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True Stories by Steve Keely
Central American Express
El Sufractia is the hobo Grand Central Station of the Pacific for freights south-north between Mexico City and Mexicali at the USA border, and for ones east-west through the Copper Canyon toward Texas and the Florida Gulf. There is no town, just a 15-track wide yard pressed against the flat fields with a small tienda at its edge selling sodas and cigarettes to the types that frequent rail yards. Expecting a tidy 11pm departure, we got there just after dark. Diesel called the spot a hornet s nest . He made the mistake of jiggling loose change in his pocket and was speedily hemmed by two men in front and one behind. I raised my pack to look bigger at the outside and called him safely out the lock.
We angled from the tienda across the yard tracks under harsh, yellow lamps. Two soldiers in camouflage intercepted us walking toward the Chihuahua freight. I dubbed them Thick, with a shotgun, and Thin, with an assault rifle, as Diesel spoke in quiet tones.
'We are Americans riding freights for adventure. We want to see your beautiful country without the windows of a passenger train, to feel the air, hear the town noises and look directly at the people. They scrutinized our passports and cross-examined our intent for fifteen minutes. Thin injected, Senor, you tremble. What do you hide?' Diesel responded softly, I don t tremble a bit. And I hide as little.' 'Hold out a steady hand then.' My partner s accountant paw was a rock in the light. And, senor, now yours.' I thrust it and observed, 'His shakes more than mine.' They drew and lit cigarettes. Your hands tremble, senores,' I said, and added, 'And the other hands hold weapons.' They pushed their hands aside ours and Thin said as steadily, 'Your train leaves in an hour. Have a safe journey.' I snapped a picture of them against a boxcar.
A nighttime yard is a sliver of Halloween. Our train, a headless string without attached units and nevertheless identifiable by the track number, slept on a rail. Bats flew in and out yard lamps grazing insects as many as the stars. A rat the size of a guinea pig scuttled a tie. Frogs croaked in a stinking drainage ditch. Smart hobos always walk a drag to memorize the potential rides before the engines hook on. Twenty minutes later, we rounded the string with a complete mental picture of two graincars at the head, a gondola in the center, and some lumber cars at the tail. Freights south and north of the border display a FRED or Flashing Rear End Device in lieu of the venerable caboose, an electronic box mounted on the last car couple that relays the brake line pressure to the engineer in the locomotive. Hobos call it the Fu__ing Rear End Device because you can t ride it like a caboose.
The Chihuahua string on our right would depart in an hour at 11pm, and the Mexicali train on the left stood ready to roll with units a-growl. A shadow loomed between and we screeched in the gravel at seeing a two-foot sharp poker. I blinked twice to remove its long gleam from my retinas. Halt! commanded a voice, and it was a comfort as already we were shocked still. The shadow advanced, became a uniform, and I followed the poker point up to the hand and discerned the rawhide face of a soldier. He ordered us to lead him out of the dim between the cars. As we sashayed the Mexicali train, it became apparent that the soldier was on a hobo Easter egg hunt. He talked to dozens of trampas, including one chica or girl, hanging along car platforms or to the roofs. The Mexicans he let stay on but the Central Americans he pulled off until a walking clutch of eight built around him plus us two gringos. I thought, this hunter with the poker is both brave and stupid.
The brakes hissed and departure was imminent. The soldier whirled and looked up between two boxcars, then shrugged and turned to us. He spun again and caught two faces, Hondurans, whom he motioned with the rod from the deck. He told all the Central Americans they weren t permitted to ride, and that we two Americanos should walk ahead to wait for our 11pm Chihuahua train. As Diesel and I crunched onward, I jerked a thumb back and muttered, It s mordida time.
We leaned against a wall to view the open of the night s main event. The yard still held dozens of immigrants as the Mexicali freight pitched forward. Many were Central Americans boarding at the last second to avoid the sharp poker. Ten pairs of legs pumped rapidly for the moving wagons and loped easily on. The load would make Mexicali in 24-hours and some would cross into USA the following day. If a Mexican wants to sneak into the US he takes the bus to the border and then crosses illegally. But if you are from Guatemala, for example, you have to enter Mexico illegally first. Once inside, you can't ride the bus without documents or the checkpoint police will catch, fine and deport you. So the Mexican freights are jammed with OTMs (Other Than Mexicans). This Mexicali freight had the most OTM s and Mexican trampas of them all.
The scum has cleared the yard, joked Diesel, So I guess we re safe. The cleansing freight, long and heavy with living cargo, snailed only ten steps from our feet but we wanted the Chihuahua train. An auburn teen carrying nothing came up to divulge a thirty-second history. Life is tough in Honduras. Forty days ago he started with the clothes on his back and is heading north, like the rest, for the American vision. He will step down from this train tomorrow in Mexicali but is uncertain how he ll cross the border. He doesn t know much about the USA but is passionate beyond worry. He glanced casually at the moving freight and bowed goodbye. He sprinted and vaulted aboard like a gazelle. The FRED shrank to nothing in the north.
