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On the Rail Again - part 2

The Waiting Room of Despair
by Jan Hertoghs for Humo magazine

 

When night is falling in Klamath Falls, we head for the Burlington Northern yard to catch out for Pasco. At one side of the yard is the control tower with its spotlights and thus no place to hide; at the other side there's rocks and heaped up sand, and that'll be our hideout until midnight when it's time to jump the Pasco Babe.

Stephan lies down on our cardboard "centerfold" (4 square meters!), a piece of luggage so comfortable that we can no longer go without. It's insulation on cold floors and dunes! It's wind protection with the upstanding flap! While Stephan sleeps, I build a little fire between two broken brake shoes. I burn tumbleweed, those weeds I have seen rolling through so many Hollywood movies! The fire does not warm me, but I get warm just by trying to light it!

Around midnight the billygoats start doing their job. For the whole night they have been idly standing by, snorting and droning, and now they tug the cars from one track to another. A switchman points to a string of cars that definitely will leave for Pasco; so we climb into an empty boxcar and just after we get in, the car gets a fierce blow throwing us almost on the floor. Then it is quiet again, but we remain squatted in the boxcar darkness, because more hits will follow, each time a new string of cars is boomed to another. Half past one and there are no more blows that make us fall, we only fall asleep now, but we must not close our eyes, because that's rule number one: you only sleep when the train is moving to secure nobody breaks into your car and robs you. Two dark figures stick their heads in our car to see if it's empty. We say there is no room for them, and in case they don't believe, Stephan is keeping a piece of wood behind the door.

Before leaving, we spike the doors, it means you jam a few extra large railroad spikes or a piece of wood in the groove so it can't slam shut in an emergency stop. Closed doors can mean death, because there are no handles on the inside, and anyway these doors are immensely heavy, each weighing a ton. Even the train loaders use a forklift to open and close them. Heavy metal!

At 2 a.m. the train leaves the yard and we roll out our sleeping bags. Finally some rest! Finally some sleep! Finally we can doze off with the clickclacking of the wheels and the soft rocking of the boxcar! But while our train is speeding up, our boxcar starts lurching and swinging as mad. By habit we spread our packs on the floor with our feet towards the wall, so our skulls wouldn't get smashed in an emergency stop. But our car is rocking and rolling so hard that my head bounces against the wall every two seconds. I hold a camping kissen over my head and wackwack!, the head goes for the wall, on and on. Then there is a thirty seconds time-out, the car more or less fits on the rails again, but then baf! baf! he starts bouncing on the rails and we bounce with it, bundled in our sleeping bags. It jolts the flesh from our buttocks and makes our guts tumble like bingo balls. I take a serious face on Stephan, he takes a serious face on me, and while we are frowning we are still rolling around like two empty bottles in a car boot, and we both burst out laughing, and I shout No! Sleep! 'Til! Brooklyn! (from the Beastie Boys in the Beastie Waggon!).

It's 5 a.m. and I'm getting up. Laying down is impossible and standing up is slightly possible if you use your legs as shock-absorbers. While standing in between doors, l really notice how fiercely our car is swinging and swaying, it's capable of dragging the whole train from the tracks!

 

TECHNICOLOR
Only at 8:00 am and after six hours of rumbling, our "sleeping coach" is slowing down for the towns of Bend and Madras and for the climb into the Mutton Mountains. In that silent range the freight pulls his car slowly upwards, bend after bend, a quiet place here, we see no living soul. Rocks are plenty, the kind of mega-blocks where black bandits hide and of course we keep our Winchesters close to our cheeks, ready to aim and shoot a hole in some black bandit's hat!

