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Railroaded

by Silke Tudor for sfweekly.com, October 31, 2001

 

The long-limbed rocker behind the cafe counter knows who I'm looking for before I finish the third of a string of descriptive words I was given over the phone.

"You're looking for Lee," he says, swinging his hair out of the way and leaning over the scarred countertop of the arty hangout. "The hose clamps gave it away."

"Lee comes in here every time he comes through town," he continues. "We've both been here a long time. We're both photographers. He's a cool kid."

The "kid" arrives only a few minutes later than our arranged time, apologizing with soft-spoken sincerity that is cordial enough to seem out of time and place. As promised, Lee is dressed in varying shades of overwashed black. He is short and solidly built, with a prominent nose and thick, coarse skin that gives him a slightly Middle Earth air; his hair, too, is coarse, and dusty, but kept short and trim. An article of clothing, which may once have been a pair of black chinos but now is worn so thin that the crotchless legs flutter with the slightest movement, hangs from around his waistband like a post-apocalyptic Gypsy scarf, along with a small utility knife hidden in a homemade sheath.

Almost immediately, the large hose clamps that shine dully around Lee's neck and arms draw the attention of the cafe crowd, which is an odd mix of arty kids and blue-collar hippies. Lee answers the litany of questions with gracious good humor ("No, they don't hurt." "Yes, I can leave them on when I sleep") and he obviously enjoys the predictable jokes ("Yes, I'm a good person to have around when your car or your washing machine breaks down").

"I couldn't get more attention from a $5,000 tattoo," says Lee, chuckling as he slides onto the bench next to me. He asks me to buy him a cup of coffee but demurely refuses my offer of food.

Lee will be 47 in eight days. He grew up on a mountain range in Southern California where his father was a ski instructor. He came north and went to community college for a while, but for the last 16 years he has lived as a squatter, eating out of restaurant and bakery dumpsters, doing odd jobs, occasionally visiting missions and food banks, and camping on public land. Among the growing number of forest squats on the perimeter of this midsize coastal town, Lee's shack is considered a good place to entertain family and friends.

Lee is also a political activist - with a lengthy police record as such - and a hobo train-hopper.

Contrary to popular opinion, which would have us believe that rail riding is the fading pursuit of hardened derelicts and that hobo travel has been curtailed by heightened security concerns, the train-hopping population is being fed by a fresh incursion of young riders: Crusty punks and anarchists, dropouts and activists, professionals with a taste for adventure, art students and runaways and disenfranchised youth of all kinds, weaned in the information age and driven by a DIY aesthetic, are jumping freights right along with migrant laborers and other, more traditional types of tramps. In these widening hobo circles, Lee is known for being generous with his time and knowledge and open to first-time riders, including the many women who, according to longtime tramps, are taking to the rails in unprecedented numbers. Lee's biannual zine, There's Something About a Train, which began 12 years ago as an eight-page newsletter of rail-yard tips, practical advice, and helpful lingo, has expanded into a 125-page literary journal with poems, diaries, travelogues, drawings, photographs, stories, songs, and legends submitted by full-time and newbie riders alike.

For issue No. 6, Lee traveled 1,200 miles by rail to Tucson to use a friend's offset printing press. It took three months to lay out and print, but, because of the weight of the new issue, Lee could only carry a quarter of the print run back to California. In a couple of weeks, he and a friend, a fellow forest-squatter named Monkey, will (they hope) hop a freight out of Richmond (a pretty "hot" yard) headed to Arizona. Once there, Monkey will attend a wedding in Phoenix and Lee will collect the rest of his zines in Tucson. But first, Lee has agreed to put me on a beginner's train.

"Some of the old-timers are suspicious of the kids," warns Lee as we follow the railroad tracks into an unpopulated area between two dirt cliffs. "But everyone's suspicious of the press. I don't know how many people will come out once the word has gotten around. We'll see. The train may not even come. That's something you have to be prepared for: With trains, you never know."

We stop at a bend in the track, and before long, a pale, slender, young forest-squatter going by the name of Woodrat approaches and greets Lee while effectively ignoring me. The four-year rail veteran drops his rucksack and sits on the dirt bank, staring gravely at his feet and giving me a good glimpse of the jagged scar running down his chin - the consequence of a fast-moving train, an overstuffed backpack, a minor miscalculation, and a lot of luck, considering he escaped with all his limbs. Soon Helen Wheels, a recently laid-off journalist who thought hopping a freight might be better than sitting in her apartment all day drinking, arrives, as does Gem, a very somber college student with ginger-red hair who sits a good distance from everyone, reading the morning newspaper. Ballast, a powerfully built 31-year-old with heavy boots and a fierce countenance, arrives with both hands dug deep into her pockets and a wool cap pulled low over her eyes. She greets everyone by name, then sits down glowering at me.

"You're making a mistake," she says.

Lee begins his first-time rider speech. He explains the difference between the cars - boxcars, piggies (semi truck sitting on a flatbed), lumber cars, coal cars, and grainers, cars that look pregnant because their sides bulge out, which will be ideal for our trip. He explains the dangers - jail, ticketing, death, dismemberment.

