Just as standing around in boxer shorts with a shaved head serves as a great equalizer when you join the military, donning dirty work clothes and standing around with a backpack can have a similar effect in a jungle, where everyone looks as though they've hopped a train, but you wonder just which individuals have ridden with style, and which have merely ridden.
If there was ever a stage for bullshitting, hopping freights was it. Sitting around a jungle fire and listening to stories of bravado and derring-do, you can't help but wonder if any of it is actually true. But the jungle is not a stage for truth, but for storytelling, and the goal is to captivate your audience with tales that balance precariously on the edge of fact or fiction, but are pulled from the brink at the end because of your orating skills alone. Similar to a debate team, where you must prove your point without first being able to choose the subject, you must act as a defense attorney, and use the same facts to prove your innocence as the prosecutor might use to prove your guilt.
But sometimes the situation arises where the storyteller, let's say, lacks the necessary skills to bring you to the edge of your seat (or bucket). Do you still come away with a feeling that they did, in fact, experience the details that they recounted? Having a certain "presence", a deep, ponderous speaking voice, and a "way with words" are skills no less important than knowing which train is going where, etc. The whole experience of train riding is not limited to riding trains. The places you travel to are just musical notes on a page — the tramp must use them to create a symphony...
One such "symphony" that I remember came on a train trip from LA to Oakland. I'd been sitting in the Taylor Yard for half a day waiting for a train to leave going up the Coast Line. That has always been a strange sort of yard — you're right in the middle of LA yet the yard looks deserted most of the time. A dry, cement-lined "river" on one side, the Golden State freeway roaring by overhead, a Mexican barrio on the other side with roosters running down the alleys, and millions of tiny palm trees growing everywhere along the tracks.
Finally a caboose was brought up to the rear end of a string of cars and it was time to find a car to ride. Cued by the delivery of the caboose, several groups of tramps appeared from various hiding spots and began to descend upon "my" train. Finding an open boxcar almost immediately, I hopped up and dropped my gear in the doorway, hopefully labelling this car as already occupied. After awhile I figured that the other tramps had found rides elsewhere, and I moved my stuff to the front of the car and set up camp. Just as we were airing up I heard footsteps on the gravel outside and wasn't sure if I'd rather have it be the Bull or another tramp. It was a large Black tramp who huffed and puffed up to the doorway, stuck his head in, looked in both directions, and seeing me asked if he could "share this car". Taken aback by his politeness, and knowing that subsequent arrivals of tramps would not be interested in riding with a "Black" man, I invited him in.
He was dressed in striped coveralls and carried the smallest bedroll I had ever seen, and immediately launched into what I took to be a description of his adventures here and there that led to his arrival in this boxcar, but he had combination of dialects that made it very difficult to understand what he was saying. First there was what I call the "Negro" dialect, which has its own peculiarities in words and phrases, and on top of that was a very heavy "Southern" dialect, which is equally foreign to the untrained ear. The combination of these, and his seemingly non-stop delivery reduced me to adding the occasional "Gee" or "Wow" at points in the conversation that I deemed appropriate. To further complicate matters, as soon as the train pulled out of the yard it was made very evident that this was one of the noisiest boxcars I'd ever ridden in, with both doors clanging back and forth and no spikes inside the car to possibly wedge them with. So gradually we picked up speed and left the dismal urban wasteland behind, and the tramp oration continued...
For someone who appeared so out of breath when he first arrived, he quickly gained a second wind and began what had to be the longest uninterrupted dissertation that I'd ever witnessed. The sound of the moving train drowned out the few snatches of conversation that I might have understood under conditions more acoustically suited to the situation, but it was his body language and vocal inflections that made his "story" so captivating. I felt as one might feel at their first trip to the Opera, where you can't understand what people are saying and you have to "fill in the blanks" yourself to make a story out of it. I watched as he would make certain gesticulations with his body, or a tilt of his head, or a lowering of his voice, all to draw one's attention to what he had just said, which for me wasn't anything I could understand, but I was nonetheless fascinated. At one point I became terrified that he would ask me a question about something that he'd just mentioned, and, like so many times in school I wouldn't have a logical answer.
I began to try and identify words as much as possible so as to have at least some background to formulate a reply if one was required, but his oration continued. His shortness of breath when he first arrived at the boxcar was attributed to possibly having to run to get to the train, as he was quite large, but now I entertained the thought that it might well have arisen from some previous pontifications in one of the jungles that border the freightyard. It was as if there was a hidden air hose that snaked up his pants leg and provided him with a limitless amount of air to speak with. Now and again I would hear a word that, phonetically anyway, sounded like "schreepo", and, judging from its frequency of use, I figured that it played an important role in his story. At this point it had gotten dark, but his story, and the noise of the rattling boxcar continued. The darkness, however, allowed me the convenience of not having to actually look at him, or at least in his general direction, as one would do if they were part of a conversation, because he was just a dark outline against one end of the car, and I assumed that I was a dark outline against the other end. I was now much more comfortable, and had long since given up on offering any one word comments as I saw fit, but he continued as before.
Just as blind people experience a heightened level of awareness from their other senses when the ability of sight is gone, I seemed to gradually pick out words that I somehow heard differently now, and began to piece together an understanding at last of just what it was the tramp had been talking about for the last few hours. I was now pretty sure that the word that sounded like "schreepo" was actually "Shreveport", which I knew was some city in the South, and would at least make more sense than any of my other assumptions. As tired as I was, I did have some degree of interest in figuring out the gist of his story, and in my mind at least it seemed as though he began his train trip in Shreveport and was headed to Oakland to visit family, with innumerable adventures along the way. The darkness additionally made it possible for me to bring out a bottle of wine, which I hesitated to do earlier so as not to feel obligated to share it. I don't remember which tapered off first — my ability to remain awake or the tramp's ability to continue talking, but at some point I woke up to pee and could faintly hear over the din of the moving train a muffled snoring coming from the other end of the car.