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San Luis Obispo to San Jose


Friday afternoon, October 21st of last year, I left my job as a disgruntled software engineer at P.I.T. and sat around in the yard in San Luis Obispo (yes, the same yard Kerouac is riding through in the opening passage of "Dharma Bums") contemplating my new, romantic life as a hobo.

The only thing smoking north all afternoon was an Amtrak. I seriously considered hopping it - the baggage car was wide open - but figured it would be stopping a lot and at each stop they'd check the baggage car for freaks like me and they'd probably be nastier than the regular yard bulls about it.

So I crawled back to Elfland and got up the next morning to try again. Met up with an old 'bo who asked me if I thought a string of cars sitting in the yard would be moving today. I said I didn't know, but that I heard a whistle in the distance and thought that maybe this one had pulled off to favor an Amtrak or a faster freight. He said he'd seen 'em keep engines idling all day without moving, so when he sees the engine down and the air out, like this one was, he usually figures it's gonna stay put for a while.

We discuss films some. For someone as broke as he seems to be - other than a sleeping bag, all he seems to have is what he's wearing - he's pretty hip to current cinema. We discuss "The Piano." I tell him that "Priscilla: Queen of the Desert" is playing at the Palm and that my friends have recommended it.

His other big topic is prefrontal lobotomies. Apparently JFK's sister was given one for insufficient reasons after the doctors convinced Joseph Kennedy that it would stop her temper tantrums. Aristocrats will do that, just sign a paper and put you under the knife. People who are rude to or condescending to bums are aristocrats.

Before too long the freight I've been waiting for arrives, plenty of open boxcars - my friend takes one and I take another. Then a short wait and we're pulling out of San Luis Obispo and up Cuesta Grade; it's my first freight hopping and I'm high on it, sitting in the middle of the car looking out the door as we lift above California Men's Colony.

From here things get a little blurry; my memory is spotty. I ate some sardines and sourdough, I think. We stopped in Soledad, and then somewhere else, maybe Gonzales. I consider getting off at this stop, but decide to chance staying on a while longer - my goal is Wes's pad in Santa Cruz, and I'd rather hitch from Watsonville than Gonzales. But the train doesn't s top; just keeps smoking till we're almost to San Jose, and I'm looking at a long hitch back the way I came.

I decided to try to hop off in San Jose, hoping the freight would slow down enough, but not really knowing how much is enough. Up till now things have gone smoothly; not knowing how far you're going on the train is part of the adventure as far as I'm concerned. But right about now is when my good judgment stops and the trouble begins.

We slow down as we enter the yard in San Jose, but not a whole lot. The ground, a mound of rocks under the rails, is still going by in a blur. The book on situations like this is not to jump unless you really need to, and in that case to throw your bags out, then jump hitting the ground running in the direction of the train.

I didn't like the book advice. I figured I'd be better off jumping with the pack on, this for two reasons: First, if I threw the pack out first and it disintegrated on contact with the ground I'd probably lose courage to jump myself and would thereby lose all my gear; Second, I figured that if I jumped out with my pack on, hitting the ground running, I could turn around and land on my soft, internal-frame pack if I tripped or was going too fast to stay in control.

My last memory is sitting with my pack on my back and my feet dangling from the door of the boxcar. I can reconstruct from likelihood and aftermath what happened next. I took a deep breath and pushed myself out the door, turning my body forward to face the direction of travel. Then I tried to get my legs in motion so I'd be running when I hit the ground. But when my feet landed, they slowed the lower half of my body, and the upper half (weighted by my pack) slammed down into the rocks. I was probably unconscious for a while.

I got up with the ignorant self-confidence of the protagonists in the first scene of Rosencranz & Guildenstern are Dead. I didn't know where I was or how I'd gotten there or what all this blood was about, but I figured I had enough information to go on to choose a course of action. I wrote in my journal at some point around here, "I blacked out and woke up in a station wandering around, not knowing how I got here and with a sliced-up bleeding face. I dunno what happened. Maybe I tripped getting off. Anyway, my face is all swollen and I don't remember why. I'm sitting in a train station and I don't remember why I got here. My head hurts."

I've reconstructed my actions in the station so that they look something like this: I went to a pay phone and called John, a friend of mine from San Luis Obispo. I had enough sense to remember his phone number, that it was a long-distance call, and how to use my calling card. I told him I didn't know where I was and that I was bleeding and that my head hurt and that my eye had swollen shut. We tried to reconstruct from my journal entries up until the fall where I might have ended up. I read the journal entries with great interest, pointing out my activities of earlier in the day as if I were describing someone else's life. He asked me to go ask someone where I was and then to call back, and I agreed that this was a good idea.

When I got off the phone, I noticed that I was bleeding and decided to go to the bathroom and clean off my face. This I did, as much as I could, since I was still bleeding from a big gash in the forehead pretty heavily, and it was hard to see with my eye swelling up. I didn't know where I was or what I should do and I decided that maybe I should call John and ask for help. So I went looking for a payphone, found one pretty quickly, and made the call. I told John about my situation and it seemed as though he had already been informed. He asked me if I'd found out where I was, and I said that I hadn't, but that I thought I saw a sign reading "San Jose" nearby.

He told me that I'd called him once before already, which surprised me, but not too much. He said he was going to call Wes and see if he could pick me up, then call me right back and asked if I'd stay by the phone. I said sure, but that maybe I should leave myself a note to that effect. I took out a piece of chalk from my vest pocket and wrote "Stay Here" on the ground and hung up.

From where I sat I could see the freight trains come and go outside the station. It was relaxing in a way, and cool in the station, but when I sat up and looked at my hand where my head had been resting, it was covered with blood, so I thought I must be injured and probably should get up and get some help or go home and get some bandages or something, wherever home was. But when I got up I saw "Stay Here" written on the ground in my own handwriting and I decided I'd better trust it so I went back to watching the trains and listening to the payphone ringing over and over in the background. Eventually I got so annoyed at the ringing phone (I was getting a headache, and it wasn't helping) that I answered it. It turned out to be John. What a weird coincidence. I decided I must be dreaming; that would explain a lot.

John caught me up on things and let me know that Wes was on the way to pick me up and that he'd be staying on the phone with me until then. I entertained us both with stories I'd never heard before from the journal I was carrying around. I asked him a bit about who I was and he told me to brace myself and then said I'd just moved out of my home and quit my job and was currently unemployed, homeless and amnesiac. I told him I thought I might have hurt my head.

Wes arrived on his white horse and took me to the hospital, where I got stitches and some sort of brain scan. I don't remember a lot of this, either. By morning, my right eye was swollen shut and sealed with dry blood.

I'm back to semi-normal now; normal being relative to my baseline state, not to that of My Fellow Man. There was a span where I was having trouble with short-term memory and with names (I'm still not quite back to 100%). I'd keep calling John "Aaron," even after being corrected, and when I was told that Robyn called, I said "hold it" and it was a minute or so before I could attach that name to a face. I did a drill with Wes in which he'd ask me names of people we've both met or I've written about (using pseudonyms like "Robyn" or "John") on Nerdnosh, until I got them right. Nerdnosh as therapy; wouldn't be the first time, won't be the last. Gets weirder from here, kids...