White Like Me

trapped in suburbia

Some things in life just seem to happen overnight. No prolonged evolvement, just one day they're not here, and the next day they are. Like every time you make a phone call to some business a recorded voice always reminds you to listen carefully, as their options have "recently changed". How did it occur that every business in the country suddenly "changed" their options at the same time? And why? What was wrong with the old system?

The railroads, on the other hand, don't seem to buy into this "change for the sake of change" mentality oftentimes they seem to embrace the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" way of looking at things. I find this approach very comforting, for the most part. There are times on train trips where you just want to immerse yourself in the familiarity of having been in this or that freightyard before, so you can just plod along at three in the morning knowing that when you finally reach the far end of the yard, a long string of cars will be awaiting you all of them going where you want to go...


The two-hour transit bus ride from where I lived down to the Bay Area (and eventually Oakland) was a nice way to transition from the everyday routine of work/eat/sleep into the train riding routine of walk/drink/wait. Done at night, the reflection of the interior lights on the windows made it difficult to see outside, allowing an even greater disassociation to develop. Unfortunately, this transition was often achieved well before the end of the bus ride, leaving me plenty of time to entertain thoughts about details of no importance at all, along with the satisfaction of realizing this immediately it was the beginning of the phase of separating what I need to be concerned with, and what I don't. This is the key for making split-second decisions on train trips, because everything is happening in real time and there are very few "do overs".

A block-long walk after getting off the bus led me down to the BART station, and another period of inactivity spent waiting for the next train. I would much prefer to do my waiting in the freightyard, rather than on the hard concrete benches underground, with an almost uncomfortable level of harsh lighting and the same advertisements for banks and restaurants, and maybe even the same people standing around, futzing with their cell phones and staring into space. At some point a gust of air signaled the almost silent approach of the BART train, with people getting on taking the place of people getting off. I enjoyed the time spent zooming along under the Bay the black walls of the tunnel were a refreshing change from the gaudy atmosphere of the station waiting area, with just a gentle rocking the only hint of movement at all.

All too soon the ride was over, and we emerged into the chaos of the East Bay. The San Francisco side had character and unification, while the Oakland side seemed like a jumble of construction materials spread out over a large area, waiting for someone to put them all together and make something. Soon the vastness of the cityscape shrunk into the confines of the neighborhood adjacent to the West Oakland BART station, and I was left with only a few blocks to walk before I ducked into the freightyard and assumed the persona of the lowly tramp, but that metamorphosis would not be complete without a stop for chili fries and a few bottles of cheap wine. This being done, the transformation was complete, and I stepped from the world of 9 to 5 into the world of 19% White Port.


In a way, the freightyard was similar to a gambling casino, in that there was no desire to know what was going on "outside", no reason to be concerned about what time it was, and an almost complete concentration on the reason that you're there in the first place. With this in mind, I scanned the surrounding area for a suitable spot to sit and wait. My favorite place, if it wasn't raining, was on the outside of a curve, just after the mainline exits the main Oakland yard. The engineer can't see you walk over to the train, there's a dirt road crossing so you don't have to run along slippery ballast, and there's a narrow band of light from somewhere that illuminates just enough of the train so you're not grabbing at ladders in the dark. On the downside, your window of opportunity was fairly short, limited to the width of the dirt road, so you had to wait patiently until your intended ride came along side, then sprint like crazy and get on. Another factor was since you were on the outside of a curve, you couldn't see the back of the train, so you had to take the first available ride, and invariably when you made it to a straight section of track and looked back there would be numerous "better" rides that you could have gotten had you waited.

This night it wasn't raining, so I made camp against a pile of ties and kicked back. On previous train trips I had walked along the road that the Bull uses to get from one yard to the other and imagined what areas are lit up by his headlights at night in order to avoid hanging out there. There was one spot where the road dips down a bit, and on the outside were large piles of lumber, stacks of new ties, and a jumble of scrap metal that prevented someone in a vehicle at night from seeing anything on the other side. During the day it was no-man's land, but at night you could sit outside in plain sight and never be seen. The first thing I did, after opening the wine, was to turn on my scanner. At that time Southern Pacific had a road channel for the Oakland area, a couple of local PBX channels, and another channel for the Railroad Police. The scanner cycled through them all over and over, but it was the Police channel that I was interested in the most.

One time coming into Oakland from Roseville I was riding on the back of a grainer near the rear of the train. After we passed Richmond I started to roll up my gear and get ready to get off, after a long ride from Ogden. Leaving the scanner out until the last minute, I heard the conductor in the caboose call the Bull and tell him that he had a rider on his train that he wanted kicked off. The Bull asked him where on the train the rider was and he replied that he was "about six cars ahead of the caboose". Hearing this, I leaned out over the edge and counted the cars behind me and discovered that my car was six cars ahead of the caboose! The Bull called the engineer of the train and told him to stop his train just shy of 32nd street, or something like that, so that he could be waiting at the right spot to kick "the rider" off. I immediately looked around to find a street sign and found out that we were just passing 42nd street, and the train started to slow down. As luck would have it, there was a slight curve in the tracks and I was able to bail off a bit faster than I would have wanted to, and ran behind a building before the caboose came by. After the train passed I walked over to a side street and followed the train for a few blocks until it stopped with the Bull sitting in his car right next to the grainer I was riding. I would have been a sitting duck if I wasn't listening to the scanner when I did.