"I've been riding for 16 years, and I've never seen anyone get seriously hurt or known anyone to die, but it happens," says Lee. "Some drunk guy tried to hop this train, and his body was dragged underneath, into town, where body parts were left spread out all over the tracks."

"Sometimes this train stops right here," continues Lee, "but more than likely we'll be catching it on the fly." Lee explains a technique that is much easier done than said and warns about "slack action," the movement between couplings that, combined with the accumulative jerk of 30 cars, can fling anyone who is not well-braced off the train.

"When the train comes, it happens very fast," says Lee. "Even if the train is long, it feels like less than a minute when you're up close. Spread out. Don't crowd each other."

The clattering rumble in the distance suddenly begins to take on urgent meaning.

"I still get butterflies," says Woodrat as we head up the bank to hide in the bushes until the locomotives and engineers pass.

Quite suddenly we're running, and the train is lumbering beside us, larger and louder and faster than I've ever imagined a train could be, going five to 10 miles an hour. I grab a rung and lift my inside foot into the metal stirrup. My heart is matching the speedy click of the tracks beneath us, and my breath is cold and sharp. The passing landscape begins to pick up speed, and Lee shows me a large cubbyhole in the side of the grainer, perfect for hiding a tramp during unexpected stops and slow midtown crossings.

Passing through the outskirts of town, Lee waves to a few children who watch the train with gleeful fascination. Everyone has his own style. Lee, being a veteran of this line, takes it lightly. Ballast and Woodrat hang back against the rusty wall of the grainer, while Gem, Lee's sometime lover, sits quietly in an alcove doing her homework, and Helen holds on for dear life. Just a little past a road crossing, a man named EJ suddenly hops on board, then we are in open country, picking up speed with farmland on either side. The smell of artichokes and strawberries and pumpkins hits me hard. Day laborers unbend their backs to watch the train pass, waving handkerchiefs when they catch sight of us. I feel the fog roll in, wrapping around the train as it grips a long, sweeping turn. I imagine the engineer can see our heads hanging out of the train like happy puppies, but if he does, he doesn't care. Lee and Woodrat tell me that, for the most part, railroad employees are tolerant, even helpful, to hoppers, as long as you don't make yourself a problem. I listen to the rumbling of the massive machine beneath me and allow myself to be hypnotized by the constant, organic shifting of the huge, fistlike coupling near my feet.

"It's like an animal," I murmur, to which Woodrat, Ballast, and Lee respond with a knowing nod. "Like riding between the scales of an animal."

At the end of the line, where coal is traded for cement or vice versa, we hop off and make for a small burrito stand in town where we can kill time during the switch-over. In the restaurant, talk turns to the National Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa, which draws thousands of tramps every year, and to the new hobo culture that is emerging. Woodrat checks his electronic organizer, and Ballast uses an MP3 player to record an interview for her pirate radio show. Lee strikes up a conversation with the engineer of our train, who sits at a table nearby, and if the engineer is wise to what's happened, he doesn't let on.

After our meal, we "jungle up" in the low canopy of trees that always seem strategically placed along rail yards and talk in hushed tones while the rail workers check the line. Woodrat and Lee tell tales of waiting in yards for days, sweating, hungry, in hobo-hostile territory. They tell of trains that crawl through canyons and fields and under stars no one has ever seen by car. I lie back and watch the sky through the canopy, gray, dreamy, and still.

"I have no idea what time it is," I say.

"Welcome," says Ballast. "Time doesn't matter after a while."

Then we are running again, and we're on the train.

Ballast invites me up top. I follow up the ladder on the side of the car to find her sitting on the top of the grainer as casually as if it were her own living room. Ballast offers me her hat and stares over the fields, her double mohawk flapping in the wind.

She talks about her experience last year, substitute teaching nearby, watching planes spray pesticides while the children were outside playing, and how train hopping for the last four months has made her realize she's a homebody. As I watch her watching the fog roll in and the land roll by, I wonder.

"It gets in your blood, though," says Ballast.

"I can last about two months," says Lee, sitting in the dark just outside the Richmond yard. "Then I have to move again. Some hobos say wanderlust is the strongest lust."

Despite infrared cameras, frequent patrols, and well-lit yards, heightened security isn't the biggest problem facing train hoppers, according to Lee. It's the mergers.

"It's hard to tell where a train's going nowadays," he says.

Monkey and Lee, who have covered at least 10,000 miles together, hunker down in the cold and fall into hobo rhythm, telling stories and conserving smokes in little puffs. Then we hear the rumble and see three white lights coming down the track. It's a "hotshot," a fast train, on the Chicago line. Lee and Monkey leap to their feet and scurry down the embankment until the locomotive flies past, then they scramble up the hill again, trying to get in position, Lee taking the rear and leaning forward hard to counter the weight of his enormous pack. Monkey looks back at Lee, nods, and hops on the fly. The train picks up speed and Lee hesitates. He switches position to give himself more running speed, but the train is really hauling now. And it's gone. Lee is crestfallen.

"I feel a little embarrassed," says Lee. "I guess you saw the real thing, though. That's the way it goes with train hopping; you never know how it will turn out. I'll probably catch up with him later. It's just going to be a lonely ride."