Clown alights like a ballerina on the Reno gravel. The white hat blows off and the ornamental locks fall. I follow her off the 8mph ladder but my inertia, like stepping off a giant escalator, posts me into her. She steadies my head, shouting, "You're my action hero!"
We hike the warm ballast toward the Sparks Yard on the brown fringe of Reno, Nevada. The morning sunshine brings out a waft of creosote and pitch from the tie pores. Our faces and hands are black as spades from last night's ride. Birds twitter good-naturedly at two outlanders walking the main cutting agriculture fields to a culvert that offers a gift sparkling stream.
We smell like something from a February hole, and wash upwind jockeying for position and splashing cold water on each other to stop the heat. We wade out the miracle pool and raise the packs to continue along the line a mile to a Denny's "grease ranch" (restaurant). Pancakes go down like silver dollars into a rich man's pocket. We board a local bus for a ten minute ride into Reno, step down and rustle up a motel.
Reno is a hobo's and a gambler's oasis on the final stop before the RR track and highway climb out of the Great Basin into the Sierra. The high-stakes skyline rises sharply around us. Tramps typically alight in such a division town with smirks knowing in the coming hours they'll get clean and fed at a mission, and probably drunk at a skid row bar. Clown, thinking unconventionally, charges scrubbed out the motel bathroom and shouts into the mirror, "Let's go to a comedy club!"
She dons a Flintstone dress splashed with Fred and Wilma, the Rubbles, the kids and Dino and "Yabadabado". I wear freshly laundered bib-overalls and a flannel. She takes my tan arm around the block to the Reno Comedy Club. "Isn't it grand!" she bubbles at the front door. "Let's enter my turf," and she sweeps us past the doorman with a joke. The ensuing show features rising stand-up comics, but Clown is brighter and funnier.
We return to the motel and fall into deep twin beds five feet apart to discuss humor. "I don't enjoy humor, but you're the funniest person I've ever met," I confess. "Stand-up comedy makes you come to grips with yourself in front of others," she replies. "Intellectual humor is your strong suit. It cultivates the mind by making thinking fun," I return. "What should I do, coach?" she asks. "Your humor springs from personal experiences, so the more assorted your future the funnier you become," I respond warmly. "If a person next to me has no vices or weakness then I can't make him laugh," she renders, and we both chuckle.
Reno never sleeps, but finally we do, and our relationship is cautious and platonic throughout the trip.
In the morning, we check out and amble a few blocks to the gambling district to enter Hurrah's Casino for breakfast. Inside, ranks of hundreds of people shake hands repeatedly with one-armed slot machines amid a horrid clamor. "This reminds me of a church," she mutters. "How you spend today is how you spend the rest of your life," I chime. "Let's get out of here!" we ring. We take a fashionably late breakfast at Hurrah's and board a local bus to the Sparks rail yard.
Sparks was an afterthought of the railroads at the turn of century when a big switchyard was needed to take apart and build trains. Other than the endless banging of cars in the switching yard, and the clang, hiss and whistle of through trains in and out of the station day and night, everything was quiet in Sparks for fifty years as the small town grew alongside the bowl of tracks. In the 1950's Sparks changed. Subdivisions were planted on pastureland and acre upon acre of tile roofs blossomed over the desert. In the 1970's, the city began to grow in an unexpected direction when the residual family farms sold out to light industry and warehousing connected by an asphalt grid of new streets. In the 21st century Sparks is changing again. We step from the bus with our pack and suitcase and promenade past well-heeled citizens along manicured avenues to the rail yard.
Clown and I sit on a mowed grass strip between the RR mainline and city skyscrapers to discuss today's strategy. We design to enter the medium-size yard to query workers about building freights, all the while keeping an eye on the main for a through train and for the bull.
On entering the yard, abruptly giant pinchers appear skyward. Whirrr... Boom! A giant crane hoists a 50' container, swings and drops it onto a flatcar twenty yards in front of us. We watch, box after box, a unit container train being built. But we tarry too long as a bull in a Bronco screeches up; probably the crane operator snitched us out by radio. There is no place to run or hide.
The RR bull is the yard watchdog. He's also the historic nemesis of the hobo, yet as long as the trains have and will run people will jump them despite him. My strategy against the cinder dick is to dodge him with a hundred tricks he's seen a hundred times. That makes it an even contest. A savvy dick with free time on his hands and high-tech equipment - infra-red cameras, ground sensors - plus patrols, fences and ratting yard workers - catches an experienced 'bo half the time and misses the rest. That's given the bull's dream scenario. Nowadays, however, the little western yards like Sparks are understaffed, unfenced, under-equipped, and the workers rather than turn in the riders usually abet them.