Diesel stood and howled. Think of it! A kid leaves home with nothing and illegally travels a country he knows nothing about to one where he knows no one! Tom dyson was the managing editor of The Daily Reckoning until two weeks ago when he eloped with the boss s ex-gal. It s a weekly wrap-up of contrarian investment analysis. Before that he worked as a CPA at London s Salomon Smith Barney calculating the traders daily profits and managing their books. His passions still are finance and freights. He looked in a London office window three years ago and reflected where his life path headed. He quit, emptied his pockets and caught a flight to Mexico City. Penniless and without plastic, he begged twelve little liquor bottles from the flight attendant before disembarking. He walked straight to the freight yard a hobo virgin and in the next two weeks bartered the alcohol for meals in riding the rails through Mexico and USA. A year ago, based on the Dysmon Diaries tales of those adventures, he was hired by the Baltimore-based Daily Reckoning . Six months ago, he Emailed me to freight the Canadian Rockies that was told in The Rails Sing, Eh? Our road names on this Mexico trip are Dennis the Menace and Mr. Wilson, and we are a team. But long ago they called me Doc Bo. I ve grabbed 300 freights and taught a college sociology class Hobo Life in America .
Three soldiers came up on cats feet. Buenas noches,' spoke the corpulent sergeant with a dancing Mustache and .45 pistol. Two skinny privates deferred his every move. 'Your passports please, ' he asked in Spanish. We produced them and I backed up to witness my partner finesse the soldiers. Sarge examined the documents as the other two searched the bags. •h, a South Africa citizen!' cried out the rotund man. Yes! returned Diesel. So rare to meet someone who knows the passport. He whispered aside to me, The everyday Mexican sees Americans as invasive wealthy snobs who care little for their country and less for them. So they re astonished when you compliment their land or people. The private with the poker raced up and leered to the group, I tried my best to keep the Central Americans off, but they got on the Mexicali train! Everyone knew he had levered a bribe. The Sarge covered us with a hasty scowl, Do you shoot doves? Some Americans shoot doves, you know! No, cautioned Diesel. I hate killing. He scratched the gravel with a boot and the other three their chins. We chitchatted until the Sarge ultimately assured, It makes sense you are here, senores, because gringos are nuts. They scuffed away and he bellowed, You know where to find us if there is trouble.' Diesel opened his arms wide to the night, But we have very little.
While the departing train held the yard s attention, we snaked inside to board our best ride on the Chihuahua freight. The pick of the string was a bizarre, oversized boxcar with an atypical platform. We left a large stone there in a corner as a weapon and sat thinking about the recent activities and discussing contingencies. I grew sleepy and Diesel fussed about the lack of activity on our track and left to investigate. We had working radios now and buzzed each other every ten minutes. There was a lapse and he returned breathing hard, There is terrible as well as tremendous news! Our train has been canceled for the night due to lack of Chihuahua-bound carsń. However, a half-mile ahead is a private gringo train that s touring the Copper Canyon and leaving tomorrow morning. The crew is spitting and polishing as we speak. Maybe we can hitch a ride. We hiked to four sleek, silver cars with Mexicans spilling elbow grease in the interior. Unfortunately, the Americans whom we hoped to talk to were sleeping in a distant motel and wouldn t arrive until the morning takeoff.
We plowed slowly the ballast feeling oddly relaxed for the first time in days. Each failure on the rail of life brings another turn. So we checked into an abandoned motel next to the tiny store on the yard edge. Six adobe rooms, mostly without doors or windows, lined either side of an open-air hall. Eight Central Americans occupied them all but spilled out to greet us as a serious novelty. They had never seen gringos on the rail! We conversed in the hall for an hour.
They had bused from their home countries to the Mexico border. Then they hoboed the northbounds picking up as they went intelligence about direction and border crossing. All were married males who had left with the family sanction to illegally enter and work in the USA for about two years, and then to transfer their wives and children. A week ago, some witnessed in dismay one of their fellow countrymen slip from a ladder trying to board a moving train and get cut in half at the waist by the rolling wheels. They could do nothing for him except continue. The Mexican people were kind to them, but the soldiers and guards brutal. They have extorted $1000! a swarthy man roared. That collective bank had dwindled from the bribes and, yesterday in Las Moches, they had bought a Mexican coyote with the last $1500 to meet them in Mexicali to cross by foot into the US to a waiting mini-van. Mexicali, tangible now on the brink of USA, was a 24-hour freight ride away. Today they rested. Tomorrow they would board the freight. The following day they could be in Los Angeles, and the next stooping in the fields for hard cash!
