Rail culture

the language of freight-hoppers
by james d. graham for issue #0224 of the charlottesville (va) hook
june 19, 2003

The audience squats on milk crates or just mills around in the parking lot behind the Corner's Plan 9. Those closest to the action huddle around a projection screen lit by footage of boxcars, railyards, and graffiti - call it a celluloid campfire. Dangling in the sky is another screen, circular and luminous, also filled with the nostalgic landscapes of our most romanticized industrial infrastructure - the freight train.

A couple of coeds cross the tracks at Wertland and 15th on the way to an evening out and survey the scene as though it's some sinister rail-side ritual. Right on cue, an empty coal train rattles through this tableau, winding its way west out of town.

The event in question was a visit last fall from Bill Daniel and Vanessa Renwick's "Lucky Bum Film Tour," and the parking lot's freight train fixation was Daniel's half of the program. And as you might imagine, he's no stranger to freight hopping.

"I rode on and off for eight years," says the Portland, Oregon-based filmmaker. "I've always liked trains, but it really started when I got a studio in Dallas right next to the Santa Fe yard. I went down and saw loads of graffiti on the trains and got interested in documenting them."

Daniel's ever-changing documentary, called Who Was Bozo Texino?, explores the iconography and pictorial language of freight hoppers and, specifically, the semi-mythical title character. While railyard graffiti might look like the anti-authoritarian scribblings of inebriated adolescents to the uninitiated eye, it's actually a relatively thorough record of who's been there and whether the yard and town are friendly to rail riders.

"Every social situation has a code," says Daniel. "The one for freight hopping is just a lot more intense and complex than the one for the donut shop."

Daniel's first ride came like that of many riders - he just got on.

"I'd tried to find people who had done it to learn about it," he says. "I even used to pick up hitchhikers to see if they'd ridden freight trains. In the end, I just decided to go ahead and do it."

Since then, Daniel's ridden freights through 13 states from Texas to Washington and filmed it all, although not without a few moral qualms.

"Freight hopping would be a lot better off if people stopped talking about it," says Daniel. "It can't support a bunch of rookies and yee-haws. As a filmmaker, I was wracked by that contradiction: I wanted to make something about it but not ruin it."

Not that we're exactly seeing a golden age of freight hopping these days.

"Rail yards are totally secure now," he says. "You have to be super stealthy, especially after 9/11. There's a lot more technology out there - infrared, surveillance cameras in yards. It's tough, and the kids that are doing it now deserve a ton of respect."