cluster the room, barely leaving enough space for us to walk through.  All the women behind their workloads take a moment to look up and observe the new catch of the day.  I give a polite nod while being directed to a back room where I am told to wait.  The ladies go right back to work.

I find a seat on the wooden bench with a handcuff attached to the base of it.  A fairly barren room with some random junk; old fax machine, bicycle, razor scooters, piles of paper, expired notices on the walls. I surprise myself at how collected I feel having to be here right now, just another part of the adventure I didn’t sign up for but am already starting to accept.  My fear has somehow manifested itself into reality and I can’t be too surprised by that.  It is only natural that if I envision something enough it is bound to happen, so here I am.

A few minutes later the officer and the two young cadets walk in, all three maintaining the authoritative composure standardized in this industry.  The officer sets down a large book of california penal codes and while he begins to thumb through the massive index of regulations, I chat with the officers-to-be.  I ask them how their training is coming along and tell them I know a couple of officers in training myself with whom I do jiu-jitsu.  I speak in a non-judgemental tone, displaying a genuine interest and familiarity with their world.  Their walls are thin and although I’m sitting down in handcuffs, filthy as sin and they’re standing clean and tall with the power of the state behind them, our prisoner-guard relationship is already beginning to feel more human to human.  I ask why their uniforms look more slick than the regular police ones.

“Penal code 369i, trespassing on a train.  Misdemeanor in the state of California.” The officer across the room states aloud seeming to have found what he was looking for.  “Now come on over here son and let’s get this done with so I can take my lunch.”

I walk over to him and feel my hands finally released from the cuffs only for one of the newly freed extremities to be grabbed firmly and placed onto an electronic fingerprint scanner.

“Weren’t you afraid, you know, being out there on that train alone?”  The cadet who dropped his glasses earlier leaves behind his air of authority and I look over to a curious and eager face…

I awoke in my rackety bed this morning from nightmares having to do with trains.  Some evil conductor found out I was sleeping on one of the cars. So at the next train yard, he had the crew uncouple every other car but the one I was sleeping on until it was just the engine pulling me.  As I slept soundly he towed me off to a secluded part of the yard with rows of tracks along the ocean water’s edge.  I watched from a third person’s eye as the conductor pulled me up a ramp full of water that rose several stories into the sky and ended with nothing to stop the short train to fall over the edge.  As we began the incline, my point of view fell back into first person.  My emotions followed suit and I began to feel the real fear that something bad was happening.  As the train soared higher and higher into the air the incline seemed to get steeper and I had to grab a hold of my backpack and shoes while tethering myself by holding onto the crate doors.  The conductor’s booming voice began yelling at me and the next thing I knew the train was swirling down a funnel of circulating tracks into an abyss.  At the edge of the funnel, the conductor was glaring at me from a podium still yelling and I woke up.  The sight of dim lights above and a motionless train parked on the next track told me I was parked in a yard.  The relief of realizing I was not caught was such a comfort but I could still taste the surge of fear throughout my body.

‘Weren’t you afraid?’  So much about the whole thing made me uneasy.   Being caught today felt like a relief in a weird way, now I don’t have to spend any more time anxiously worrying about getting caught, it’s already happened.

The senior officer seems slightly annoyed, having trouble getting my fingerprints to scan properly.  He stuffs my hand harder onto the glass in vain while a red error sign flashes over and over.

“For sure, I was totally scared but it was one of the most exhilarating and beautiful experiences of my life.”  I reply.

“But weren’t you scared of getting beat up and robbed by other hobos?”  The other cadet joins in.

Other hobos.  I’m not sure if I’ve ever been referred to as a hobo, but when I think about it I guess I am one.  I think about the man I met just yesterday on the tracks hundreds of miles north of here in a quaint little mountain town.

. . . .

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It has been nearly four hours and still no train to be seen.  I wonder if I missed my opportunity for today and will have to spend the night here until the next one comes along.  I’ve been trying to kill the time by reading my book but I can’t sit still.  I feel adrenaline already trickling through my veins and I haven’t even done anything yet.  I still have no idea where I’ll be able to sit on the cars without being seen and more importantly without falling off.

I look out to the curve of the tracks and see somebody approaching.  I’ve been trying to stay as concealed as possible in the trees in case train police from the yard around the bend see me.  As the figure nears, I see it is an older man in his sixties wearing a large travel backpack holding a plastic bag full of bottles.  When he comes closer I emerge  from hiding and call over to him.  He seems unsurprised and calmly walks my way.  I ask him if he is catching a train too and he says that he is just passing through.  I ask him if he knows if this is a good spot to hop on from and let him know I’ve never done this before.  He sets down his pack and bag of recyclables and takes a seat on a rock.

