vol. 6, no. 1/spring 2001
Peeking over his shoulder, Bree scans the parking lot. He shines his Mag Lite into the Dumpster and sifts through the inflated sacks of trash, slitting each one open with a knife. As Lars rounds the corner of the Pay Less grocery store, he calls out to Bree and tells him someone just gave him a $5 bill. Moving to the other side of the Dumpster, Lars reaches his lanky arm deep into the bin as Bree guides him with the flashlight. He retrieves three-fourths of a bag of walnuts, six Chips Ahoy cookies and two stale bagels - if not dinner, at least enough to tide them over for a while. When he finds an empty container of Wet Wipes, Bree warns him to stop, but he continues digging until he fingers soiled diapers.
Rummaging through garbage is not a cruel occupation forced on these itinerants, but rather a part of their chosen lifestyle. Bree, Lars and their fellow travelers opt to avoid the 40-hour work week and a steady flow of bills. Instead of shopping for groceries, paying rent and commuting by car, they Dumpster dive for food and supplies, camp under bridges and sneak aboard freight trains.
"I don't consider myself living off the system," Bree says. "I live off the excess fat of the system that nobody wants."
Though the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and railroad police say that freight hopping is a dying phenomenon practiced only by old hobos and illegal immigrants, the transient lifestyle adopted by Bree and Lars suggests that a new disaffected generation is finding a home along the railroads. Train hopping must be stamped out because it endangers lives and threatens property, authorities say, but they know little about the character of the young people riding today.
Jumping trains is just one aspect of their way of life, though, and at the moment, Bree and Lars are more interested in finding a heartier supper and something to drink. They slink behind Pay Less, eager for the wealth of food that grocery store trash usually yields, but the store's accessible trash compactor dashes their plans. They drift over to the Dumpster behind a Papa John's in a nearby strip mall, but a lingering employee prevents them from further investigation. KFC's bins are empty, so they retreat to the Pay Less.
Bree checks beverage prices while Lars stations himself outside the exit.
"Good evening, sir," Lars says. "Can you spare any change for a couple of travelers? I'm from Florida and my partner's up from Texas. We're on our way to Ohio."
His black hooded sweatshirt and navy pants conceal weeks of grime. A black baseball cap offsets his blue eyes, translucent marbles that betray his Danish heritage. The 32-year-old keeps his 6-foot frame from being imposing by maintaining a relaxed posture. To lessen the chance that someone will seek out a manager, he only asks customers as they exit the store. Despite his easy demeanor, half the people pretend not to hear him. A few mutter "sorry" as they walk past, and one man glares at him, chastising him with an emphatic "no!" The rest dip into their pockets and hand over quarters, dimes and nickels. Working class people give the most generously, perhaps because they can relate to tight finances - as Jack London noted in The Road, his autobiographical account of his hoboing days, "The very poor constitute the last sure recourse of the hungry tramp."
Bree returns and perches on a nearby railing. With a short but unruly beard and a nose ring that hangs down to his lip, he strikes a less anonymous pose than Lars. His plastic-frame glasses held together with electrical tape are famous enough among his friends that he includes a crude rendering of them in the tags he leaves on boxcars and bathroom walls. For a 21-year-old, his hair is prematurely thin, but that detail is obscured by the quasi-mohawk he gave himself while in jail in Havre, Mont. Like most travelers he wears a baseball cap; his is decorated with a Norfolk Southern button and Santa Fe patch. Adding the handful of change to the $3 from the night before and the $5 from earlier in the evening, Lars counts out $11.67. After buying a box of wine for $7.99, they situate themselves in a stand of trees behind the strip mall. Bree drags crates from behind the mall to sit on while Lars rolls a twofer. They share cigarettes these days because the sack of American Spirit that someone gave them is much stronger than their usual brands. Lars pulls the foil pouch of wine - the "space bag" - from the box, holds it above his head and drinks from the spout, then offers it to Bree.
After several passes of wine and a few more cigarettes, they return to the overflowing Dumpster behind Papa John's. Digging through a pile of boxes, Bree finds two complete pepperoni pizzas and hurls them to Lars. He adds half of a sausage pizza to the pile while Lars plucks a newspaper from the trash, flips through the pages determinedly and tears out the crossword puzzle. Before departing, they watch a maggot inch along a wad of uncooked dough. In a deserted corner of the parking lot, Bree peels back the cheese and removes the pepperoni from the pizza. He has been a vegetarian for nearly half his life, ever since his parents divorced and his mom stopped cooking meat. Lars shoves slices into his mouth as he ponders the crossword, calling out six-letter clues.
