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True Stories by Steve Keely
Executive Hobos and 9/11 (Part 9) "Independence"
Grand Junction, Colorado is hobo heaven in the Rockies. The freights roll lazily in and out all day long, the bull looks the other way, and a mission serves chow nightly at the tracks. We step down from the bus knowing that cardboard, the tramp staple for a clean, smooth ride to the Pacific, also will be found in abundance on the ground.
Under the bridge where on the outbound trip a week earlier I spoke to the drunks, Wiz lifts a lumpy cardboard square like a trapdoor and unexpectedly dances. "Bottled water! Free, with the hot desert ahead!" We pull out twenty new 12-ounce bottles, the buried booty from an engineer's cab either discarded or acquired by a tramp, and stash the treasure better than the prior holder in deep weeds for our tomorrow's catchout.
Unlike the outbound trip with Pronto, Apple and Wiz, this return to the West Coast has no pressing commitments. This is the proper and hobo way, free and easy, taking a turn as it comes. Nonetheless, at twilight, I offer to take Clown into the yard to learn a hobo trick or two. She jumps up from her personal square and we leave Wiz guarding the gear under the bridge.
At the first string of cars I explain, "The freight train is like a string of elephants that can help or hurt you depending on how you treat it." I show her the different cars to ride and their ladders - boxcar, gondola, graincar and lumber car ends in a jam... where to sit and how to get off.
I quiz her with myriad scenario contingencies: "What would we do if this flatcar is stranded here?" She quips, "Too many variables." I persist, "What do you do if separated from the group? She pipes, "First, try the radio. Debark at the next division point, and wait. Contact the man with the cell phone. Call our emergency number - Wiz's wife. Perhaps at worst, carry on alone."
We walk up to a yard worker whose eyes bob at the dancing dreadlocks and ask him when the Cali Man (California train) is due. He answers that the building yard won't make one for some time, but hotshots roll through on the main and change crew every few hours, especially in afternoons. The hardhat moseys off, and we penetrate deeper over and around more car strings.
Probability is the essence of train hopping, a sure appeal to a math prodigy turned stock broker. I claim, "The likelihood of catching out in the east building yard is twice that of the west main yard till noon, then the probability reverses." "Don't fog me," she scoffs. "I know stats." "And I know trains", I sigh. I tell her things will iron out between us since probability is the key to any reasonable door in life.
In the next hour, we dodge make-believe "silent rollers" in the yard, scale every variety of actual car, and hook a ladder on a pretend moving graincar. Physical drill is superior to lecture or mental rehearsal for athletics, and she is a quick study. After an hour, Clown saunters back to her pack under the bridge knowing how to think and react in the top dozen reoccurring hobo scenarios.
We three leave the bridge and stroll the streets north of the tracks after sunset. At the height of train riding during the Great Depression, you could buy a bed for a nickel and a meal for the same in this or any of the string of division towns. Ironically, now government or church free shelters and Sallies replace the old skid road flophouses but with less gratitude from the patrons. We reach the mission to discover it's too late for the sermon, meal and bed, but a teenage girl on roller skates sides Clown under a sreetlamp to gander at the kaleidoscopic braids. "Why don't you stay at the women's shelter tonight," the girl exhorts. "Maybe I will," replies our partner. There is no walk-in men's shelter.
The teen asks for nothing in return for an encyclopedic lowdown of the area. "We call it Grand Dumption. We got everything: Sally, Goody, Shelter, the bread line." She provides the street skinny for ten minutes until I hold up a palm to inquire, "Why are you helping us?" "Because I'm bored, and you're good people." I tell her that performance deserves reward and fork over a Lincoln ($5). She clenches it with growing eyes and skates off humming.
As we proceed I footnote, "The tip couldn't have occurred if we were to be in town long because she'd "adopt" us daily, or mark us by telling others. Did you see her move out? A hobo once said, "I got me a philosophy: Yesterday is a cancelled check, tomorrow is a promissory note, but today is cash in hand."
