In the Realm of the Census

divide and concur

Like the Pavlovian response to organ music exhibited by baseball fans, tramps respond to the sound of a distant train horn in similar fashion. I, too, succumbed to the role of the charmed snake and rose up from my afternoon nap to determine if the sound I heard was from a dream or reality. Seeing the others in the group beginning to gather up their belongings gave me the answer I needed, and I joined in the ritual of transferring my "world" from the underside of a highway overpass to the inside of a boxcar.

As far as overpasses go, this one was a peach just the right height to spot the Bull approaching as well as provide an overview of all the yard tracks. There was not much traffic going by above and no pigeons, which meant no pigeon shit. Hanging out under a bridge is sort of like being on a desert island you have to make do with whatever resources are at your disposal. Sometimes there's graffiti to read or books left by previous "residents". Whatever you might find on the surface is often paled by what might lie buried just beneath.

We were leaving this oasis now in hopes of finding another one... one that would take us north, then east or west or maybe even back south. It didn't matter we had seen all and done all we could do here, and it was time to leave. There was no reason to hurry, nor reason to lag behind. The train was coming in a its own pace, and we were heading toward it at ours. I needed a reason to get up and walk around anyway, after sitting on my cardboard all morning drinking wine.

The "other" tramps were two older guys and a younger one. Though they hung out in a group, there was only a superficial interaction between them. The elders spent their time rolling cigarettes and reading, while the younger one futzed around with his sorry-looking Army surplus pack and listened to barely recognizable country music on a tiny radio that was dwarfed by a huge antenna made from several metal clothes hangers that were constantly being re-arranged. I though briefly about trying to explain the phenomena of AM drift and the fact that it occurred at night, not during the day, but thought better of it. After awhile the periods of static coming from the radio became far more interesting than the occasional song about pickup trucks, dogs, and beer.

We paused our pilgrimage behind a large metal outbuilding to size up the incoming train for suitable rides. There was only one unused yard track so we knew where the train would end up after stopping. In a few minutes it was difficult not to be aware of a thundering presence approaching, and then the engines came into view towing a rewarding string of empty boxcars, gondolas, and grain cars. Reading the various reporting marks and logos on the sides of the cars led me to believe that most, if not all of the train would continue on after the crew change, with nothing being dropped off or picked up. After an extended squealing stop, there was no immediate blast of air from the train, and I knew that we shouldn't waste any time finding a ride, as all of the boxcars were on the head end of the train and were now a good ways down the track from where we stood.

With the three tramps and their gear shuffling along in front of me and the distance between the cars rather restrictive, I crossed over to the other side to pick up the pace a bit. Although the kid had mercifully turned his radio off, I could follow his progress on the other side of the train by the scraping sound of his "antenna" against the metal sides of the freight cars. I quickly left the other tramps behind and came upon a nice clean wooden-floored boxcar with only the door on my side open, which allowed me to hop up and enjoy a ride by myself as I heard the scraping noise come and go, signaling the forward progress of my companions.

Though we didn't share much more than a few exchanges about the weather, trains in general, and various tramps met along the line, the fact that we could act as a "group" without actually having to become a group said alot for the camaraderie of train hopping. There were certain rituals and routines to be followed, as well as the unwritten and unspoken rules of conduct. There was no reason to engage in garrulous horseplay to cement our bonding together, nor was conversation expected our silence was the effort and freedom the reward.

Waiting for the sound of air releasing from the brakelines, I unfolded my cardboard and began again to arrange my world around me a threadbare nylon bag with cheese and French bread, my water jug, my scanner, and a cherished bottle of White Port to toast the beginning of another ride with familiar sights, sounds, and smells, but an unfamiliar feeling of starting from scratch everything I was looking for...