After more wine, they decide to seek out a bar or a place to sleep. Across the tracks and a few blocks later, they pass a small house set back on its lot, surrounded by shrubbery. A "for sale" sign stands in the lawn.
"Is that an empty?" Lars asks.
They sprint to the side of the house and peer in the windows. They pop out screens and push on windows until they locate an unlocked one, then somersault inside. Removing his shoes, Lars turns the bathtub on full blast and dips his feet into the yellow water. As the house fills with a sulfur stench from the unused pipes, Bree looks in the empty fridge and tries to light the disconnected stove. They check the upstairs and the closets, but find the house barren. Because they usually wake around 2 p.m., they decide that staying here is too risky. They unlock all the windows in case they change their minds and creep out the back door.
Lars considers himself an urban camper, and when the opportunity of an empty house comes along, he takes advantage of it, just as he takes advantage of the empty space on a train heading in his direction or the uneaten food in a Dumpster. Because of the waste inherent in capitalism, he subscribes to the tenets of anarchism - the belief that oppression stems from government and multinational corporations and that people would be better off without them.
Though he has found a way to subsist outside society, Lars hesitates to call his life the embodiment of a philosophy.
"It's not a glorious thing," he says. "It's just a different way of living. It's only making do."
Out of pride, Lars has refused to accept general assistance welfare, but he is embarrassed to tell other train hoppers he has not cashed in on such an easy way to collect money. Sometimes he considers his life and philosophy inconsistent - he has rejected a society he deems corrupt, yet he relies on that society's waste to get by - at other times, he sees no hypocrisy in that.
"I want to overthrow the government like any good little anarchist," Lars half-jokes. "[But] what's wrong with a group not overthrowing the system but living off it like a leech? Who is the judge at the end of the day? Who's the parasite? ADM - they live off the system. The biotechnology companies - they make huge profits off government research. That's using the taxpayer system to buy yourself a limousine."
Anarchist beliefs are common among young rail riders, but the FRA and railroad police are unaware of such train hoppers. Based on what they see day to day, veteran rail workers and police say the transient population is decreasing. Instead of scouring trains for a handful of petty criminals, they try to root out more serious problems, such as the crime rings that steal cargo from stopped trains in urban areas. While the authorities believe the train-hopping problem is not pervasive, they consider it the most dangerous crime that can happen on railroads. When riders jump a moving train and miss, they can easily wind up under it. If a sitting train suddenly moves while people cross over the couplings between the cars, it can cut off their feet. When switchmen send single cars down the tracks, the nearly silent behemoths roll over anything or anyone in their paths. On its descent, an airplane appears to move slowly, even though it is actually traveling at 250 mph. The speed of a train is similarly hard to gauge, something that Bob Meyer, an FRA assistant to the highway grade manager, considers particularly deadly.
"Once an engineer sees you do something that he deems critical, he can't stop," Meyer says. "He's got 100,000 tons behind him and needs a mile and a half to stop. It's too late."
Trespassing is the leading cause of death and injury on railroad property, but not only transients perpetrate this crime. Gary Horton, a sergeant with the Eerie County (N.Y.) Police who serves as a go-between for the FRA and police departments, says efforts to stop intruders focus on recreational trespassers - people who enter yards to jog, hunt or take shortcuts. "In my personal opinion, trespassing by transients and hobos is a problem," Horton says. "Is it as big a problem as John Q. Public? Probably not."
According to figures kept by the FRA, an average of 426 trespassers died per year from 1975 to 1989. In the 1990s, the yearly average jumped to 520. Fatalities since 1975 have not maintained a particular pattern - they rise one year, then plunge the next - but increased rail traffic probably accounts for the spike in deaths. According to the Association of American Railroads, freight traffic is up 35 percent since 1990. These fatality statistics make no distinction between transients and recreational trespassers, says Marmie Edwards, vice president of communications for the non-profit Operation Lifesaver. Determining what happened in the aftermath of a train crash is difficult because of how long trains take to stop. Bodies are found up to half a mile from where they were struck, so investigators rarely know if the victim was crossing the track or fell off the train.
"Sometimes they can't determine if it was a person or an animal," she says. "Part of the reason the focus is on recreational trespassers is because those are the people who are easier to get the information to."
