An excerpt from my memoir Faces Places and Pain
Spring made me restless. Everything made me restless, but Spring was as good an excuse as any to leave town. I don’t know how we came to be together, but I was creeping the streets with a girl named Ann when I decided to go to California. She wanted to hitchhike with me and I definitely welcomed the company of a sexy, if not a little dim, street girl.
We were walking down the tracks behind the high-rises and slightly below the surface of the streets of downtown, making our way to the interstate when we ran into another traveler named Curly. He was a burly bearded biker without a hog and ready to pull out too.
“You guys ever done the freight trains before?” I saw the panting dog look he was giving her, everyone had that response. Whatever, she wasn’t mine. We told him we hadn’t and he said he would be glad to show us how to catch one out of town. Sure.
We followed him north for a mile or so to a spot where he said would be the best place to catch one moving slow. We stopped at a camp of three other guys who had a fire going at the base of an embankment near a bridge. The entire rail yard and the tracks going through town were about 50 feet below street level, all the better for those of us who wanted to stay off the radar of cops and citizens.
We introduced ourselves. They called me Soldier back then, and nobody asked me why. An older guy with a ball cap said his name was Jim Forney, I found out later that he had been a top rodeo star through the 70’s until the injuries caught up to him and brought him down.
Limpin’ Ed introduced himself and offered us some coffee. Ed had a short leg and was a lifelong freight train traveler and ranch hand in the winter.
And then there was Scarface Billy. I didn’t know it then, but he would become the Fagan to my Oliver Twist. His face was a roadmap to hell. His Romanesque nose had been broken at least a couple times. Older scars had receded into his cheeks and forehead as though he had been born with them. A few new ones were on the surface- crosshatched and red. One scar was vertical, running down across his eyebrow, upper and lower eyelids and a half-inch down unto his cheekbone giving him a Jonah Hex appearance. The eye was half closed and milky, and I wasn’t sure it was alive anymore. His almost perfect close-cropped combed hair was jet-black except for a shock of white where a scar travelled down from his scalp. His forearms were covered in old faded tattoos and the muscles beneath rolled like snakes under the skin. I wanted to be him.
I asked for a smoke and Billy handed me a pouch of Bugler rolling tobacco and some papers. I didn’t know how to roll a smoke, but I sat on my duffle bag and attempted to. It came out tapered like a joint and the old travelers all showed a look of amusement. Billy shook his head, grabbed the badly wrapped smoke from me, ripped it and dumped it back into the pouch and said,
He sprinkled tobacco evenly across the paper that he held deftly in one hand, cradled it along the middle and index fingers of both hands, and with his thumbs, slowly rolled it into a perfect cylinder leaving the just the gummed edge which he licked and rolled tight.
“That, Youngblood, is a cigarette. You wanna be a Tramp, you gotta roll like one. Take the makings and practice. You got time. We all got nothing but time.”
We waited for a train to go west on the number 6 track. I spent the time rolling and listening to these grizzled veterans of the road tell their stories. The afternoon wore on and we watched an eastbound go by into the yard and later a westbound on the number two track.
Limpin’ Ed nodded at the westbound and said, “That one’s going to Wilmar.”
Afternoon became night and I watched as Scarface Billy opened a baggy of coffee, poured a couple table spoons worth into a clean white sock and tied it off at the top. He set it carefully into a soup can of boiling water and let it steep. Coffee for one. He gave it to Ann and me and recooked the pouch in another can and took it himself.
Our westbound showed up at about two in the morning. We were all awake and ready when it rolled by at about five miles an hour and gaining speed. Billy grabbed his gear and jogged down the tracks east of us and found an open box. Ed told us to spread out and be ready when the box came by. I put Ann in front of me to make sure she got on. Each man reached out to grab the next one going by. Curly caught Ann’s hand, hoisted her up, and I reached out to the door handle of the box, flung my duffle up, and jogged a couple paces until I could vault my feet up. Billy caught my pant leg and I was in. He nodded approval when I stood up.
“You did that like a champ, Soldier. Like you were born to it.” Maybe I was. It felt like living. I had to travel to live, and I was on my way. Somewhere. Somewhere else.
We were traveling courtesy of Burlington Northern on what the others called a Hot Shot. A Hot Shot didn’t stop in every other town it went through but made a non-stop run to a particular town. This one was going to Minot, North Dakota and was supposed to be about a ten hour trip.
We rumbled and rolled and swayed and vibrated our way north and west, sometimes slowing through populated areas but never stopping. Nothing about an empty box car is soft. It was iron top to bottom and not designed for human transport. It was cold at night and dirty. Everyone slept across the car rather than end to end just in case the train stopped suddenly. If your head was near the end of the car when it hit the brakes you could break your neck. Ann and I slept and fucked as best we could, and Curly was never far from us. Ever. Always panting.
We drank White Port and Thunderbird and tepid water from milk jugs. Billy came out with a pack of Marlboros and I grinned as he shook one out for me. He had store-bought, but he made me learn how to roll. Crusty bastard.
We jumped off the box as it slowed down about a mile from the Minot yard. Riding was illegal and no-one wanted to get caught by the local railroad bull.
We made camp along the wall of an abandoned warehouse and one of the tramps came out with some hard bread and baloney. It was all anyone had, and it was shared evenly. Later, we caught another one and rumbled on to Havre, Montana and north to Whitefish. When we got there we were out of Marlboros, food and water, but Jim Forney had food stamps waiting for him at the local Human Services office. When he got them, we all split up and went to every store and convenience store that would take stamps. We each bought a pack of gum for a dime, and pocketed the ninety cents. We ended up with almost six dollars. Wine and tobacco money.
“You don’t spend money on food, Youngblood. That’s what stamps and dumpsters are for.”
We caught a Hot Shot for Spokane and when we arrived there it was night and I was passed out drunk. When they woke me up to jump off, Ann and Curly were gone. Together. Whatever. I’d been alone before.
Billy and I paired up to go dumpster diving. He showed me that once sandwiches spent their time limit under the heat lamp, McDonalds and Burger King threw them away still encased in their Styrofoam containers. Free warm clean food was waiting in the dumpsters. We made our way back with a booty of burgers, but Ed and Jim never did. We didn’t know why. It’s how things went on the road.
Scarface and I ate our fill and drank until we couldn’t anymore and rolled up in our sleeping bags and passed out. When I woke up, Billy was gone. On a rock next to the fire was a new pack of Bugler, a sack of Quarter Pounders and half a bottle of Mad Dog 20/20.