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True Stories by Steve Keely
This is the slowest hotshot I’ve ever held down. In late afternoon, after multiple trips to the hole, the train enters a bewildering gridiron of rails and yards known as the Minneapolis trampdom. I want to pause to visit former road partners Iowa Balckie, once national hobo king, and Ad-Man, an advertising executive who rides the rails to national business meetings and jets home, but time is short. We ride on without food or water.
Minneapolis to Chicago is one of the prettiest runs in USA. The rail kisses the Mississippi River and slugs through the bayous for a hundred miles. In the Wisconsin dells, the train goes in the hole in the wee hours so I hit the ballast to walk our car length fifty times for exercise. I rub my eyes on seeing auto headlights bear down along the parallel rail. It’s a service truck mounted on flanged wheels using the tires for traction - the modern handcar. It speeds to the head end where there’s an apparent crisis. Without warning, a retort sounds at a close farmhouse that ignites in light a chicken pen. A light also switches on top a radio tower above the woodland. The electrical problem solved, the service truck skates north and our freight lugs south.
The sun rises yellow in our faces near Chicago. ‘Where’s the Sears Tower?’ Diesel wonders aloud, and sticks his nose into the railroad atlas. ‘I can’t figure it, unless a new line or yard was thrown down since the book publication in ‘01. The compass and map have us coursing southwest around Chicago.’
A giant horseshoe track appears on the industrial horizon leading into the narrowed entrance of a tremendous intramodal yard hemmed by 10’ hurricane fence topped by razor wire. A head-high camera floats by our car signifying a secured area. We gulp with one minute to choose before the yard swallows us. Semi-trucks pull in and out the yard at the rate of one-a-minute to drop or pick up containers, while agriculture land extends in all directions outside the fence. We can enter the gate and the let the cards fall, or bail prior. ‘Your call,’ I bawl. He drops his pack overboard without a word, descends to the bottom rung, and drops one foot to the grit. The funny thing about the first step from a 10 mph train is that the ground seems to moves toward the rider for an impulse to lean backward, but then the freight’s true forward momentum plants his nose in dirt. However, Diesel strides gigantically with the train inertia. I toss my pack out from the cutting wheels and likewise land. Heat beats off the dirt service road and insects buzz. ‘Let’s get out of here!’ I plead.
‘Joliet Munitions Factory’ an old sign reads on the road. Great humps of earth for ammo storage like dozens of loaves of bread salt the land everywhere. After forty minutes hike, another sign informs this is the new 2002 CenterPoint Yard, the largest intramodal facility in the world. The four-mile perimeter fence protects thousands of boxes stacked like child’s blocks. A security truck pulls up that I ignore since we’re on a public road, but Diesel strides to the driver’s window. He rejoins me, grumbling, ‘I admitted we just got off the freight. The guard asked, ‘Please tell me you didn’t steal anything.’ I said we weren’t vandals, just riders. I asked for a lift to a main road but he scoffed, ‘Hell no! Freight hopping is illegal.’ So I thanked him and stalked off.’ I tell Diesel it was a jolly try, and we hotfoot trying to fish rides. It’s a surprise fifteen minutes later when the security pickup reappears and the guard smiles, ‘I had a change of heart. I’ll take you to a highway four miles from I-55 where you can hitch to Joliet that is 30-miles southwest of Chicago.
After that lift, we walk-thumb the busy route for an hour until a battered pickup slows, stops and out steps a bulky driver in coveralls. He applauds on the roadside to our approach. ‘Bravo! boys. The spirit of adventure is alive!’ He offers doughnuts and warm sodas. After a life chapter as a vagabond about America, he became a bricklayer. ‘Now I work, even on Sundays.’ He cell phones a ‘limo’ – ‘Hello, Jose. Drive over to Barton Rd. near I-55. I have a gift for you.’ I spout, ‘If you got us a ride, we’ll gratefully pay $5 for gas.’ Diesel joins, ‘Each!’
The bricklayer surveys us, and begins a story. ‘Once I picked up an old hitchhiker in the Nebraska plains. ‘This is your lucky day!’ the old fellow claimed. I replied that it was his lucky day, not mine. ‘Why, sir, is that?’ he asked. ‘A few miles down the road you’re going to bum me for a meal. I’m buying gas and food and getting nothing in return.’ The old hitchhiker smiled, ‘I am a bit hungry’.’
