Executive Hobos and 9/11

part 6

I awaken in a dark tunnel with a light at the end. Memories flash of the foundry inferno, Amtrak, and my associates trailing from this pipe. The kiss of sleep for five hours has cured the exhaustion of two weeks travel. I feel as healthy as an ape. Medical wisdom would be revamped if tramps, with their filthy habits and superb immunity, visited doctors. I crawl out the pipe into a fresh sunset at Grand Junction.

I stride the high iron - mainline - to find two scruffy tramps drinking like fish under the RR bridge. They wave me over with a wine jug. I decline but edge up to chat. "What kinda tramp don't drink?" the string bean coaxes as his stubby buddy nods. I lightly tender that I'm a vacationing sub-teacher not wishing to set a bad example. Each smoothes his hair straight away.

"You're educated, can't fool us," says the taller as if deaf. "Why the hell ya ridin' the freights?" I inform, "I like to learn different cultures to teach my students the real facts of life." "Aw, man," Short wines. "I'm sorry, mister. I was one of those snot noses who daydreamed in the back of the room." "Well," I request, "Do you have a lesson for me to pass to the alert students?" Short instructs, "Just tell them, kids do the right thing. They know what that means." Tall tutors, "An' listen to your teacher, kids."

"Why do you drink?" I ask earnestly, to which they sit astonished. "Because it's in the bottle, an' it makes a hot day waiting for a freight under the bridge go by quick like Norman Rockwell drew," snickers Tall. "Aw," claims Short, "The booze soothes my working days and cures the wanderlust."

The duo are drywallers awaiting a freight down the line to a job in Glenwood Springs. However, the long bottle has priority and already they've passed up a few. They are good men, good and tough, but drunk. Tipping the jug, Tall argues, "Cheap wine is our drink today like common tramps, but we're working stiffs who deserve and buy better after each paycheck."

Drinking is simply a way of life along the hard road. A shameful brand of liquor is the traveling friend of 70% of men on the rail, deserving or not. However, keen 'bos pack just one bottle and uncork it only after they have safely boarded and pulled out in their car. The life span of one bottle in a boxcar is less than the distance to the next division point, and thus they eschew the foul aspect of freight hoping under the influence - detraining on the fly. There is one other smart way to blend freights and booze: Drink, and then sleep the hangover off under a bridge before the catchout, as this pair alleges they shall do.

John Steinbeck writes of paying hobos cash for their real-life stories as the fodder of Grapes of Wrath. Similarly, I oftentimes afford a bottle of Night Train or other cheap wine to bribe my way into jungles, a ruse that has never failed to earn yarns without getting knifed.

But I want to leave the drunks with something special for the day. "I follow a personal Golden Line of Progress through life," I tell them. "Every hour of every day I like to learn or advance on some front. Heaven knows I tried being a hobo, living in the jungles and alleys between rides. But boredom and the Line nipped me onward every time I sat still. For some inner urge, I must continually advance along this Golden Line through life."

"That's pretty," counters a suddenly sobered Tall. "But ain't we all - stripped of romance - just men rolling nowhere?" I retort, "We set our own goals." (Secretly, though, I admit their sad note that home is not a part of many people's lives.)

Short studies my boots - scuff and wear - to dig deeper into my being. "Say, teach, what you got on your ankles." "Ankle weights," I answer. "What for?" "Makes it harder to walk today but easier tomorrow." At that Short snorts, "Like drinkin'... makes sense."

"Have you seen a couple of other educated guys with packs?" I finally inquire. "Yep, they wouldn't take a drink either," grins Tall. "They were tough dandies," affirms Short. "We directed them to the mission a couple hours ago though it feeds at 7pm, about now." I instantly know where to find my partners.

Apple and Pronto stand near the end of a chain of forty men anchored expectantly to the mission door. "Soup's on!" rings Apple spotting me. "Come an' get it!" adds Pronto, diagnostically scanning my frame for signs of health. "Let's eat!" I enthuse, and the door unbolts.

