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True Stories by Steve Keely
Hobo Memoirs


Bull Dance

On the other hand, there’s much down time. God knows I’ve tried to make a life on the rails, to rove or even to live on the streets, but always was tricked back into society’s nest by ennui. Fargo, N.D. develops into another muck night: We squat in a weed patch under the moonlight next to a small yard where our freight has terminated to resolve things. It’s a quiet place with no workers and the city skyline is nowhere in view. We walk – a tramp’s key gear is his boots– for hours.

Travel is a companion’s hard test, and both of us feel an edge. He’s conservative in the yards; I’m gung-ho. I’m safety conscious; he’s impetuous. He’d starve before eating meat from a dumpster. After 5,000 rough miles in ten days, each of us is bushed and bruised. Somewhere in crossing a string in the Fargo yard, he follows too closely and I slip on a ladder. ‘City boys always walk a body length behind me, and country boys two body lengths!’ I screech. ‘You’ve barked orders and I’ve followed you like a lackey for days,’ he screams. ‘Maybe it’s time to split,’ I say. ‘Fine,’ he agrees.

Split is clear, and I make for a smoking intramodal train on a westbound line. Diesel apparently interprets split as distancing from each other while continuing eastbound. The train is about to slide away when destiny in the form of a RR bull stands arms folded and frowning in the headlight. I angle mutely from him out the yard. Diesel follows at a distance, but the bull stays put. I pause under a city street lamp and glance at my clock: Midnight.

‘You were actually going to get on that westbound,’ he carps in the light circle. ‘That’s right,’ I say. ‘We split.’ ‘No, we only ‘split’ within the yard.’ ‘Look,’ I continue. ‘My California desert is as close as your Baltimore home, and my freight stands ready. This trip has become a financial burden, but I’ll continue if you provide $150 now for Amtrak fare home from the east coast.’ He responds, ‘Will you become more conversational?’ ‘Yes, it’s back to square one.’ ‘What if I only have $100?’ ‘Then we walk the streets of Fargo to an ATM machine.’ He fishes bills from the money belt and hands them over with, ‘I may have shorted you $10.’ I tuck them in my pocket without counting. A good tramp can turn on a dime, and certainly we’re that. Immediately we plot the next move.

After retreating from the yard bull, we certainly erred out of exhaustion by arguing under a street lamp instead of seeking cover. A lone car cruises, stops under the streetlamp and the cop steps out and greets, ‘Good morning, fellows.’ The bull called the local police.

Police, for the most part, like to get the big picture of the ‘perp’ and take it apart piece by piece, jamming down the throat the ones that don’t make sense. ‘We’re on a two week tour of the North American Rockies,’ I say honestly, warming up. ‘Our bus passes ran out after Canada, so we hitchhiked I-90 here, and thought to catch a freight to Minneapolis. We just want to get out of town.’ Even as I deny that we got off a freight, I feel like a dolt in grubby skin with my pant cuffs tucked in white socks. The officer, a delightful typecast exception, beams, ‘Guys, freight hopping is illegal, but I hope you catch a train out of town.’ He ID’s us and solicits Diesel in finding a DOB on the British Passport with South African birthplace. Second and third patrol cars arrive and he easily remarks, ‘Don’t worry about the other squad cars unless you have warrants.’ A behemoth blonde in blue stands guard behind us. We’re clean, so they let us go.

We wash and supply at a 24-hour store where I chew the fat with the clerk. ‘The girls in the parking lot just tried to get free booze. You can’t sell alcohol in this state after midnight and, besides, they’re underage. They said they’d pay me in the morning.’ Everywhere across North America – from the Yukon to USA – we’ve found the youth in mass drinking and doing drugs as if life is a dress rehearsal. Illegalization of drugs clearly doesn’t work. The clerk states, ‘Meth manufacture is popular because the ingredients are available – Fertilizer’s anhydrous ammonia from the farms, ephedrine from the drugstores, etc’. This young man is clean-cut and determined. ‘The girls and drugs aren’t worth losing a job. I’d be homeless.’

Back in the shadows on the yard outskirts, we watch the bull van with the yellow shield patrol the yard for thirty minutes. ‘It’s a game to him now,’ whispers Diesel. ‘ He wants us.’

Our first ploy is to divide to investigate opposite yard ends while keeping in radio contact. We hope the bull doesn’t tune to our frequency. The radio range is 3-km and we check in every ten minutes. I hear his voice, ‘The bull circles and I’m nervous being with a pack. Let’s…’ I cut out as headlights advance and squat above a rail at an out-building. A peeling sign reads, ‘Weigh station. Danger: Live rail’. I’ve never encountered a live rail and am three inches from an electric chair, though it can’t be certain it was turned on. We guide each other with the walkie-talkies to a rendezvous at a closed boxcar.

It sits alone with graffiti on a still sidetrack: ‘We are cowboys of steel riding high on boxcars looking for Mr. Quest.’ A hog yard engine chugs a half-mile away under the harsh yellow lights. Speedy Diesel volunteers for scout detail mentioning it could be a robot engine. Yet before he knows, bull headlights show and our cover is just the little boxcar. A tango begins behind the eight ball. We dart behind the wheels of the far side before the lights hit. The road curves around the boxcar, and we dance 360-degrees around to the start point. The dick doesn’t see us.

There’s a valid reason for railroad police. 19th century armed holdups and hijackings gave birth to the yard bull. Today their concerns are safety through prevention of trespassing and breaking into containers and piggy-backs. They use security cameras, motion sensors and night vision goggles. Secondarily, they provide community education including an anti-hobo smokescreen that has dramatically cut North America freight hopping. Hobos find bulls face-to-face to be fair, outdoorsy types who give a shrug the first time and a ride to jail if caught a second. If the dick doesn’t write a ticket, road wisdom directs one to reenter after his shift to try again. Earlier tonight, however, the BNSF bull indirectly cancelled our gimmie via the Fargo city police who no doubt bounced our names to him. We must stay vigilant in this yard till catchout.

Dawn tips the odds. We view a billboard at an entrance showing a yard map. It’s decided to walk east along the mainline into a glen. Mosquitoes bite hundreds of times and poison ivy nips at our cuffs. The zippers on my duffle, sleeping bag and jacket are broken and held together with string. and safety pins. But the fact is an intramodal train decelerates before us, and we board the moving ladders of facing cars. Hallelulu! I’m a bo.

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