After the Mutton Mountains we descend in the wide valley of the Deschutes River, a long and winding wildwaterriver that flows into the mighty Columbia River, a real sea of water flowing under the railway bridge. Upstream the Rockies, downstream the infinite Pacific. I gauge the length of our freight to be one mile and still the Columbia River is wider. When we get to the other bank we are no longer in Oregon but Washington, and already seventeen hours on our way from Klamath Falls to Pasco. And despite the rattle and shake of tonight, the deafening noise and the hard iron floor, we regard ourselves as privileged passengers in "our" boxcar, in our personal Pullman as it is called in hobo lingo. And it sure is your private domain as a cargo passenger and there are loads of space in it, and no tourist traveling in a plane, train, car or coach can eat and sleep and walk about in his vehicle like we can in our luxury coupe 3 meters by 14 meters big! And you can stand by the doors, or sit by the doors, or lay down (and sunbathe) by the doors, you can gaze at the rolling film of the landscape with the open doors as two giant screens, 2 ½ meters wide and 4 meters high. As a bonus to this wide angle sightseeing you get the smell of pine resin and prairie grass, as well as the dizziness when the train crosses a bridge and you look right though the sleepers into the foaming river a hundred meters below. And because trains are riding through a lot of uninhabited land, you see the fish eagle cut into the river, the coyote cross a prairie road, and the pelican land on a lake.

But the nicest thing is when a train has to give way for another and goes into a hole and comes to stop and the whole machinery of noise comes to a stand still. One mile of iron suddenly as quiet as a sparrow, one mile of iron with seemingly nowhere to go on the prairie. And we hear but the wind. The wind in the grass and the wind in the wheels.

 

GUTEN MORGING
We reckoned to be in Pasco by night, but it gets 7:00 pm and 8:00 pm and 9:00 p.m. and we're tired and we doze off again on our cardboard mattress. Until the wheels shrill and scour. We slow down, we can see the lights of a city but which city? And so we shout for the drivers waiting at the crossing, "Hey Man, is this Pasco?" But we get no answer and we look for Pasco on the billboards and the road signs and the signal-boxes, and then we see a board sign for a motel outside Pasco, so, we are in Pasco! And this is the habitable world with a small seafood cafe and they just caught fresh chicken wings for us!

"Hey Hey! Wawwaw! I can see the road!" A man having hit many a bottle is standing and yogibear-smiling near our packs. "You guys ARE on the road!" he repeats. "Just like the song", I reply, "On the road again! - Yeah! That's Canned Heat, man" and he starts humming as way back '68. When he discovers we are "trainriders", he's filled with joy. "Hey man, I worked for The Great Northern Railway, I was a caboose man. I always invited hoboes to warm their hands and feet and smoke a cigarette, you know, W.E.E.D."

"But you know these hoboes, they sometimes lit a fire in the boxcar, pulled the wood from the wall and sometimes the whole wall and the whole car would start to burn because of the speeding wind. And then I had to stop the engineer so we could extinct the fire. But sometimes I made him stop for other reasons too. Then I radioed that there was a "problem" (cough cough) and then he knew enough, it meant there were deer near the track and we both shouldered our guns and we shot the deer from the train, those were the days, Man!"

And he has been in Vietnam, he says still smiling, "Two and a half year. Saigon, Danang, and I saw (puts a fingerpistol to his head, Bang! Bang!) people being executed, man! And I came back and everybody hated me and they threw me off school and my mother threw me out of the house, I had a fuckin' German stepmother that shouted Guten Morging Children! every morning, so I went away, on the road, with the hippies and the freaks, hitchhiking through the States, coast-to-coast in 96 hours! And then I went to work the trains and then I went to live in Hawaii, but now I'm back in this goddamned hole because my father is old and sick. And now I am back where I was 25 years ago. I am divorced, I have no more wife, no more work, no more house, no more car, but my German stepmother is still alive! And how I hate her fuckin 'Gluten fuckin' Morging!" When we're leaving we doubt if we are going to sleep in the open. We promised each other we'd do it "the hard way", and stay only twice in a motel those two weeks, but then we see the neon from the Starlite Motel, and we're so tired and tonight we have had such a terrible shaking, that we beat the dust from our clothes and ring. It's a cheap place and the toilet is tape-fixed and in the mirror I wonder at my own face, a four day beard, hair as hard as dust and eyes as light as a coalminer. Ecce hobo!