To reach the transient population, Operation Lifesaver and the FRA distribute folders with information about the dangers of train hopping to the railroad police. Officers can put the tickets they issue to trespassers inside these folders. Operation Lifesaver also gives presentations at homeless shelters, but these programs are centered on the usual assumptions about hobos.
Like many railroad police officers, Lt. Bob Borries of Burlington Northern Santa Fe believes only older hobos and illegal immigrants live a transient lifestyle.
"It's pretty much dying out," Borries says. "There's no evidence of kids doing it as a lifestyle. It's more of a one-time deal. I don't think they do it once and get hooked on it. Those days are gone."
Bree, Lars and other young transients confirm that "dirty kids," as they call themselves, are a minority on the rails. They say they see few people on the lines, and when they do they tend to be older riders or Mexican migrant workers. Regardless, they are friends with dozens - if not hundreds - of riders like themselves.
Duffy Littlejohn, author of Hopping Freight Trains in America, notes that estimating the number of people riding trains is nearly impossible. On a given day, he thinks 2,000-4,000 kids, or about 25 percent of the train-hopping population, are on the tracks. Most punks figure they make up a larger percentage.
"I can only extrapolate on what I see," Littlejohn says. "The numbers are extremely imprecise. What we do is hidden. It's hard to tell who we are and how many we are."
Punks have been riding trains for at least 10 years, but whether their numbers are increasing or decreasing is impossible to determine. When Norman began hopping trains in 1989, he picked up on it the same way kids do today - by hearing about it through friends. Retired from the rails for six years, he now spends half the year in Minneapolis and half the year in New Orleans. He says many of his friends have likewise settled; the ones who still travel tend to do so now by van or car, but a few still hop trains. After four or five years, the initial rush started to fade.
"You can only do the same route so many times," he says. "There are definite circuits. When you first do it, you think - hey, this is a way of life. But when you're 17 or 21, you're different from when you're older. As you get older, it's a lot harder on you."
Train hopping soars during economic crises and social upheavals. Hoboing first grew popular at the close of the Civil War, as trains became more commonplace and a generation of young men finished a war that had kept them rootless. The hobo ranks again swelled during the Panic of 1873 and the Great Depression. Today's dearth of riders is probably tied to the prosperous economy, but anarchists are not interested in the so-called new economy because it does not guarantee bounty for everyone.
With her middle class background and recent high school diploma, Izzy could participate in the booming economy, but she sees turning her back on it as an ethical imperative. The lanky 18-year-old began squatting in Washington, D.C. two years ago, while she finished high school. She wanted to drop out, but a fellow squatter told her if she graduated she would take her train hopping, which Izzy eagerly wanted to try.
Sitting on a bench near downtown Minneapolis, Izzy watches a police car prowl down a wide sidewalk that cuts through the park. The officers glower at the clusters of vagrants scattered throughout the grassy square block, but they overlook Izzy. The black headband that keeps her braids out of her face reveals her partially shaved head, but her dark clothes look clean, setting her apart from the other homeless people.
Izzy's familiarity with the geography of the city is poor because when she lived here before, she spent most of her time at the Free State, a development site occupied by protestors to prevent the reroute of Highway 55 through sacred Indian land. She does not always squat with such clear political goals in mind, but if she can stay somewhere for free, she cannot justify paying rent. Part of the reason she lives as she does is to show others the freedom squatting offers.
"A lot of it is rejecting the system that says you have to work 40 hours a week to survive," Izzy says. "There's such a fear of not having guaranteed food and shelter. It is trying to create your own life and standards and not being trapped. It is believing it is better to live in abandoned buildings and eat out of Dumpsters than to be forced into a life you don't want to live and make compromises you don't want to make."
She sees her lifestyle as temporary - a way to live until society is politically restructured.
"It is important to recognize that eating out of Dumpsters depends on the system," she says. "The system has to be there for people to throw away ridiculous amounts of food and whole buildings. People are trying to figure out ways to change the system so it's not so horrible and wasteful. I don't see squatting and Dumpster diving as ends in themselves. They allow you space outside of the system."
Perhaps because of her background, she thinks about the image she projects to middle class people. She is constantly aware of how her politics and lifestyle mesh, and of how she can influence others.
"I don't like spare changing because it gives people the idea that you need money to live and that if you don't work, you have to beg," she says.