“This is where you’re gonna want to be.”  He speaks almost in a monotone neither excited nor annoyed but obviously willing to chat.  I choose my next questions carefully sensing that this man’s knowledge of train hopping is an invaluable resource.  He seems to be patient and kind, listening and answering each amateur question slowly and clearly.  He tells me that he will wait with me to show me where good spots to sit on the train are.  He seems to be in no hurry.

I study his balding head, grey hair, tattered clothes, dirty hands and worn luggage, wondering about his life.  I ask him where he’s coming from and he says he just is passing through.  I ask him where he’s from and in his face I see his kindness trying to hold back the annoyance of hearing a question he doesn’t like to answer and replies that he’s a traveler.  I pick up on his disinterest in personal matters and we both sit silently for a while.  He doesn’t seem upset nor show any signs of wanting to leave, staying silent and calm.   I get the feeling he doesn’t feel the need to fill the silence with surface conversation, contented with his slow pace lifestyle.  Our silence is interrupted by the distant sound of a train whistle which causes a visceral reaction of excitement and nervousness in my body.

“You hear that? It’s coming!” I exclaim, unable to conceal my excitement.

“It’ll take a few minutes.  Sounds far away.” He replies, sensing my  over-eagerness, subtly telling me to chill out.  After a few stretched out minutes, the engine that will hopefully pull me across the length of this state pokes its face out from around the bend, coming in from the north.  Three blaring headlights, the bellowing whistle, a din of metallic friction of wheels on tracks, knuckles between cars, heavy crates shifting from side to side, what an enormous display!  I mentally note the numbers painted beside the Union Pacific logo knowing they will come in handy later to track where this beast is headed.

 I immediately start to study each car trying to imagine where I could possibly sit and prematurely ask the man where a good spot would be.

“We have time, just wait for it to slow down” he says so quietly it is almost a whisper.  His eyes are fixated on the train cars which perhaps took him from his original home and to every corner of the country he has passed through.  Maybe these cars are more of a home to him than any place he’s found on solid earth.

I run back up the hill to my spot, throw my gear together and go stand beside the tracks, eagerly waiting for the train to slow down.  I notice the man inspecting what I have with me and show a sign of approval, having a very small pack, a gallon of water, sleeping bag and a large piece of cardboard.  As the train slows down to walking speed, we both begin to jump up onto car after car until he finds something suitable for me to be able to hide and lay down in.

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 While setting my stuff down I thank him for all his help and he simply turns and walks away without a word.  What a peculiar and gentle man, not meant to live within the system of regular society. Kind and caring to a complete stranger in need of help.  I watch as his figure gets smaller and smaller, never turning back, forgetting the past and moving on.

The train turns the corner and I lay down to not be seen in the yard that is coming up.  It takes all my discipline to not peek my head over the side and I scream out over the piercing loud brakes, turning wheels and moving parts with an excitement and sense of fulfillment too strong to hold in.

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. . . .

The officer grabs my other hand and forces it into the machine, frustrated by the amount of errors my prints are causing.  I realize that there is probably so much dirt in the lines of my fingers that the machine can’t get a clear reading but don’t mention it.

“Scared of getting beat up? Um, I guess, ya, that would suck if that happened, but I believe most people are good and I’ll take the risk” I say.

“You’re fucking crazy man” The cadet laughs a little, shaking his head.

“I guess a lot of people would think I’m crazy for what I do and I think a lot of people are crazy for what they do, at least we’re not all the same…”

The officer interrupts again.  “Stand up against the wall and face the camera.”

“Yes sir. Will I be able to keep a copy of my mug by any chance?” I ask jestingly.

“Nope” He says coldly.

I consider doing a silly face for the camera but remember that I’m going to ask for a ride across town afterwards and don’t want to piss him off.

“Turn 90 degrees to your right” he commands.  He snaps a few more photos and tells me that if I get caught a second time, my face is in the system and it will mean jail time.  After all is said and done I ask him which way it is to Los Angeles.

He laughs and says “It is about 180 miles from here and that there’s no bus or train for the rest of the day.”

“Is it illegal to hitchhike here?” I ask.

His face tightens up.  “Nobody around here would pick you up anyway.”

“Well is it illegal to hitchhike.” I ask again.

