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True Stories by Steve Keely
Hobo Memoirs


(Part II of ‘The Rails Sing, Eh’)

We take a Greyhound from Vancouver, B.C. to Washington State because although it’s easy to catch a freight from a small to big city, it’s thorny to catch out of a metropolis.

Border immigration is a cinch, and afterward the Seattle Greyhound and downtown are shameful. The regular citizens are arrogant zombies for the most part, while the homeless look dangerous and use poor grammar. Diesel glances at the midnight Greyhound station and declares it a ‘butt-hole’, and strolls out for a vegetarian restaurant. Trash climbs the terminal walls, only sleeping drunks smile, and my Louis L’Amour western begins to smell. Thirty minutes before the final bus departure – ours – an Amazonian guard yips, ‘Everyone up against the wall for the next bus. All others out. I’m locking up!’ I ignore her, so after lockup she draws near with a compliance to chat. She - ‘You’ll miss the bus.’’ Me - ‘It doesn’t leave for 20 minutes.’ She - ‘You must line up for a seat.’ Me - ‘The bus hasn’t arrived.’ She - ‘What if everybody acted like you?’ Me - ‘Would you be out a job?’ She - ‘Are you giving me a hard time?’ Me - ‘My partner isn’t back yet.’ She - ‘How does he expect to ride the bus?’

I switch on the walkie-talkie but get static. Diesel’s vegan grin shows at the terminal window five minutes before departure, and he sneaks in the back bus entry. A stupefied waitress had tried to double-charge him for supper, delaying him. In a jiff, we’re eastbound with all but one seat filled. Nobody reads, babies cry, teens curse, students scream into cell phones… This is excitement?

‘I got an hour sleep last night. What about you?’ Diesel asks as we step off the bus into a Spokane, Wa. sunrise. ‘I could say the same thing. You talked all night behind me,‘ I retort. ‘The dude next to me just got out of Washington State Pen. His jacket hatched a genius business plan.’ We saunter along empty sidewalks as he shares the idea.

‘It’s a counterfeit jail garment business! The jacket with the ‘WSP’ red embroidery sells for $300 in good condition - $500 new – on the street. The buyers are gang members who wear them for prestige. The outfit includes pants, shirts and shorts each with the ‘WSP’. Men are allowed to take one set of clothes on release, and many sell right away to get a stake on a new life. The market is there, so here’s my idea. I take a sample set – plus one from the major ‘stirs’ across the country – to China. They duplicate them to the thread for $5 each. The key the smart buyer looks for is the prisoner’s ID number stitched inside each article. A list is available on the net. I sell the counterfeit jail wear on EBay for three-quarter the street price. A tidy import business, indeed!’

That’s what I mean about Canada vs. USA demographics. Canada has ‘doughnut philosophers’, the stiff who’s satisfied with the price of a coffee and feed. USA boasts the variation who doesn’t object to the doughnut hole getting bigger because it takes more dough to go around it. Only in USA would a counterfeit jail clothes business crop us. Then, it takes someone like Diesel from London to implement it. ‘What’s the downside?’ I lead him. ‘I get whacked by a gang,’ he replies. ‘When do leave for China?’ I say.

Spokane is no more to us than another knot in a string of catchout towns. Diesel is forthcoming in all. He strolls into the Spokane Holiday Inn and asks the concierge to use the guest computer to locate the freight yard. He rushes out with a print of the East Spokane Yardley Yard. We take local transit there and scope it from an overpass. According to the printout, BNSF operates fifty freights per day through this behemoth facility. It’s active, but where do the trains go?

Our quandary is that eastbound trains take either the ‘High Line’ northern route via Havre, Mt. while the more southern ‘Low Line’ goes via Billings, Mt. The High Line is denser with freight and hobos and takes a day, while the more scenic Low Line at twice the length takes three days due extra train changes.