She wants people in corporate jobs to see that her way of life is better and to drop out. She holds work in high esteem - but only work that is done passionately, that holds importance for the person doing the labor.
"The idea that a CEO's life is a hundred times more valuable than yours - that's dehumanizing," she says. "A lot more dehumanizing than eating food out of a Dumpster."
Sam, a 31-year-old who shares Izzy's passion for train-riding and radical politics, maintains a stable life with a part-time job and a fixed address. He is well-versed in anarchist socialist ideology, but politics is never an abstraction for him. When a drunk, heavy-set man lumbers over to him at the Hard Times Café at 10 a.m. and asks for breakfast money, Sam hands over a $5 bill. With a gleeful "thank you," the man hugs Sam's head, leaving his hair, unkempt from a bicycle helmet, matted down.
As a member of the International Workers of the World, Sam sees clear ties to the labor movement and a life on the rails. The IWW formed in 1905 with the goal of ending wage distribution by turning factories over to workers. Though they urged workers to sabotage the workplace, IWW members - or Wobblies, as they were called - were more often the victims of violence than the perpetrators of it.
After a narrow decision in 1908 to accept the Socialist Party, many middle-of-the-road laborers abandoned the IWW. Viewing migrant laborers as naturally sympathetic to the IWW cause, the Wobblies began aggressively recruiting hobos. Many believed in the union, but carrying a red card - the official sign of membership - could earn a beating from the ever-suspicious railroad police, known as bulls.
Ninety years later, a bull patted down Sam in a yard in Aurora, Illinois. He found his red card, looked it over and asked, "What's this?"
In another era, the cop would have known exactly what it was.
"It made me reflect on how strange history is," Sam says.
Like Sam, Wedge, 22, looks less punk than many of today's young riders. He makes himself look straight to avoid police attention, keeping his hair buzzed and face cleanly shaved. He wears army-style pants that are durable yet mainstream-looking and he appears remarkably put together for someone who rarely changes clothes.
He received an education degree from the University of Indiana, but resents the constraints earning it put on his time. While he likes learning, he considers his submission to the system a compromise. Using freight trains as a means of public transportation pleases him more than his accomplishments in school.
Like Izzy, his way of life is an ethical choice.
"I'm already privileged in this society because I'm white and male," Wedge says. "I have more choices. But I don't think this society is ecologically sustainable, so I think it's going to fail at some point."
He scrounges through trash for most of what he needs, but resorts to other means for certain gear, such as camping equipment. Turning his shirt inside out to the clean side, he heads to the back of an REI camping store, snatching a $210 water filter on his way. He tells the clerk he lost his receipt and receives store credit for it, which he cashes in for a sleeping bag and cover. On his way out, he nabs a new pair of tennis shoes.
When shoplifting, he targets chain stores and leaves local stores like co-ops alone. To an extent, he views shoplifting as a way to attack corruption - but mostly he just considers it inconsequential.
"It's not always a political act," he says. "I just don't feel bad about taking it. I would have no problem stealing from Target because I don't think they care. And you're not hurting anyone - you're not hurting the workers, you're not hurting the corporate power structure. [But] I don't scam or steal that much because it's just another form of consumerism." Like train hopping, shoplifting fits into a bigger picture for Wedge. If there is a political side to it, there is one to all facets of his life.
"The reason I would choose to sleep on a rooftop or in the woods or crash on a friend's floor or steal some fancy new shoes instead of buy them is because, by doing those things, I'm setting myself free," he says. "If I want to jump a train and go to Oregon, I can do it because I don't have those responsibilities. I don't think I'm lazy. I don't just sit there and watch TV. I'm guaranteeing my freedom by doing this. I learn things every day."
Chris is not politically active, but he and Wedge share certain values, such as an aversion to material goods. Chris snatches the corner of his Hawaiian shirt, a vibrant blue despite the layers of grime.
"This shirt is a kick-me-down," he says, then peels back the layers of T-shirts beneath it, declaring which ones were given to him and which ones were Dumpstered. A safety pin keeps the fly of his worker's pants clasped. For more serious repairs, he uses his sewing kit.
"There's no reason to make new clothes," Chris says. "I wear one pair of pants and it lasts me eight to 10 months. I don't want stuff and I don't want to get stuff."
