My Dad used the rails to commute to his summer job in college (through a friend he had an "in" at the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego and he worked there first as a busboy, then as a room service waiter). It took him two, sometimes three days to get from Denver to Southern California by way of the Union and Southern Pacific. He said it wasn't anything like the movies. No "bulls" chased anyone in the rail yards when the cars were in motion; it was too dangerous for them or anyone else to be running around moving trains. He said the railroads were sensible enough to know that their security risks were not from people riding the empty cars but from people breaking into the loaded ones. That was the reason the empty box cars had their doors locked open; the railroads didn't advertise the rule but, Dad said, everyone knew it. If someone was caught touching a locked car, they would have the crap beaten out of them; if you road in an open car, the most that would happen would be a verbal roust. He also said the reason people jumped off the cars as they came into a yard was not from fear of the bulls but to catch the next train. There was no point in riding the freight all the way into the switching yard where the individual cars were uncoupled and recouped. You wanted to catch your next freight after it had been assembled and was about to head out.

Dad loved movies — all movies; and one of his favorites was The Emperor of the North. But, he loved movies for their fiction, not their reality. (He told a wonderful story about his disappointment the first time he went to the Stork Club. It was so "tiny", nothing at all like the places where Fred and Ginger had gone to dance.) Hoboes did get beaten up by cops; but the violence of that life came far more from the other hoboes than the cops. He said Jack London's On the Road was much closer to his experience than Wild Boys; the time he worried most was when he was on his way home, with his summer's savings in postal money orders. The risk was that one of the younger, angry drunks would become enraged enough to badly hurt him when they realized the "money" they had robbed from him was worthless. (For insurance he said he carried a few silver dollars in his pockets - Roosevelt had not confiscated those - and kept the money orders folded up under the inner soles of his shoes.)

T.K Marks writes: 

I used a much similar strategy during college when riding the NYC subways, a mode of transportation that was completely foreign to me.

At the time the City was in the throes of a fiscal calamity, to the point of police layoffs. The cops that managed to keep their jobs were dispirited and overwhelmed. As mayor, Abe Beame was in charge, but didn't remind anyone of John Wayne in that capacity.

Beame was a bookkeeper by trade. Bad guys of the violent variety are generally not intimidated by men who wear green eye-shades for a living. Thus, in the NYC subways of the late-70s, it was halcyon days for hooligans.

I hadn't grown up in an urban environment, no less a lawless one. As such I felt about as home in these new surroundings as Kosinski's protagonist in "The Painted Bird" did in his.

Welcome to predation, young man. Next stop, perdition. And it's a dark length of track in between.

The trick is to switch metaphorical trains, when the switching's good..

So I would routinely take the preemptive measure of keeping an illusory couple of dollars in my pocket while putting the bigger balance deep in my sock, under my sole. No tell-tale bulge. Those bills could ultimately have been fresher, but chances are at least they'd still be mine.

Luckily, was only accosted once. It was on a lonely, late-at-night #1 train, going up the West Side. They approached, and asked in no uncertain terms if I had any 'spare change'. My hayseed innocence generously complied, gave them the minor contents of my pocket, and that was that. Though I can still hear my heart from that night…Thump…Thump…Thump.

I bear no lasting ill-will towards them. They let me keep the Herodotus book that I was reading.

All of which I found only appropriate. He was a worldly historian from antiquity whom I guarantee would not be at all surprised how little the world has changed since.

The reason being, when it comes to understanding the driving forces of human nature, circumstances are made of sand; themes, of stone.

I think.

Well…actually…on second thought…I'm pretty sure of that one.

Whatever the case, in the millennia that have passed since his time, I'm not sure Herodotus has ever before been mentioned in conjunction with some kid getting rolled on an uptown #1 train, but that's how it went down so what can I say.


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