"I don't care where we stay as long as it costs at least $50 and I pay," chirps Wiz as we pad along. We check into a luxury hotel and the sugar daddy gets first shower. As water runs in the bathroom I tell Clown she has earned the second shower and toss her a towel. She shuts off the lights and I hear clothes drop to the floor. The night vision goggles are in Wiz's pack, and I pull them. Suddenly the room lights up to my eyes only. There stands a body as perfect and thrilling as Steinbeck's prose. Once you see that, I ponder, you're a slave until you get hit hard on the head.
"Hey, who turned out the light?" calls Wiz. I flip off the goggles and on the light, and confess. She gives a Mona Lisa titter and steps bundled in a towel into the bathroom. A vibrating noise elicits under the door crack and in a minute Clown peeks out with an electric toothbrush in her mouth. "Ebery gal who trabels with hobos shooth hab one!"
When she announces a bit later that she prefers for novelty a woman's shelter over a posh hotel, we encourage the option. I accompany her through a rough-and-tumble neighborhood to the Grand Junction Women's Shelter where a sign on the front door advises, "Closed', and knock. The matron in curlers answers, stares at the cascade of colored pigtails, and admits her, while physically blocking me. Clown cheeps, "See you bright and early at the mission for breakfast, Doc", and the door locks behind them.
I jog back through the impoverished neighborhood for warmth and safety, and return to the hotel where already Wiz snores with frogs up his nostrils. I sink wearily an inch into the other twin bed only to hear a clicking from my pants over a chair. I forgot to turn off the radio. I key the mike expectantly. "Yes?" She answers softly, "I am your hobo goddess singing you to sleep. Lullaby and good night..."
"Clown is a loner and that's fine," mutters Wiz now wide awake. "But if she comes out of that shelter in the morning scratching gray soldiers (body lice) there's little pity." "Don't worry," I counsel. "We'll sneak a piece of urinal soap into her pants to get rid of them like any other tramp."
I awaken the next morning to see Wiz operating over his backpack. He looks up and beams, "The pack is effectively loaded now." He opens the top to proudly display a layering method for access as well as protection of the sundry electronics: There's a tier of clean socks, underwear and T-shirt for each of the anticipated three days to the coast - with the gadgets sandwiched between them. He shall pull a fresh clothes layer nightly after showering and stuff the dirty clothes under the bed for the maid to find in the morning, and neatly fold a fresh motel towel in the pack in stead of the old layer. "Thus," he explains, "Karma in the universe is maintained."
We check-out and depart the hotel and walk briskly across town to the chow line for our breakfast appointment with Clown. Early risers en route to jobs study our packs and gaits and Wiz surveys them back with, "It's delicious how people look at us so funny when we're outside the railroad influence, but measure up to us at the missions and Sallies." I respond, "Cultures should be fascinated by their sub-cultures as spice to the meal. These citizens can't guess we're their peers half the time."
We meet Clown a-sparkle in the center of the breakfast line where I query, "Last night was your first in a shelter. How was it?" She replies, "The shelter was buggy with interesting women to talk to. Lights went out at 11pm, but three young ladies kept me up half the night talking about life on the road. I slept a few scant hours, and woke up with one of them staring at my feet."
The mission door swings open and about fifty souls, a linear slice at this hour of similar haunts across the nation, file in and sit down on hard benches. An old alcoholic chews corn flakes like a Clydesdale, kids with runny yolks on their chins fly between the tables, a crack-head gulps coffee to stay awake for food, many muscled laborers return for seconds before the long day's work, and a few scattered hobos munch philosophically while observing the others as if apart of a movie.
The main course is SOS (sh__-on-a-shingle) that hobos call "graveyard', a meaty hash on toast. I close my nose over it for savor but Clown interrupts, "You eat like a pig," and provides a napkin. I take it, chuckle and return for seconds. Soon we shove from the table and Wiz offers, "That was the best breakfast I've had in near memory. No onion which is important."
We exit into morning sunshine and retrieve the cardboard and water from the bridge, and mosey east along the tracks past homes and little warehouses to the Last Chance Liquor Store. The boys purchase milk and bread, sardines and tomatoes for sandwiches, while Clown buys a month's store of beef jerky, pickles and vitamins.
