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True Stories by Steve Keely
We were in Surfractia for the second evening try and initially scampered behind the hotel to avoid the mill of trampas, rail workers, guards at the tienda or store. There we found a brown whip of a man and his fawning brother planting trees at sunset. They glistened with the day s work. Hello, chirped the older whom I tagged the Elder.
He stood under the new trees with the crickets singing and described the Central American Express in strong English. It s been forty days of hard, steady travel since Honduras. They bused through Central America to the Guatemala-Mexico border where the Express starts. Thousands of illegals were camped at the border that leaks like a sieve. We paid ten pesos ($1) each for a boat ride across the rio and went to the Mexican freight yard. The train left about three times a week as the cars stacked up. He once saw 1000 trampas on a freight nearly two-miles long. Most of them, like the Elder and his brother, carried no gear whatsoever in order to deceive the soldiers, guards and police. A man who appears to own nothing isn t worth extorting and, besides, he runs away fast. They had paid zero bribes but, of course, had secreted money.
The freight lines branch within the Mexican interior so the thousands of vagabondos spread like funneled liquid on the approach to the USA border. At the major Surfractia Junction on the Pacific, the line forks north to Mexicali that most illegals ride, or east over the hump to Chihuahua and on north to the Juarez crossing at Texas. The Elder and his friends had selected Juarez where an amigo would put them through a hole in the border fence , and beyond it was a short bus ride to Colorado.
Besides, local muggers robbed the OTM s in coastal pueblos along the Mexicali rail. The Central Americans differ from the Mexican trampas by their lighter skin and gentler lingo. Mexicans with any money at all ride buses to the US border, but Central Americans lacking documents for the bus take freights. This is why in Surfractia the majority of hobos were skimpily clothed OTM S with a preponderance of Honduras where times are especially tough.
Maybe we shall meet again, said the Elder wistfully. He held two brown hands to form a steeple. Quickly the fingers intertwined. Little groups join for protection. The fingers separated and built again the steeple. We separate until the next time.
Diesel and I moved to the hotel front yard dust to keep an eye on the yard and ponder the general consensus that there d be no Copper Canyon train for the second straight night. Diesel likened us to sitting on the center of a clock that read ten minutes to two. Mexicali would be at the end of the minute hand and Chihuahua would be at the end of the hour hand. Mexicali was completely in the wrong direction but we should consider the train because we were tired of that place. Units revved and rolled fifty-yards away on the main line. In a split-second decision we dashed for the Mexicali freight and caught the rear platform of a sausage-shape graincar.
The click of wheel over rail is significant. When rails were split every dozen paces during my boxcar heyday through 1980 s, those expansion joints slow-clicked under the turning wheels as a freight decelerated into towns. The modern rails both south and north of the border are continuous rail, welded at the joints for strength and silence. I awoke in the dark in a start as a strange man leaped onto the moving ladder of our platform. He looked down hard under the moonlight. His hand slowly moved to a pocket and withdrew a metallic object that flicked open. A faint glow enveloped it that I thought was a florescent jackknife. Trampas! he shouted at the knife. I believed him deranged.
Diesel sleeps like a hound and seemed not to hear in the engine noise. The Mexican signaled with one arm around the car side and a slim man climbed onto the ladder next to him. They stared as the train jiggled and then two more heads peeked over the top grate and the men dropped. The four were not shabbily dressed with trimmed hair over fleshy faces flashing in-and-out the town lamps. The first monkey and I threw eye daggers at each other for some time and one of mine must have hit. He suddenly motioned the others to vamoose and they silently slid off on my partner s side. I think they were local thugs with cell phones, rather than citizens crossing the track, who were caught off-guard by our large white skins. The freight rolled on in the early morning and I went to sleep myself.
The morning train sliced the coast through cactus prairies and dirt-poor farms and pueblos of homes with leaky tin roofs where nothing changes but the weather, and Diesel and I reveled the rails at each whistle blast.
It stopped in Guaymas on the Pacific about 10am. The engines dynamited releasing pent air from the brakes with a WHOOSH that signaled a protracted wait. Central Americans up-and-down the train stepped ashore and kicked along to knot at mid-train. Then they moved en mass to the head passing the other side of a boxcar where Diesel and I ducked behind three-foot wheels to observe in astonishment under the car belly. Forty sturdy legs marched by and fanned the neighborhood to beg at doors and back yards, often successfully. It s like the American Great Depression! I informed my colleague. It is a depression, he replied. They were hungry, smart and on the road.
A brakie told us the train wouldn t continue for eight hours, so we ambled two blocks out the yard to a store for breakfast. We crossed paths with a friendly Guatemalan with gorilla shoulders from picking bananas who was now so drawn from hunger that I broke a personal rule and gave five pesos to eat. We may expect company now, chided my partner. I can t deny a hungry man, I answered. Then we sat on the dirt and sewed our large peso bills into the seams of our walking shorts.