 

COALRIDERS AND GREEN MUSKETEERS
To catch out from Pasco we have sheer shamrock luck. After we entered the yard real easy and after we got to a luxurious boxcar as if it were a shopping cart, we're surprised to see three young Mexicans come running for the moving train, their heads bowed in fear for being seen. One car further four guys have dumped themselves in a car with coal-dust, you must be desperate doing this! Seems that the Pasco Bull had discovered these seven trespassers twice in 24 hours, so they had to think of a last minute leave and a cover in the black dust "the bull never controls those dirty coalcars!" The four coalboys climb in our car; they come from a music festival in Seattle and they're heading for Missoula, MT. They say that they feel "boxed in" a bit and "to broaden their horizon" they will launch an attack on the one closed door every time the train stops. It's a game, when the signal changes to red, jump from the car, climb the couplings and bang with a wooden pole on the rusted door. Two times they have to jump the couplings and the running train, but at the third stop the door breaks open and here we have a double panorama! And now look out for a dump and six chairs they say, one time they found a sofa on a dump, they could sit and watch the landscape from a soft bench in the boxcar.

Yeah, these guys really want to improve their environment, and no wonder, they're ex-Greenpeace members. Tom, Woody, Twilly and Groovee have turned their backs to Greenpeace however because the organization was "lame, slow and conservative." Now they're member of The Ruckus Society and they organize summer camps where green activists are trained in direct action. This year there's a summer program of blocking roads and building tree huts, because a number of national forests are threatened by the wood industry.

In fact these four green musketeers are part of an old tradition in the States, because for over a hundred years all kind of subversive individuals and anarchists the like consider the freight trains as their "comrade" when they were opposing the law and looking for a hiding. Take Jack London writer/golddigger/socialist whose irresistible adventures as "Tramp Royal" are depicted in The Road. Take Joe Hill, the Swedish emigrant that rode the rails from 1902-1914 and was later to be executed. Take Woody Guthrie, the man who gave a voice to hundreds of thousands of boxcar-dwellers in the thirties. And finally Jack Kerouac who in the 40's and the 50's - when cars were already very popular in the States - was more keen of trainriding than hitch-hiking.

According to Twilly the freights have kept that attraction as the only vehicles where one can be free. And this boredom of leaving everything behind, of going on the road is something Americans have done for a long time: "When feeling limited in their job, when having problems with their relationships or themselves, when having trouble with the police or the law, than there is always this instinctive reflex of going on the road. it's a fascination we share with the frontiermen. One who's feeling limited in space, went for the open road, went searching for a place to start a new life. And that's how a lot of people start riding the rails. Some have got cut off from normal society that way. Some have retreated in those trains like monks in a monastery."

Twilly rides the rails (now and then) for 21 years, but to hard core tramps he's just a tourist." They are like the catholics versus jews and the orthodox. They tolerate you, but as long as I am not choosing for the fulltime freedom of the train, I haven't found The Way, The Truth and The Life!"

For hours the train is moving through the Palouse, rolling lands of green, prairies full of sagebrush, and miles of corn and wheat and where there are phone poles there must be a road, the only road through this landscape. It's an icon of America and in the middle of that icon the train comes to a stand still. And everything becomes quiet, everything is quiet because there is only grass growing.

 

BORN AGAIN IN SPOKANE
The change into Spokane (200.000 inh.) is rude. From the moonlit country we suddenly break into the red lights of the city, the graffiti and the zigzag stairs on the old warehouses and somebody shouts from a hedge: "Tell me how to ride trains." It makes Spokane a bit spooky, an impression that'll get stronger in the coming days. But where the train stops, the air is filled with the mild fragrancy of lawnmowed gardens, and we decide to lay our bones in a quiet bank where we are found the next morning, by a man with a child on his arm. "Hey you guys, you want some breakfast!" and we sure appreciate it and his house is up the other side of the track, here is the bathroom, and here are the eggs with toast and melon, and this is my son Matthew, and this morning I thought, who are these two tramps, and Jesus told me I had to help you, and I was afraid and a little scared, but I knew Jesus would protect me, and if you have time to listen for a while I'd like to tell you that Jesus saved me. Some time ago I almost crashed with my car in a canyon, the devil was pulling at my steering wheel but He turned it back again and He saved me, and Jesus is there to save you Jan, and you, Stephan..."