On the way out, an hourglass lady in a string bikini advances bit by bit along the pavement talking to herself. "Marilyn Monroe, you look gorgeous today!" Then, turning to face where she stood, the same lady retorts, "Don't get fresh, mister!" Clown halts before the lady and says, "It's delusional, sir." We wheel down the sidewalk and Clown utters, "'Whoa. A bisexual split-personality. I've never seen it before!" I nudge Wiz that suddenly our companion is more interesting.
When government funding is tightened the first product squeezed is mental health with released patients from hospitals in droves hitting the rails. Most are "cabbage heads" who have used so many drugs in a lifetime that physical recovery is difficult. "A thesis could be written on tramping crazies," I suggest to the pair.
"Execs, let's hit the rails!" and I lead them from the sidewalk to the back of the liquor store right on the main. We set up temporary headquarters in a weed patch where I describe the setup. Grand Junction is divided into the main yard next to the Amtrak office where periodic through freights on the mainline change crews; and the "makeup" or building yard now across from us where car strings are parked in a bowl of two dozen tracks. New trains for west or east are constructed on these rails like beads on strings. Rarely, a through train stops in this building bowl to add or cut cars before rushing on. It's a twenty-minute walk between the makeup and main yards. This overview is the normal layout for most railroads across the country, but larger ones have a building yard at both ends.
Our two options are axiomatic: To wait for a newly-built freight at the makeup yard but have no chance to catch a through freight on the mainline, or to hike a mile to the main yard to bet on a through freight stopping before any westbound is built." Clown rebukes, "You told me that last night, Doc. Let's wait here and eat."
We sit in the patch like weeds, Wiz in dark coveralls, me in bib overalls, and she gliding about us like an ice-skater swallowing vitamins in jeans, pink halter-top, and a white floppy cap with fishing lures to hold back the hair. A burly tramp in green camouflage angles across the building yard stepping lightly at us under a sparse pack - he is the archetypal Viet Nam veteran.
"Mornin', Flintstone Kids," he greets in a gravely voice twixt missing incisors. Clown demands, "What's that mean?" He utters, "It's people who ride with plastic... ya know, credit cards. It's easy to see you ain't rail vets." The early morning insects buzz to fill a long silence.
"Say, lady, why don't you take a ride with a real train tramp to places that don't exist in your imagination." "Nah," she replies, "But thanks, buddy. I'm with these other Flintstones." The geezer examines her like a Belle Starr. "I'm the oldest hobo in the country!" he cries abruptly, but from his heart I hear great pride pulse. "Hey you," he hooks a finger at me. "Stand up so I can see what you're made of." At that Wiz fingers a screwdriver in his breast pocket for emergencies. I gaze back and reply, "I'm sitting comfortably." The Vet shrugs, "Don't get lost on the American gridiron, Flintstones. Good day!"
War veterans have formed a strong contingent of rail riders beginning with the Civil War when soldiers, accustomed to camping out, foraging and traveling by trains, hoboed west after the battles end on the same right-of-way as the executives take. The railroads give today's Vet, who sifts for himself as well as his predecessors, the type of thrill he came to expect in Nam. Future wars will fill out the boxcar fraternity for as long as freights run.
Furthermore, a lone wolf's dream is to hobo with a woman for many reasons: Yard workers are freer with train information, the bull doesn't cause so many headaches, hitchhiking off the railroads is faster, shelters admit a husband or boyfriend together, families get firsts in food lines, and there's no end to the advantages. The catch-22 is that females profess the opposite view. A quick way to about-face a lady is to ask her if all this is true. The consequent issue is, is it safe for a female to jump freights alone? They're safer than males on the road because people ease their ways. There is an improbable worry of rape with so many worse things than that happening on the rails. So, I tell women the first time out to travel with a companion, and then she can go alone as many I've known have with flying colors.
"He's right, you know," I post my partners in the patch. "We're hobby hobos next to him."
(Continued in Part 10)
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