Jose, from the bricklayer’s crew, arrives in a bashed Lincoln. ‘These are my cousins - except the old man. Will you give them a ride to Joliet?’ Wordlessly, the Mexican unstraps the askew trunk for our packs, and drives us off with the bricklayer applauding through the rear window.
The sun sinks red on Sunday night over Joliet. Everyone we talk to gets jazzed that we just got off a freight train. ‘What’s it like? Where’d you come from? What about the bulls?’ I continue my interviews in quest of North America’s heartbeat with a machinist recently thrown out of work. Highly skilled and employable, he was let go when USA began buying steel from China. ‘The jobs are where the steel originates. Thousands like me are out of work. But the steel industry will bounce back - It always has,’ he opines. He peels from the sidewalk to a park to sleep the night. Diesel exudes, ‘Steel will bounce back! ‘That’s the insight.’ He will research it to tout in the ‘Bull Hunter’.
Hobos are the submerged one-millionth but the unemployed like the machinist make up the one-hundredth. It was wisely suggested that the decline of skid row ‘flophouses’ is the basis for laid-off laborers being thrown into the streets. Rent is the monster paycheck eater. Diesel and I try the Joliet Plato Hotel that’s full, so the clerk sends us to the Metro Hotel that’s closed. A homosexual offers to put us up for 10 bucks each but we’re not that desperate. We ‘carry the banner’ like bos of old hiking the main stem all night for want of shelter. We stay awake as long as we walk, having had little more than cat naps for 6,000 miles by freight, bus and thumb in two weeks.
‘Guys, you’ll get jack rolled tonight if you go on!’ calls a shirtless, drinking man from a porch chair to the sidewalk. ‘Once I thumbed tired and penniless into ‘Hades’, Texas,’ he states. ‘A man appeared out of nowhere and gave me $50, so I walked across the street and got a hotel room. I never forgot or figured out why. For that reason, you’re welcome to sleep in my backyard.’ We spread a tarp on the 8’x8’ square of thin grass and mud, and fall asleep under a 4’ hand-carved eagle on the back steps.
In the early morning, before our host awakens into a hangover and wonders about the strange tramps in the back yard, I nudge Diesel. ‘Time to move on.’ He falls back asleep, so I stare a while at the wood eagle. The man had invited us to wash up in a kid’s wading pool as the water company just shut his faucets for missing a payment. ‘Them that has keeps, and them that hasn’t give,’ Woody Guthrie preached. I’ve been walking on fish for days, and go into the pool first. I exit, dress, grab a disposable camera and reawaken Diesel to tell him to dunk his head and wait for my three-beat cue on the poolside, then throw out in the sunlight for a ‘Playgirl’ shot. Lean and unshaven, he ducks his head and I tap the poolside twice and wait… In a minute he tosses his head back with droplets flying, and the shutter snaps.
We ride the Amtrak ‘varnish’ into Chicago. It’s poignant that the journey ends in the hobo capital of the world. This was the rail gate between the East and West. Hobos and tramps in tens-of-thousands came to Chi-Town to layover, buy a barber college shave, blow their stake at a Madison St. saloon or bordello, take refuge in a flophouse or mission, take a job on the slave market, and attend Ben Reitman’s Hobo College eighty years ago. Then those ‘lost souls’ struck out for something they could neither define nor chase down. Hobos were and are the highest appreciated form of the genus vagrant.
We clean and dine with Wiley Books V.P. Pam VanGeesen, Chicago pork belly king John Chikos, and legendary writer-photographer Arthur Shay. The time comes for Diesel and me to part company: He for work in Baltimore and I in California.
With enough Chicago track to equal the entire railroad mileage in one-eighth of Europe, Diesel butts his head against that for hours on the computer. He discovers a CSX railyard that sends one nightly intermodal hotshot to Baltimore. What time? He phones CSX customer service mascarading as a trucker with a container to drop, and gets the nightly express time at 9 pm. ‘I’m out, partner,’ I bow. He takes one radio and leaves me the other. He enters that South Chicago yard alone at dusk. I get an Email in hours: ‘Didn't get the intramodal train. Scared of the neighbourhood I found myself in. Would have been chicken feed after dark, so got the Amtrak.’
We’re hobby hobos with a railroad fever that still has no remedy. People with the hobo heart share core beliefs on the rails or open road. Out there we’re free as eagles.
A dream is lived! But it was all about the trains. How they lean and clack and shake a bo’s body.
For more of Steve "Bo" Keely's writings
Visit the Hobo page on www.greatspeculations.com!