Thomas Brosnan is a Born Again Christian and he goes on for another hour or so, gives us two apples and a bag of cookies and two bibles "for the road", and Thomas sure is a good fellow, but the "Tourist Bureau for Heaven should teach her agents on earth that there is something like sheer hospitality (preaching not included).

 

WILD BILL
Thomas takes us to the center of Spokane, drops us in the nicest shopping area, but we want to see skid row and the missions, places where you find shelter and food and free clothing. 500 yards from the station, where the asphalt crackles and lousy shops are selling lousy radios and lousy fridges, there's Charity House. Drifters sleep on discarded church benches, tramps roll sloppy fags on sloppy tables, and drop outs watch a buzzing telly set up high on a wall. Waiting room of despair, so it comes to my mind, because in places like this a title for a documentary is quickly found, but soon after we have such funny chats with all the incoming and outgoing visitors that I have to review my title. There's Tony, Cheyenne native from Montana. He's here to keep his father from the booze. His father jumped some weeks ago from a train and lost a leg. There's Willy, a guy always repeating that what we are seeing "is not America. The real America are men that polish their cars and women that clean their windows". There's Jimmy, pretending he's the owner of a radiostation, license he bought for $17.50 in some occasion magazine, and now he mills around with a ghettoblaster under the arm, constantly turning the tuner, and when hearing music from Kenny Loggins, Tom Petty or John Cougar Mellencamp, he lifts his hand, "that's my station, that's it!"

And there is the Zookeeper. The first female tramp we meet. She travels alone, she says, and she shows her sooty fingers with the cheap purple nail polish, but that's all she wants to say, because she "has" to go and drink with a female friend. And round the corner next to a broken caravan, she sits down with a bunch of winos, men and women all drunk, the beer going in icy bottles from mouth to mouth, and there's quarrel about who has paid again this time, and in all this shouting and swaying there's an old man squatted on the ground and I can hear him say loud and clear: "Sometimes I feel like a motherless child!" And it's so momentous an angel should fall down from heaven and violins should play in the air and all traffic would come to a stand still, but the quarrel of the 20th century just goes on and on.

And in Charity House everybody yaps and yaps, begging for a fag, asking over and over again if Johnny or Freddy aren't in and why not and where were they yesterday and of course this asylum is managed by an Irish catholic, the sort of people that are brought up listening to drunks and lunatics. And yes, this is a nuthouse, he says, and yes, everybody here is called Wild Bill, and no, they do not refuse anyone, drunks and junkies, they all are welcome in this house of the father.

 

CUT THE CRAP
One mile further down the road there is the Union Gospel Mission, managed by the Born Again Christians. A clean and modern brick building with a sign on the wall: a beckoning electrically lighted cross protrudes from the outer wall "Sharing the message of hope" it says. To experience everything "live" Stephan hides his cameras in his backpack and we register as "trainriders" which is enough to say you have no means of existence. It's 3:45 pm and we're just in time for supper. We follow the long row through the refectory for a ball of mashed potato, a ball of minced meat, a grip of lettuce and a big piece of cake. I say "thank you" but the man in the kitchen gives me the looks, cut the crap and eat. It was quiet in the row, but it is absolute silent at the tables, no word is spoken, the only sound is the ticking of forks and knives on the plastic plates. The men eat hastily and with bowed heads, everybody seems to eat alone, there is no eye contact as if one is ashamed to he here. I count about a hundred men, old and young, childish farmer faces and tough city looks, worn out t-shirt and US Army surplus dress, and but one guy that is walking around with an elastic pace on his canvas shoes, looking frankly, not bowing his head, a rebel without a house.