Of the hunting styles, standard is forage-chase-capture. The bull cruises the yard in a white truck with a ubiquitous CB antenna. With the report of an invader off he goes. He also may "roll" or scrutinize each car for trespassers on special trains like mail, containers and piggybacks as they enter or exit his yard. He is the yard dog. Yet, if he spies an outbound 'bo in an empty boxcar he prefers to look the other way rather than give chase, wishing only the tramp to get along without getting hurt or stealing.
Freight hopping is illegal but downplayed as jaywalking in most RR yards. The dance begins the second the 'bo is nabbed: ID, scratches on a pad, "Don't return on my duty or it's to jail", and "Thank you, sir". I am ever genial to special agents whom I consider a cut above local police and county sheriffs. If I can't evade one, I walk straight to him with hands displaying no weapons and blow polysyllables in his face to prove a milieu sans inebriation. I stand upright and vow not to disturb RR property before catching a ride right out of town. We cordially step apart.
There's fun, and there are hurdles to it, so I'm philosophically cheerful when caught.
Yet I tense with Clown at my side; some bulls don't respond to intellectual humor. This Reno special agent is stocky with a no-nonsense crew-cut and cop mustache. Military bearing strengthens his gaze, lower back, and opening argument. "You're trespassing on railroad property." He doesn't blink. "I won't lie," I reply. "My partner and I are trying to leave town without trouble. I work in California." He fires at her, "Where are you from? " "I'm a Toronto University student doing a dissertation on the American hobo phenomenon," she offers daintily.
The bull grunts and extends a meaty palm for our ID's. He jots data from my driver's license into a spiral pad and hands it back. He raises eyebrows at her Canadian passport. "It's the first time in twenty years on the job that I've seen a passport," he mumbles fumbling with it.
"It doesn't tell how tall you are."
"I only know metric."
He jots nothing but returns her document with a thread smile. I leap on it.
"If your mother-in-law were to try to catch a freight in this yard, where would she wait so the bull couldn't catch her?" I ask. He snorts laughter despite himself and utters, "I'd tell her to go to the Red Rock Bridge," pointing west along the main. "Wait there with the rest of the godd___ tramps outside my jurisdiction." He walks off whistling in the morning sunshine.
The bull proves a rare asset today and we skirt his yard along a mile sidewalk to the Red Rock Bridge.
It is an iron freight overpass with city traffic passing beneath. A sloped dirt waiting area, not quite a jungle next to the mainline, provides the usual carpet of fast-food wrappers and empty bottles. We prop the pack and suitcase against a nearby hurricane fence and swiftly duck under a patchy tree out of the sun.
Clown kicks off her platform Converses, smoothes on cherry Chapstick, and picks at a chin pimple. "All this travel has got me on track to freedom," she starts. "The Erisians sit on their soft chairs and talk about it. Your constitution quotes it often. Every one of us has a small or great opportunity if we'll seize and work hard. God bless America! I'm anti-American, but pro-American ideals. Don't be confused, Doc. The American experiment is the greatest locomotive of change in world history. And hobos are one of or the last free groups in America."
"Don't," I argue, "force liberty on people. There are advantages to being captive to a job or institution. Thoreau thought it rare to meet a person who can be free. "World-ridden" he called others without having the opportunity to come out of the woods himself to the good company of the rails. Hobos may be going to Hell, but at least they're moving right along."
A trim, middle-aged man in a baseball cap with "War Vet" emblazed in gold across the bill snails along the hurricane fence. He angles toward us presupposing a "starter", for coins to pool to buy booze. Beggardom is parcel to division points and skid rows, and to freedom. This is a decrepit area where drifters and locals "throw their feet" or beg. It starts and pushes out from a town's cream business center, decaying the districts like a launch of maggots, expanding to the finger fringes until the bums get tired of bumming each other. "Spare a dollar?" repeats the man.
When a location gets overrun, it's circulated up-and-down the roads and rails that the spot's "bummed out" and a balancing force exerts as train jumpers avoid it. Beggerdom then shifts to the next division point. "You look like executives in overalls," expresses the man with disquieting perception. "You read folks like a book," I reply without handing him change. He smiles. "I've been a good judge of character since flunking out of the world."
A full-time beggar with the right hat, feigned handicap, sharp opener, and solid "ghost" story may rake a hundred dollars a day. That's what I make as a sub-teacher. Exact location is important too and where medieval European beggars formed guilds their modern American counterparts jealously guard a territory or pool their takes with partners.