One OTM insisted that the sleeping hotel owner could be aroused at 3am. I found myself tapping on the window of a nearby house and repeating softly, Nelly, and wondering if I was a fool. At no answer, the friendly Central Americans invited us to sleep on their floors for a dollar. We showered instead for fifty cents under a trickle that could be turned neither on nor off, and exited into the night.
We found our bed, a skinny platform 100-yards long between tracks in the yard center, for a short and restless sleep. The concrete platform was littered with sleeping trampas. Each man lay in the shadow of his personal roof pillar as a spacer from the next body. Diesel and I chose adjoining posts and before turning in reflected on the first seed of this whole Mexico journey last spring. We d read Black Like Me on the Canadian trip and designed, in the spirit of John Griffin, to dye our skin and hair brown, don floppy hats, and pass as Mexicans with me acting dumb. That plan adjusted to floppy hats only that we now buried our heads into, rolled down shirt sleeves to gloves, and stuck legs under blankets to hide every bit of lily skin. No tough rising in the night to pee might identify us as marks. Before losing awareness, I glimpsed my wrapped colleague, twice Mexican size and snoring, and wondered if he looked Latin like me and we would awaken in the morning bleeding. Freight cars smashed just feet from our ears.
In safe daybreak, we rose with the other trampas to greet an extended freight arriving along the Pacific coast from Mexicali in the north. A dozen men leaped down alone or in clots and greeted some of the in-yard trampas with back slapping. Diesel and I padded to a secluded corner to discuss whether to await tonight s supposed Chihuahua freight through the Copper Canyon. We must! he insisted sweeping me.
Rather than fritter the day in the Surfractia yard, we bused twenty minutes to the nearby town of San Blas to stroll the day and use the Internet Café. San Blas is a representative wedge of what we d seen in the Mexico pie throughout the week. Lively faces bobbed the sidewalks on anxious feet toward future goals. This, I told my partner, was a far cry from days-of-yore siestas under dead saguaros. The country is ripe for capitalism, he agreed, though it was not quite in place.
The low-life indicators in Mexico are propitious. The winds of economic times start in the gutters and alleys and blow into the financial district. We found long cigarette butts on the sidewalks indicating coming affluence and, moreover, fewer people smoking them than previously. A high ratio of new cars, taxis and buses plied the clean streets, didn t honk and obeyed traffic signals. The policemen sported snappy uniforms and pedaled bicycles in dispensing few tickets. Two prostitutes threw themselves at me and commanded proud fees of $40 and then stalked away without second offers as I shook my head in disbelief. The freight trains are long and frequent. Our conclusion was that we we re hoboing an upward bound country.
A farmer with two hired hands strolled up to the downtown stand to order long tacos. He mainly wanted to fracture English and explained there were 100 cows on his rancho and only two bulls. He handed them tacos as the sisters tittered. Four leaning chairs about the counter created a hump on the side of the busy town strip where pickups spilling vaqueros honked and hooted. It was also small-town America. Chingar! the sisters merrily cursed them. To fornicate! To work hard! The farmer quaffed a beer and offered to hire me to teach his children English, perhaps to grow to curse bilingually. I declined but wrote the beautiful sisters a poem conjured from high school Spanish in mirror image on a napkin: .ehcel al atsug eM .et al atsug eM natsug em sam oreP .sedetsu ed sojo soL I like milk. Read the farmer with great labor. I like tea. But most of all, I like your eyes. He passed the note to the sisters, paid for my meal, and I walked from the uproar down the street to find the Internet.
Wherever there's electricity in Mexico, there is a Cyber Cafe with computers to rent at $1 per hour. I kicked aside a dead scorpion from the sidewalk and walked into one in the pueblo of San Blas, a quick bus ride from the Surfractia rail yard. I was followed in the door by a man in black, stocky and used to getting things his way by wit or force. He sat at the computer facing me and struck up a conversation in rare English. He offered to be a coyote for anyone I wanted to get across the border. I wasn t interested but he described anyway the route via Juarez and fee at $1500 per head. Then he rose to leave without using the computer. He wrote his name and phone first, saying, If you need anything in this town just ask for Rocky.' A few minutes later, Diesel walked in. We decided that the thing started last night in the nearby rail yard where we were confronted by the soldiers, guards and friendly workers who no doubt lived and reported here in town that for the first time two gringos were freight hopping with thirty illegal Mexicans and Central Americans toward the border. Maybe the Americanos are coyotes. Work spread in town like wildfire, Diesel surmised. Rocky wants to abet us for a slice or to bust us. My road partner didn t like our position, and said we should bail out soon. I agreed, and we bused to the yard to catch the 11pm freight through the Copper Canyon once and for all.
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