In less than an hour the hundred guests have queued, got their meal and cleaned up the tables and now there is free time until 7:00 pm. Some hang around outside because it's the only place where you're allowed to smoke or drink coke or eat some sweets. It's the rule: in the building there is an absolute ban on alcohol, tobacco and all kinds of snacks and soft drinks. Eating and drinking is only allowed in the eating room. If you get caught smoking, you're banned for 90 days. If you get caught drinking alcohol, you risk to he banned for ever. Newcomers can expect a breath test "at any moment" and if you have alcohol in your blood, there is no way you can stay. "It is severe", they tell us, "but it prevents a lot of problems". Most visitors here are down and out: lost their job, lost their money, lost their wife. And thus: just out of prison, just stopped drinking or taking drugs. Biggest mouth is David. One year ago he received $100,000 cash in social security money and he spent it in six months, on 'booze, dope and women in hot tubs. Now he's dimeless.

 

THE LOST SON
It's time for the chapel, for the compulsory daily gospel hour, called the "earbanger". We enter a sober hall and take a light metal seat in front of the pulpit. At the door and near to the stars 'n stripes are two "bouncers" (supervisors that awake the drowsy), two mean-looking fat asses that chew chewing gum and lean against the wall, with a much too thick watch around their wrist and a much too long torch around their belly.

The pastor asks us to bow our heads for a prayer and to thank God for the day "that for some of us has been a hard day". Then a cheerful trio steps on the platform, it's the gospel choir for tonight, white and rosy as marzipan, but they know their downbeat audience, they tour the missions all over the States. Uncle Roy, a jovial fellow with checkered shirt and suspenders, is the singer-songwriter for tonight and he accompanies himself on the guitar with songs like "Victory in Jesus", "I am a Fool for Jesus", and finally "Mama's Bible", a melancholic song about a mother who has always been praying for her runaway son, and I notice the silence in the air, Uncle Roy sure touched upon more than six tender strings. And I look to the rows left and right, the weary heads, the heads in the hands, the hands full of wrinkles, the fingers thick of hard labor. And than comes the inevitable "man of the word", a jerk with a fine mustache who asks if anyone already got lost someday. And one can feel him come like a ferry boat, this is going to be the parable of the Lost Son or the Lost Sheep. And then the gospel is over, the choir finishes with a sugar version of "Amazing Grace", wishes all of us a good night, and then we have to pass those two bouncers again, how feretty they look upon us. Walt Disney, these are your crooks!

 

DEAD MAN'S PAJAMAS
After the gospel we have to wait for the shower and in the meantime we get a bed number. Haynes? Number 56 and then you get a dog tag with your number. I have bed 134, Stephan 139. When all numbers are issued, they ask for volunteers for the next day: for breakfast, doing dishes, cleaning up and laundry. Then it's time for the shower. In groups of thirty we go in the hall, we line up at the counter, we say our number, 134, we get a yellow plastic crate, we go and stand near a bench by the wall, we undress, we undress completely, we put all our possessions into the crate (also shoes, wallet and the novel you read), again we line up for the counter, this time naked, we give back the crate, we say our number, we worry about our possessions "don't worry! Nothing gets stolen! The room with crates gets locked!", we receive a bindle, it's a towel and a pajamas, we go under the shower, with twelve men we go in the big shower room, get the soap and get washed.

And while the steaming water runs on our backs, I see all that poor nudity, the bad feet and the crooked knees, the blue bulbous veins, the flabby bellies, the meager ribs, and all those poor ass holes that get out of the bath and dry themselves and get in their pajamas. My jacket has light blue stripes (a gift from the Montgomery Ward, is it a prison?, they tell me it's a warehouse). My trousers are light blue too and there's a name tag in it (OISE ROZINSKY) and David grins: "Yeah man! Wearing a dead man's pajamas!" And that's how it feels.

In the little room near the shower three men are watching a black' n white telly with a coughing screen. In their poor pajamas they look like the zombie patients in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" but I can see no Jack Nicholsen smuggling in some booze nor Big Indian Brother smashing the water fountain through the window and let every one escape. But why escape when you have asked yourself to be sheltered in this cheap pajama charity? And then it's 9:30 pm and irrevocably the lights go out and irrevocably the doors get shut and no one moves anymore in Spokane Shunt Central.

 

Part 3