"Why are you and the Missus awaiting a freight? he pursues. "We're out to see America and meet its characters," Clown responds, adding, "How about you?" The man stands stock still as a wave as big as life passes over him. "It may come as a surprise to you," he intones, "But a long time ago I was Perfect Timmy."
The tramp got our focus with that in the buzzing flies. "Correction," he purses his lips. "There was a single flaw at eight that I never figured out. So here I am."
"What happened between the flaw and here," Clown pleads.
"I was born and raised over the hump (the Sierra) in Hollywood. Los Angeles was a wonderful spot to grow up in the 50's. When the protagonist in the Lassie TV series grew balls they had to find a replacement boy. In response to an ad, my mom took me at age eight to the studio for an interview. They said, "You are the Perfect Timmy', and told me to return in a week for the final cut. Mom got drunk the night before and I missed the appointment. Years passed, and I carried that thought to Viet Nam."
Veterans, as after each war's end back to the American Civil, find continued adventure on the rails. They are unafraid, comfortable with travel, could forage, navigate and camp outdoors. Returning Viet vets in the 1970's were familiar sights on the rails but in this new century the surviving proportion is more easily recognized by their age, infirmities and willingness to face hostility at the drop of a hat. The survivors are also lonely after three decades of freighting, and love a sympathetic ear.
"You know, they hypnotized us troops for better fighting... and it worked. I was a Hypno-Soldier, one of the best. Hypnotists put us under in mass, gave auto-suggestions, and our duty to kill the enemy was clear. After the war, we landed in the States scarred under the under pressed uniforms, and many Americans shamed us."
"They couldn't shame me!" He springs to his feet like a gymnast after a perfect 10. No jungle soldier walks erect but with a wary roll that at the same time is relaxed, and the movement becomes automatic. Now he reenacts being circled by Charlie, shooting, kicking and fighting his way to freedom through the jungle. After, he sits and drawls, "It's memories with a spiked postscript. Agent Orange is eatin' up my skin alive. So I ride the trains, stop for fun, ride the trains... It's the best life I know." He fingers a graying stubble, remembers his ulcerating hands and hides them.
"I returned to the States and jumped my first train out of Texas. Made it a lifestyle for a few years... until a close call catching one on the fly in a rainstorm. I picked myself off the ground, smacked my forehead and said, 'Timmy, what the hell, it's time to rejoin society', and I began working a string of jobs." He scratches the backs of his hands. "Aye, that's the rub. Orange is better than work for a few years, but then the stipend ain't worth the progressive ulcers." He stuffs them into his pockets.
"Instead of me, Tommy Retig got the part as Lassie's faithful companion. I often sit under this tree and ponder what would have happened if Perfect Timmy had become famous instead of growing up to kill gooks I didn't even know in Viet Nam. What do you think? Would I be talking to you with a bellyful of heroin staring at Lady Medusa who asks all the right questions?"
Clown asks for his knife, I tense, but he hands over without hesitation his 6" Buck. She kneels at the tree trunk to engrave as he continues.
"I ain't the same man any more," grieves Perfect Tim. "You want to know what's wrong with the world? It's the willingness of the good to serve the bad. Goddamn it, bloody people!" he shakes a fist at the tree crown. "Don't let anyone take advantage of you!"
He blinks slowly. "Today I'm riding heroin too, excuse me." He proffers a tainted cookie from a brown bag that we refuse.
"Now you may be wondering what I'm doing in Reno eating magic cookies in this jungle. This is a good welfare town and even better for panhandling the gambling tourists." He tips his cap, saying, "Don't worry about me. I touched the gamblers for $90 this morning and spent the afternoon high. An' now I'm feeling drowsy." He turns his head heavily to Clown, "That smile could stop a traaain..." and nods off.
In a few minutes Clown finishes, folds the blade, and slides it handle first into the dormant hobo's pocket. Great care has been taken in carving each letter on the trunk: CARPE DIEM. (Seize the day!)
Carpe Diem is the buried American theme since the founding fathers. Life is short. Enjoy it. Seize the day!
Sleeping Timmy misses four diesels growling like dragons at the gate on the mainline. The power rams a string of cars down the rail from us. Clown vaults up and lets the vibrant locks fly. She jogs in platform sneakers out the tree to the yellow lead unit, shouts questions high up to the driver, and sprints back screaming through cupped hands, "All aboard!"
We walk to the lead unit where the grandfatherly engineer waves. "This is a "double-stack" train, folks. No rides, so hop on the "trailing unit". We climb the steps of the second locomotive, walk in the cab and shut the door, the engineer toots, and the regal freight tugs west from the Reno casinos, Perfect Timmy and our last impression.