Despite this attitude, he calls himself a packrat. On this leg of his never-ending journey he lugs around both a ukulele and a bicycle; the bike limits what trains he can ride, but otherwise expands his mobility. Everything is a matter of self-reliance, down to his piercings. His earlobes hang down half an inch each, with tiny hoops covering the thin strips of skin at the bottom of the lobes. Above and below his lip and in either cheek he has embedded chunks of an antler. His tongue piercing gives him a slight lisp. Dozens of tight necklaces - including an entire bicycle chain - encircle his neck.
Eventually he wants to live as an agrarian so that he can completely support himself, but for now he devotes his time to finding out about trains and train culture. Wherever he stops, he seeks out libraries so he can read hobo narratives. While many young riders stick to their own kind, Chris mingles with older hobos and illegal immigrants because he believes everyone on the rails is a fellow traveler.
"It's more of a class issue," he says. "We're all on the same side of the gun."
Sitting at a picnic table behind a Minneapolis café that gives away food after the lunch rush, he speaks jubilantly about a discarded hobo custom known as the 'Frisco Circle. Riders threw all their money and food stamps into the middle of the circle, then collectively decided what they most needed to buy. He holds it as the embodiment of a truism of the road: "If you want to be an outlaw, you've got to be honest."
Chris says that even if the railroads crack down on transients, the lifestyle will survive. Union Pacific might have a zero tolerance policy on the books, but often enforcement is lax. Besides, by giving a fake name, train hoppers can elude most problems with the police. Chris is not worried about the new generation of rail cars, which have little room for stowaways.
"They're not going to replace cars every year," he says. "There's always going to be boxcars. Because of money, they can't fix them all. You can't pay to have a cop everywhere - though cell phones have made everyone a cop."
One hundred years ago, the shifting populations of hobo camps, or jungles, provided a way for arriving travelers to find out about yards and rail lines. Tramps also passed on such information through cryptic graffiti, though that might be distorted by mythology. Today, with fewer riders, it's not possible to keep jungles thriving, but like other parts of society, transient culture has been revolutionized by the Information Age.
About five years ago train-hopping Web sites emerged, but many have been taken down because authorities can easily access them. Today a few sites still exist, guiding riders to maps and timetables put out by the railroads, but only alluding to the nuts and bolts of riding. Travelers primarily use the Internet as a bulletin board to keep in touch, restricting crucial information to private e-mails. They maintain a list-serve, which riders can join only if nominated - a measure that ensures they will not be infiltrated by the railroad police. To update friends on travel plans, they use free voicemail services.
Chris sees train riding as the extension of a long tradition. Today's riders mirror the political usurpers, migrant workers and petty criminals who hopped trains in the early 20th century. The survival of railroad slang - "unit" for an engine, "side-door Pullman" for a boxcar, "catching out" for hopping trains - symbolizes that continuity.
The main difference between today's young riders and the hobos of the past is their attitude toward work. The etymology of "hobo" is unknown, but some lexicographers speculate that it comes from "hoe boy," an 18th century English migrant worker. Train riders took pride in the title, and saw themselves as distinct from tramps - on-the-move freeloaders who refused to work - and bums who stayed in one place. Young riders today do not define themselves in such terms. Some oppose wage-earning on ethical grounds and some shun it out of laziness. Some enjoy work, but most consider getting by labor enough.
Contrary to his usual work habits, Guy, who grew up with Bree in Lubbock, Texas, has taken a job helping to remodel a house. His stopover in Minneapolis has grown into a longer stay, and the work, which involves tearing out lots of drywall, seems fun. He hates the routine of full-time jobs, the being there at 8 a.m. and staying until 5 p.m., but doesn't mind short-term gigs.
As soon as he earns his first paycheck, Guy goes to Nightfall Records, a ramshackle store that specializes in obscure heavy metal. Since seeing Gummo, Guy has been checking out lots of Norwegian black metal. He buys a used, long-sleeve Emperor T-shirt and pulls it over the layers of black shirts he already wears. His jeans, too, are black, with small white X's stitched along the seams. Curly hair juts out from beneath his black stocking cap, blending in with the beard that frames his face.
Though he has been in Minneapolis longer than intended, the town has treated him well. Scoring food and other amenities is easy - someone already gave him both a bike and some weed. But now he is unsure of how much longer will be welcome at the punk flophouse where he has been staying. Eddie, a local who Guy has been hanging out with, has just been kicked out because of his reputation and propensity to urinate in his sleep after too many drinks. Guy fears he might be evicted as well, so he packs up.