We talked to some who had been on the road for a month or more with few or no possessions. They wore rail-greasy clothes without jackets or packs and with little food or water, but all wore smiles. Men with nothing but that are small targets and run faster after trains and from thugs. The promised land was close. Most planned to walk through the autumn desert for two days to patient friends or coyotes. They would mushroom across the nation, mostly the Southwest, for cash work at agricultural labor, construction or dishwashing for a while. They would buy false documents on the streets and improve their lives. Money would be sent home to families or to stake new illegal journeys.
99% of these riders are not thieves, observed Diesel with a wink. I realize that they re preyed on by local dirt bags when the trains roll slowly through towns. That s why they clump together in yards. He ate vegetables while I downed chocolate milk for breakfast, and between swallows we agreed not to wait on this pokey northbound but instead regress by bus to Surfractia for the Copper Canyon quest. Third time a charm?
Everything was the same as the previous two nights at the yard. Two dozen new trampas lounged on the concrete platform at sunset, yard workers swung lanterns between cars, soldiers checked their safeties, and the tiny store next to the abandoned hotel burst into light for the evening traffic at Surfractia Junction. Characters in their uniforms walked woodenly in and out with iced sodas and smoking cigarettes as though life is a set. More so, it seemed to Diesel and me, because we were beat to our souls and stuck out. We retreated to the hotel backyard for a peaceful dirt pile.
The Elder was there beside his brother and a small fresh squad of Hondurans. But I saw you get on the Mexicali train last night! he blurted. We explained the turn-around to chase our dream ride. They seem friendlier at having seen us off and now returned on a freight. The Elder surveyed all with warm, grey eyes that missed nothing, and began in perfect English, I lived and worked in Colorado Springs, Co. for seven years...
He kept a low profile at all times with a bogus driver s license and Green Card. The real immigration problem, he kidded, Is that a large illegal population creates an active market for illegal documents. He operated heavy construction equipment for $17/hour, had a girlfriend, two kids, a bank account, car and cell phone. Rudely, two months ago, his apartment was raided by a swat team to arrest a boarder, a small-time drug dealer. The cops found ten vials of cocaine in his room but also charged the clean and clueless Elder with possession. He was sent to jail for three months and deported by jet to Honduras where, after a month, he turned around with his eighteen-year old brother in tow. They had also hooked up with two friends who got lost south of Surfractia but whom they hoped to rejoin before Chihuahua.
Diesel stayed with the main group as I peeled off toward a broken picket fence. You speakee Eenglish? squeaked a voice low and behind my back. I twirled to see deep-set eyes boring mine. The dwarf giggled and said he was Harry the Honduran. You want something, you ask Harry. Then he tumbled off. I instantly recalled the voice on our arrival two nights ago suggesting that I tap on Nellie s window, the sleeping hotel matron, and later to make ourselves at home on the hotel hall floor. I raced after him tonight to be checked by a little girl who twirled her finger at a temple to say he was one sandwich short of a picnic. I brushed her aside to engage him. He lived in one of the windowless hotel rooms and slept on a bare mattress. He knew all the train times and, for the past year, had abetted thousands of trampas who paused at this major juncture in their lives on the Central American Express to USA. He evaporated into the night.
He s the underground railroad middleman, I reported to Diesel. He s the village idiot! he exploded. Don t be so sure! I snapped. The dwarf pulled the major purse to the local storekeeper and hotel owner, Nellie, who treated him kindly and traded chores for room and board. All the Central Americans knew the simpleton who provided a continual flow of information to twenty new faces a night. I bet my partner that Harry was renown throughout Central America as the Surfractia Connection.
We propped against the fence bewildered by the mixed information we d received on whether or not there d be a Copper Canyon train this night, the third in Surfractia. Diesel yoked a yard worker and asked if the freight had been called . This means that the crew is alerted at home or hotel an hour or so before a departure to allow time to drive and man the locomotives. Once a train is called the hobo walks the line, picks a car, and may sleep guaranteed of its departure. It hasn t been called yet, answered the man, But if you buy me a soda I ll go to the tower and see if I can discover what s going on. The contracted worker never returned.
However, the village idiot did approach to say that two soldiers resting against a truck under a lamp wanted to speak to us. Diesel sauntered over for a short, vigorous exchange that propelled him back with a vegan smile. The simpleton told the soldiers that the gringos wanted to talk to them. He told us the same of them. Nobody wanted to talk, but somehow we know now that the Chihuahua train departs on time at 11pm. Having waited three days, we burst, Let s go!
Three units blew thunder on the main line. That was our cue to board. I nearly lost my shoes in Diesel s footsteps chasing the eastbound that tugged, being long. The Elder, brother, chica and sundry trampas piled on. All the comfy rides along the moving line were occupied so we ran faster to the first car behind the engines. That rear platform was clogged with apparatus but the front was open and we puffed until we took it. The smoke will keep us warm up here, asserted the romantic. We may exit the other side cold, answered the realist, but his ears were zealed shut
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