"Follow my cue," I tell the execs for they've never taken this first step. We enter and are greeted by a sturdy gatekeeper with friendly eyes. "First time?" he asks. "Yes," we respond. "Sign the register. No need to show ID's. The sermon begins promptly and supper after."

Feed the soul and then the stomach. This is the hobo lament through history, but no one has figured a better way to yoke converts. Tonight, fifty hungry folks in thin, clean threads file and sit patiently on metal folding chairs in an 80'-square room with a concrete floor and tiny windows. The speaker, a scrubbed man with a hard jaw, mounts a wood platform in front of us for the "ear pounding" sermon. I whisper to my cohorts, "The preacher looks like anyone in the audience which is auspicious."

"Folks," the man with the hard chin starts out slow like a train ready to roar. "You know me. I'm Alley Abe." A murmur from the corner, "You look good shaved, Abe." He nods and hollers, "Thank you, Jesus!"

"I hit rock bottom! You saw me puking in the alleys. I worshiped Satan and the bottle!"

Quietly, "And now you see me sober for the first time in two decades."

The giddy man describes Jesus walking on water out of a storm. After that, how easy it was for Abe to take Jesus's hand and walk out of alcoholism. Now he is an upright citizen with a job at the supermarket and a date this Friday.

The speech is impassioned and, in the call afterward for sinners "Who tonight give their hearts to the Lord and be saved?" produces one, no two... now three hands thrust high. A lady sobbing joy and two men likely in need of clothes vouchers are sided instantly by the sturdy doorman and his helpers. Each wins a new Bible, and the laymen lead them with many "Bless you, brothers" into a back room for secret counsel.

The executives grip their chairs and sit upright. "I've never witnessed anything like it," erupts Apple. "A five-percent hit rate is very high," counts Pronto. "Nothing works like a recovered peer," I proffer.

Soon the podium is wheeled aside and, surprisingly for the first time, warm food wafts on the air throughout the room. The folding chairs are bellied up to tables slid to the room center and all sit with renewed vigilance. I insert between the execs and elbow them. "Look around at the people before you put your faces in the stew." It is a typical group of fifty broken down by these pieces: Short stakers (Itinerant workers who stay on jobs long enough to amass traveling money) - 20%; Simple transients (Just passing through) - 20%; Local color (Street people) - 20%; Welfare and disability cases (Who augment doles with food lines) - 20%; Stew bums (Alcoholics and meth freaks) -10%; Working for Jesus (Mission staff and traveling stiffs who live off the church) -5%; Get into the world quick kids (Children possessed at an early age of wanderlust) - 3%; Kings of the road (Train hoppers including the executives.) -2%.

We're seated across from a husband-wife couple of Short stakers, the brawn and brains respectively. "I'll stay in Grand Junction as long as the painting job holds out, maybe a month," he says affably. "Ain't he great?" the plump young wife leans against his hard ribs. "My problem as a nurse's aid is I can't take paid work because of SSI (disability pension for an unclear reason), and cash jobs are rare as hen's teeth." I ask, "Do you take the freights or hitchhike?" He answers, "I used to ride boxcars, but with a lady it's easier to hitch the highways and sometimes we freight." They are time-honored Weary Willies who headquarter in a division town using the mission and shelter and working a stint before moving on to the next town. "We just like to jump ruts and travel," she declares.

Supper is undecipherable but no one complains and I go back for seconds. Apple, used to better, chews slowly, peeps frequently under the toast, and whispers, "The chunks in the gravy are green and smell like yesterday." Pronto masticates with a fixed grin, "It's been soup and hardy toast."

Both executives scope the room and catch bits of conversation while discounting the food. Apple appears to be trying to figure out based on the facts before him, what to do with his own wild and precious life. He finishes the Sh__ on Shingle and rises to clean up at the far counter at three bins labeled: "#1 Cutlery, #2 Cup, #3... Crash! Plates and pieces fly everywhere. Everyone in the room swivels to see a red Apple balanced on one foot reaching out to steady the top plate of a stack of fifty leaning like Pisa.