Since the Bull didn't exactly announce on his radio that he was going to be driving around looking for tramps, it was important to find a place to hang out where he couldn't find you at all, and I had three of these spots. For many years in the late 70's and early 80's there were a couple of tracks containing long strings of stored cars on the opposite side of the Desert Yard from the Amtrak Depot. With the middle of the yard as a buffer zone, the Bull rarely patrolled this area, but on the other side of a chainlink fence was the Oakland Army Base, with a couple of sentrys driving by in a jeep every 15 minutes or so.

On the plus side, there were lots of empty old boxcars mixed in these strings of cars, and many of them were old enough to have wooden floors, which made them an oasis in the middle of the cold, damp Bay Area. I had a favorite car that I used whenever the need arose it was located in a good spot to observe the distant signal bridge over the mainline, and it was clean. This factor was not of secondary importance by any means, as the lack of "restroom" facilities in this area rendered some of the boxcars almost uninhabitable. I remember one trip where I was returning from the National Hobo Convention in Iowa, and I had worn the same t-shirt for almost two weeks. Arriving in the yard too late to get a BART train over to San Francisco and home, I crashed in the boxcar until the next morning. Waking up to a warm, sunny day, I realized that my fellow passengers on the train and eventually the transit bus might be put off by the t-shirt that I had to almost peel off, so I sadly placed it on the floor next to where I was sleeping and went off without it. The next year, on the way back from the Convention again, I slept in that same boxcar, and when I woke up the next morning my old t-shirt was lying there beside me, just the same way I had laid it out a year ago. I scraped it up off the floor and put it into a ziplock bag I had that used to contain trail mix, and took the shirt home with me, where I spread it out on my livingroom rug and watched my cats treat it as though it was soaked in catnip.

At some point the strings of old cars were replaced by strings of stored switch engines, the model with all of the glass on the rear of the cab. Seeing these from a distance, I noticed that at night any lights outside (like the Bull's headlights) would be reflected by the windows, making it impossible to see inside. Although they weren't as roomy as the boxcars to stetch out in, if it was raining outside and I didn't have too long to wait for a train, it was fun to sit up in the engineer's seat and get a great view of the yard, and I could practically wave at the Bull when he drove by, knowing that he couldn't see me at all.

Although hanging out on the inside of the big curve where the tracks exited the main Oakland yard allowed me a great view of upcoming cars (and possible rides), I was able to be seen by the engine crew as well as anyone who drove along the frontage road, but it did have a few spots that worked out to my advantage. There was a period when there were a half dozen or so trailers parked on the inside of the curve, like the trailers that were used by railroad employees as temporary offices or whatever. They had a small "livingroom" in front, then a hallway and bathroom, and a bedroom in the rear your basic trailer. Naturally these were locked, but the window in the bathroom was louvered and had glass panels which, with the skillful use of a knife, could be pried out, leaving an opening that I, after leaving my pack outside, could just barely squeeze through with a Herculean amount of effort. All I had to do was unlock the front door and, when the coast was clear, go around and retrieve my pack. I carefully replaced the glass panels and had an extremely comfortable spot to wait for trains, only about 50' from the mainline.

Alas, on one rainy night when I approached the spot where "my" trailer had been parked I saw that they all had been taken away. Crestfallen, I scanned the surroundings for a suitable replacement, and found another perfect spot for concealment on a nearby loading dock. It was a long concrete dock with a track running along side, where boxcars were loaded or unloaded through large rollup doors in the adjacent building. There was a small sort of vestibule on the outside of the rollups that had long strips of what used to be clear heavy plastic hanging down, so they would keep the rain out and the cold in, because there always seemed to be reefer cars parked there. The inside of the "vestibule" was about 10' long and maybe 3' deep just long enough to roll out in, and again, you couldn't see through the plastic from the outside, but you could see well enough from the inside to make out everything that was going on.

I had caught out of the main Oakland yard a few times but it didn't feel very comfortable it was pretty much just walking around looking for a ride, trying to stay out of sight. The yard really had no character, it was just another freightyard, but the Desert Yard felt entirely different. Without all of the lights the main yard had, it seemed like a store that had closed for the day, and would re-open in the morning. One could function as an omniscient observer, sort of floating around and being invisible to anyone working in the yard. There were rarely any other tramps, at least at night, or maybe there were and they were as secretive as I was. Catching out was done mostly on the fly, with a couple of more-or-less regularly scheduled intermodal trains leaving at night. This meant operating in real time, as there was not much time to pick and choose one's conveyance, and if you missed the hotshots then daylight would certainly "even the playing field", and I would often slink over to catch a city bus to downtown Oakland and take Greyhound to Roseville and start riding from there. There were many more trains headed in every direction, and it wasn't long before I was on my way to wherever it was that I was going.

I returned to the Desert Yard once after the earthquake, and to say that it "wasn't the same" would be an understatement. I had many, many good memories of time spent there, without even being on a train...