With a smug smile on his face he replies “On the highway it is.”

“So which way is LA from here?” I ask him again.

“Way the heck that way”  He points in the direction of the other side of town.

“Would it be possible to get a ride to the highway sir?”  I ask.

To my surprise he agrees to take me.  I cannot resist but to ask him one more thing.  “Can I sit in the front seat?”

He laughs again but this time a bit more jovially, “I don’t think so…”

One of the cadets sits in the front and we begin to drive across town which isn’t long.  The down town area lasts for the blink of an eye surrounded by a barren desert on all sides, a sorry-looking place to be abandoned in, I can only imagine living here.

“So do you get much crime here?” I inquire.

“Oh ya, plenty of drugees out here.”  He says from the front seat through the metal grate dividing us.

“Oh ya?” I think to myself that the majority of crimes they must deal with are those which don’t  hurt anybody but the perpetrators themselves.  I don’t think I could ever feel good about being the enforcer of laws that stop people from doing things that aren’t hurting anybody else, or to risk my life doing so.  We seem to think the other is equally crazy.  As we get out of town I see the place where I was arrested, the train is still stopped.

“How did you find me anyway?  I ask the officer.

“Conductor spotted you around some curve” He says.  I immediately recall the moment.  One of the most beautiful parts of the journey was through these arid, dry mountains where the tracks switchbacked for the train to be able to make the gradual climb.  At one point I was able to see the engine from a quarter-mile away.  I realized at the time it was possible for them to see me for a moment but didn’t imagine the conductor would care personally.

My father worked on these very trains for 20 years and would tell me stories about hobos he would meet on the train and just tell them not to break anything or do anything stupid but would let them ride.  I wonder if this conductor will sleep better tonight knowing that his train was delayed, that law enforcement resources of this town were used on taxpayers dollars, and that some kid will now be officially labeled as a criminal as well as pay whatever fines my come of this.  I imagine that none of these considerations will pass through his head except the idea of loyalty, having served his company well.

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I think back to years ago when I had my only car accident on a rainy day.  Some kid pulled out in from of me last-minute, causing me to slam on my brakes.  By the time our bumpers hit, I was only going fast enough to cause a black mark about an eighth of an inch wide and three inches long of my paint transferring onto his bumper.  He was apologetic and seeing the miniscule amount of damage we agreed to let it go but got each other’s info.  About six months later, I got a call from his mother politely asking me to pay 600 dollars to fix the mark on her son’s bumper.  I pleaded with her that I would lose my job if I had an accident on my record, needing a clean driving record to work.  I told her I was a student paying my way through school and I couldn’t afford it.  All she kept replying was that she wanted “to do the right thing”.  Nothing I said could convince her of doing anything but the “right thing” and I had half a mind to dump 600 dollars in pennies on her lawn at the end for being willing to consciously cause so much potential damage in my life for the sake of superficial aesthetics.  As I’ve learned throughout life; the people who cause the most damage in the world are those who are convinced they are doing good.

“Doesn’t sound like a fun ending son, being arrested and now stranded out here in the desert.  Why would you take that risk?”  I know the question is meant to be rhetorical but I decide to take the opportunity to express myself.

“I understand that Union Pacific fears being sued by dishonest people, but I also believe in taking responsibility for my actions and find it immoral to resort to suing somebody who I know is not in fault should I get hurt.  I know the risk I walked into and if I got hurt, I would only be hurting myself.  The only law I choose to follow is a moral one if I’m brave enough to do so.  I’m not going to tell my grandchildren about a life of having followed every rule but tell stories of adventures in the days when it was still possible to ride on the back of a freight train to see the country in a unique and romantic way without the state watching me from cameras on every corner of the earth.”

The officer feigns to ignore my rant and begins talking to the cadet about truck trailer regulations.  I’m sure he has been hardened through the years of listening to bullshit passionate rants of criminals.  He probably feels as sorry for me as I do for him.  My only hope though is that the cadet took some message by my whole presence today and that it may affect the way he treats and enforces perpetrators of those crimes that hurt nobody.  I hope he can find the courage to trust his own judgements rather than blindly enforcing the law.

We reach the on-ramp to the highway and the officer wishes me good luck and says in a well-meaning way that he doesn’t want to have to see me again today.  I thank him for the ride and look into the seemingly endless desert toward home, wondering what adventures will be in store for the rest of my journey.  I stick my greasy criminal thumb out and begin processing the happenings of the day as I wait…

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