Finally, he stabilizes the column and turns to face the strangers. The nail that sticks out is usually hammered down, but not this one. He coolly states, "I simply put my plate on top and they all began falling. I'll be happy to replace the broken ones. Is there a mop in the house?" The big doorkeeper giggles and brushes Apple aside. "Don't worry about it, son," he bolsters. "It's not the first time it's happened." Big Apple owns an inner calm, "Calm as virtue," Shakespeare wrote. And he did clean up.

The doorkeeper glows at our leave and asks if we got enough. Pronto smacks his lips, "It's horsehide and liver pieces, tasty!"

The streets outside the mission all the way to the railroad bridge glisten with a fresh rain. I request the execs' reactions to their first mission visit. Apple bids, "I felt fine with the people in consideration of the past days on the rails and cardboard. It was fascinating to hear a former Satanist speak of Christianity, but I have issues with the Judeo-Christian theory. It brought a bit of joy to them and, for many, takes them off the streets into self-respect so it helps the community for life. The meal was hardy though I was disappointed they thought me clumsily. I was surprised no one knocked you at the sermon for holding the Holy Book upside-down, Doc."

Pronto appends, "I felt comfortable with the people though I haven't struggled enough to call them peers. They're all there for reasons they know, and understand the drill. I admire the mission exuberance and there are lessons in overall efficiency to take home to my business."

I summarize, "The sermon is a prime example of the church's freedom of speech and acumen to coax a man to give up the street and bottle for the church and Bible. The sword is double edged, though. Several "mission stiffs" travel the circuit and stand up at sermon last calls to wash clean their souls by accepting a viewpoint. In exchange for their false promises, they get four days of food and lodging as a free step toward the better life, plus a Bible. I side with the ancient train hopper who said, "There ain't no pie in the sky', though the most convincing sermons in the world are heard at missions and the food is never bad for a tramp's soul and stomach that always seem empty."

The execs are anxious to swing back onto the freights. "The Amtrak ride was a nice break, but sitting inside a bubble without the wind, smells and noise gets tedious. The freight is the only way to go," contends Apple. Pronto concurs, "I like the greater freedom of movement of the freight versus a passenger train, better view, and I can pee into a Gatorade bottle."

A splendid rainbow rises over the track in the east, our portal to the Rockies. The old RR bridge is the common catch point in an active yard. The earlier drunks are vacated leaving "dead soldiers" - empty liquor bottles - and precious cardboard. I tell the pair that these bridges are cardboard cities, so better grab handfuls for the impending ride. Pronto drums his knees. Apple pulls a yoyo from a pocket and flips through some prize tricks including a round-the-world that can knock a bug off a jug.

Yet it galls me after a short discussion that they decide to await a freight under this bridge. I rise tall to expound the options: "Quickly, pick the best answer and let's move in that direction." I insist that camping here calls for all-night rotating watches if a freight sneaks up during sleep. Or, if one cannonballs out the yard, there will be one scant minute to select a ride and get on. In contrast, we can now creep deeper from the bridge into the yard to kip in an empty car next to the main, or right onto the Amtrak platform as sleeping actors for the morning passenger train.

They frown at me at sunset. This rustic bridge is truly beguiling with old monikers tagging the abutments - Slow Motion Shorty, Boxcar Maniac, Jerusalem Slim - the dead soldiers, fast food wrappers, and see the ubiquitous cardboard. Further, we learned earlier that on average four daily eastbounds pause near here to change crew, plus another two freights are built in the make-up yard. I consider all this under the RR bridge, as thousands of tramps over the past century stood in the same shelter calculating the best odds and place to catch the Denver Man. Our modern joker, however, is Apple's midnight flight in just over 48 hours.

"You guys decide," I ultimately tell them and stand at wait.

The execs are champion problem solvers in a maze of new territory - the rails - and seem drunk on hobo nostalgia. Apple speaks first, "I say wait here under the dry bridge so nobody bothers us, there's cardboard to sleep on, the units will head up near the bridge, and we'll hear them in time to board." Pronto nods heartily. They also figure on no night watch, so we three fall to the ground and - no hard traveling tramp requires longer - sleep in a minute.

Hours later, the worst scenario unfolds. Late in the night, the ground shakes and there's thunder under the bridge. I leap up next to four smoking engines rolling past. The others are up too dancing in the reflected headlights. "Tramps!" I scream, "Let's get on."