Shoving his few articles of clothing into his pack and rolling up the expensive sleeping bag his mother gave him for Christmas, he heads onto the screened-in porch off of the cluttered living room. He sits down, plays a tape by At the Gates, lights a bowl and muses about work.
"I just don't like to work," he says. "I don't mind it, but I'd rather be loafing around. I just want to have fun instead of dealing with all the stress."
He sinks into his chair and enjoys the warm June evening air. He doesn't know where he will sleep tonight, but two years on the road have inured him to such conditions.
"It's like nothing to me," he says.
Besides, Guy is itchy to leave town. He plans to meet Bree in Fargo, N.D., at the Testicle Festival, a week-long birthday party notorious for the number of bands that play and the 10-keg free-for-all that concludes the event.
Every day for more than a week, Guy and Eddie mention they are leaving in a couple of days, but they never solidify their plans. When they arrive one day at the café with bulging backpacks, Tommy, a Michigan rider headed west, makes arrangements to meet them in two hours in the open lot next to the café. Tommy pedals off to the suburban house where he is staying to get his pack.
As they pull into the lot an hour and 45 minutes later, Eddie picks up a bottle of Grain Belt Premium lying in the street. He cracks it open, takes a sip, then thinks better of it.
"For all the dead homies," he says in a self-deprecating voice, pouring the beer out at the base of a tree.
Guy removes a small boom box from his pack and plays the 2Pac and Hawkwind tapes he bought on a final shopping binge. Over his other shirts he wears a new Burzum shirt emblazoned with a hazy graveyard. Eddie tugs on the chain that dangles from his camouflage shorts.
After 15 minutes, they grow antsy waiting for Tommy. Summer storms have been rolling in suddenly for the past few weeks and they dread a wet trip to Fargo. Rumors of busts have circulated for the last several days - with so many people coming into town for the party, bulls have been picking train hoppers off the cars easily. Guy and Eddie have put off leaving for days, and now the need to get out of town feels urgent. Watching rush hour traffic, they decide hitchhiking will be an easier way to get to Fargo. They pack up and ride off, with plans to ditch their bikes at the edge of the suburbs. As Guy and Eddie slide onto the road, their furthest thought is Tommy, who approaches the lot a few minutes later.
Like many train hoppers, Guy disparages hitchhiking. Unlike jumping trains, hitchhiking makes travelers reliant on others, which opens up too many variables for his taste. He has never been threatened or propositioned for sex, as some of his friends have, but he has encountered his fill of evangelists.
On trains the annoyances may be fewer, but the danger is heightened. A life on the rails requires a tough exterior and, if provoked, Guy is quick to pull out his Gerber knife. Guy says that by knowing his limitations and keeping his wits about him, he remains safe.
"No train is worth risking your neck for," Guy says. All of Guy's safety lessons were learned firsthand. When he and Bree decided to catch out for the first time, in San Antonio, they pulled themselves onto a boxcar that had already been staked out by an old tramp named Mike. Even though they had broken the rule of etiquette that says riders never get on an occupied car without first asking, Mike welcomed them and shared his two joints. They got all the way to Tucson in a day, but got busted by the notorious Fast Freddie in the yard. Fifteen minutes later they discarded their tickets and sneaked back in the yard.
As a train took off, Mike jumped on a grainer. Guy chased it, but it was moving faster than he could run. To gauge a train's speed, seasoned riders watch the bolts on the wheels; if they can make out the individual bolts, the train is moving at a safe speed. Guy hadn't learned this lesson yet.
"I ran alongside and just jumped," Guy says. "Dumbest thing I've ever done. Except for what I'm about to tell you I did next."
Guy wasn't sure if Bree had made it on, so when the train stopped a little later, he walked up and down the train, calling Bree's name. Bree did the same, but they missed each other.
Guy pulled his pack off the grainer and moved into an empty boxcar, where he built a mattress out of cardboard. When the train started moving, the car violently shook from side to side, giving him first a stomachache, then a headache. He drifted in and out of sleep, and when he woke up, the door had slid most of the way shut. He crept toward the door, but didn't want to get too close for fear of being thrown out. As he stood in front of it, the corroded door slammed shut. Guy clawed at it. He tried to pry it open with his knife, but the blade snapped off. Three or four or five hours passed - it was hard to keep track of time - before the train pulled into a small yard. Through holes that had rusted through the door, Guy could see a bicyclist 50 yards off. He kicked and punched the door, screaming for help. The bicyclist told him to wait - as if Guy could do anything else - and returned a few minutes later with the bull.