The Yardley hard-hats buzz too fast on ATV’s to flag for questions. Diesel is atypically sluggish in hiding from ‘hogs’ or yard engines. ‘We’ll be tossed out on our ears,’ I admonish. ‘They’re robots!, he exclaims. Sure enough, I’ve been ducking unmanned yard engines for a week. Radio controlled locomotives for switching in yards initiated, I’m told, in the early 1990’s to reduce the staff. One worker with an electronic gadget strapped to his belt can start, stop and accelerate diesel engines up to a mile away. Live engineers must still run the point-to-point trains between cities.

We study the yard in a growing heat for a couple hours and retire to a little grocery store. It isn’t hard to finger a train rider. I tell Diesel about my Them-Us hypothesis under the cashier’s haughty stare. ‘Trampdom has customs, a sub-culture that is grasped only by riding freights. This collides head-on when we step outside the world. Look at us – filthy, happy with homes on our backs.’ The grocery clerk, though living next to a yard, has never held down a freight and gives us the pariahs’ service.

When in doubt, walk to the departure yard where newly assembled trains leave. I gaze at the track spread until something clicks. ‘And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world…’ I think of Gatsby's wonder at the finish of Scott Fitzgerald’s novel when the protagonist picked out the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. ‘He had come a long way this blue dawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night. Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter - tomorrow we will run faster, stretch our arms out farther, and one fine morning… So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’

We lock onto the ladder of a lumber car of a moving freight and climb to nest 20’ atop a stack of plywood. ‘Good sign,’ I yell over the rail noise. ’Wood from the west’s forests bound for the cities east.’ The train, a mile long and powered by two units, is a ‘rattler’ or fast mixed-freight though not as speedy as intramodals or piggie-backs. We memorize the lead engine # 5498 in case it leaves the train en route to shuffle cars or refuel.

The view is first-rate up on the lumbar where we’re sitting ducks for ‘town clowns’ or town constables. At the first siding, we hop down and walk the train back to an ‘empty’ boxcar with one ‘window’ or open door. Shorter hobos and ones with gimps whom you see waving at crossings from boxcars faced chin-high floors on the entry, and here Diesel boosts me from the gravel before himself hurdling in. Once inside, I’m transformed: This is the most ancient boxcar I’ve ever seen. The corners lean from 90-degrees, the floor is 1’’ hardwood slats, and the open door isn’t on a track but hangs from the roof. Normally the door is ‘staked’ with a railroad spike to prevent it from vibrating shut on hills, but this door is rusted open. The ghosts of hundreds of hobos linger. Cotton bounces and blows as the train picks up speed. ‘We’re bound for the Chicago Cotton Exchange,’ quips Diesel, reading the freight.

The question of High or Low Line became moot the moment we boarded the lumbar car since the main track forks east of Spokane. High Line is jargon for a mainline and fast freight, whereas the Low Line carries milk-runs that is this morning’s destiny. A sign flashes by the rail: ‘The Last Spike of the Great Northern’. In 1893, amid gunshots and cheers, the final spike into the Great Northern track was driven to open the Pacific Northwest to settlement and trade.

A tramp doesn’t defecate where he lives, but anything more is acrobatic. Then again, a freight sides for an indeterminate time that challenges analysis. Diesel steps down in the Great Plains to void but the train starts instantly and he staggers after the boxcar with pants-at-the-knees. I pull up my partner who mutters, ‘I’m finished’, and he retires to a corner, ‘Now I’ll wipe.’

Any empty car is a bumpy ride, but tramps seek wood boxcar floors for a quiet ride. The track under us is ‘continuous’ or welded without joints that lulls us to sleep. He chooses the front end where there’s more cotton but the danger of being thrown into the wall in an emergency stop, while I take the rear end where the bouncing is horrific. We’re like cats in a spin cycle. I grow chilled through the American Rockies and scoop cotton from the corners to make a bed. His boots vibrate past the door and to my nose in the rear corner, and I vow he’ll hear about it later. In the morning, our ‘side-door Pullman’ rocks into the historic railroad town of Laurel, Mt.

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