"He takes me, he puts me in his car and he says, 'I should take you to jail, but I think you've learned your lesson,'" Guy says.
Guy believes he has. He avoids boxcars and refuses to ride them unless the door is spiked open. Even then he likes to leave a piece of plywood along the door track in case the spike breaks.
Bree agrees that railroads are dangerous, but says they offer tremendous freedom. Bree tries to explain this to Howard, who is buying drinks for him and Lars in a Chicago bar. A slight man in a short-sleeved button-down and straw hat, Howard discusses train riding with them, dominating the conversation even though he is talking to two experienced riders. He lectures them on the Freight Train Riders of America, a gang rumored to beat up other transients, basing his comments on a television documentary he has seen - a documentary that Bree was interviewed for. The few bits of gossip about the FTRA that Bree edges into the conversation are accepted by Howard as proof of his point.
But Bree says a life on the rails is worth those perils.
"I really don't think the risks are that big a threat," Bree says. "I don't have to pay rent, pay bills, pay for gas. The only thing I have to do is make sure I feed myself. It gives me the freedom to be alone. The freedom to travel."
A cover band starts and the conversation ebbs. During the break, Bree persuades the bassist to let Lars play a song and 20 minutes later, Lars, with a borrowed guitar in hand, quietly introduces "One More Broken Bottle." As the patrons talk over the song, Bree charges toward the front of the room, as if he were seeing his favorite band perform.
After a couple more drinks, Bree and Lars spill onto the sidewalk, where Friday night revelers provide a perfect opportunity for the Beverly Game. Lars approaches a stranger.
"Beverly?" he asks tentatively, as if she looks familiar.
He and Bree greet others on the street. In reply they receive expressions of confusion and bemusement. After a few tries, Bree pounces in front of a young woman.
"Beverly!" he exclaims, with arms out to his side, a convincing I-can't-believe-it's-Beverly tone of glee in his voice. "Don't you remember me? We went to school together."
For two blocks they continue, expanding the game to include any name that comes to mind. At the corner, they slip into a lively gay club. Writhing to the beat, they work their way across the dance floor and climb onto the small stage at one end. They remove their shoes and socks and step into the kiddy pool the club has provided. As they dance, they kick out droplets of water, which freeze in the strobe lights before spraying the dancers near the stage, who step back, laughing.
Returning to the street, Lars plunges his arm into a trashcan and comes out with an umbrella. As they parade down the street, he aims it at passers-by, then pops it open. He rushes toward a man across the street. "Now for my Mary Poppins impersonation," he calls, unleashing the umbrella.
The man walks on, as if he hasn't heard, unsure of this late-night loose nut.
"What? That doesn't even get a smile?" Lars asks. And then it does. He turns over his shoulder, smiling, yes, I see, you're not dangerous, just having fun.
Emboldened by beer, Bree turns spare-changing into street theater. He runs up to a man, turns on his heel and, walking alongside him, says, "I'm with the Ghetto Watch Patrol and I'm going to have to issue you a citation for getting too many sexy women, smoking too many doobies and listening to too much funky music." Later that night, they look for a place to sleep outside of Gary, Ind. They can't find the trainyard - the next morning they will learn there is no yard in Gary - but they come across an electrically powered commuter line that offers good shelter. By a park-and-ride station, the tracks go under a bridge, always a reliable roof. Lars lays out a mattress of foam and cardboard in a patch of muscadine grapes. They had used the cardboard earlier that day to fly a sign. It read:
HUNGRY - BROKE WILL DESIGN WEB PAGE FOR FOOD HOMELESS DOT-COMMERS
They lie behind the cement support of the bridge, where they are hidden from the train. Brush obscures the view from the parking lot.
Light breaks through the gray clouds. Birds chirp in the distance, mixing with the static pitter-patter of the electric lines, which deceives them into thinking it is raining. Lars and Bree pull their sleeping bags over their heads to keep out the light and sound and mosquitoes. They have vague plans. They want to go east, through the Appalachians, but they are not sure how they will get there. With no yard in Gary, they either have to make their way back to Chicago or hitchhike to another town in Indiana.
But that is a worry for tomorrow afternoon, when they get up.