There's this slim chance if the freight departs slowly - unlikely with the four units blowing hard. The businessmen had taken off their boots against my advice, and now struggle to lace them up. In this golden minute, I watch car-after-car tumble by looking for the right one to board. My partners, shirttails a-hanging, soon join me at the 15mph steel filament... too fast. Our curses are drowned under the bridge clamor.

I scold them after the last car, "You seem to have forgotten the Colorado deadlines, falling asleep on watch, the dangers of boarding on the fly, and an otherwise sure ride from the Amtrak platform in picking this cute spot to flop. Now look at us staring at the damn blinking FRED shrinking down the track." (Or, maybe I harbor, they're concerned with their Mensa scoutmaster's health and the group need for a night's sleep.)

Still they cavort like keystone cops under the bridge, so I sit with my back to them. Abruptly, there's a bellow behind my ears "Mooo..." but it's only Pronto. Apple hits me on the head with cardboard. "A tough lesson is not repeated," they conciliate. "Let's go to the platform."

We stomp out the bridge to reach the Amtrak ramp and plunk down between a hurricane fence and the high iron. This is a strategic spot under a clear night sky to sleep in wait of a through freight to change crew and board. Out with the cardboard, unroll the bags, and the triad lays on the cushioned cement in harmony.

Maybe out of a punitive dream, hours later, I awaken and lie in the black considering our plight. The exec tramps are still green, mistake prone, and need dress rehearsal. We must catch the next freight or miss our deadlines. "Pronto!" I prod the sleeping bagpipe player. "Let's go inside the yard to learn how it works." He jumps up at once.

"Freight jumping begins before you're aboard," I tell him inside the main yard that's as quiet as an operating room between emergencies. We identify and climb on various parked freight cars, step up and down ladders for the muscle memory, observe mock "silent rollers" - car strings sliding silently without engines - play cat-and-mouse with mock bulls, and ask one live yardman for train info to no avail.

On the return an hour later to the platform, I ask the final exam question. "What are the four dangers to watch for inside the yard?" "Thugs, silent rollers, bumped strings, and the bull," he answers, adding, "And your own stupidity." "How do you know that?" I ask. "I read it in your Hobo Training Manual." "You're graduated, I praise. "Get some shuteye."

I nudge a cold trembling Apple sleeping on the cardboard. "Let's go learn about freights." He rises eagerly. At twenty-five, he's an empty page struggling hard to be filled. My main concern is not his athleticism but naivety. His groundwork emails for this trip were speckled with inquiries like, "What should I do if I'm running in Central park and a shadow moves up behind me?"

Tower lamps fling yellow funnels onto the grit and a dozen black irons that we hop across to a derelict string of flatcars, and stop. "Let's pretend," I prompt. "These cars are moving and you are going to "flip", get on one. First, check the forward ballast for rough spots and signals. Next, here comes your flatcar at 5mph. Then, focus on the ladder at the car front; not the rear ladder where the cookie-cutter wheels trail. Don't board if you're drunk. Don't be enticed by a ladder traveling faster than a trot - there are enough variables without throwing in speed. Now, climb aboard. He does with alacrity, and replies "I understand. You are saying favorable traits are preserved on the rails via burying of the less fit under the wheels." After that statement I worry less. Nonetheless, he insists we drill ten times more running alongside the car, looking, hooking, and stepping on.

There are a hundred other little hobo tricks that I pass along during our hour inside the yard: Look both way at rails, monkey over cars, don't touch seals on boxcars or containers, don't step on couplers, listen for bumped cars, avoid trips through the hump yard, keep the radios muted, stay focused always, keep in shadows or along strings, stay focused always, be alert for bulls and rattlesnakes, and have a good story ready if tagged.

Nothing has moved the whole time inside the yard except grazing bats, cricket legs and our own hard-working minds. Apple gushes, "I had no idea it was so complex, and yet so simple when approached systematically. I feel a lot better knowing what's ahead." We retreat to the platform to sleep, perchance to dream.

It seems like my head just hit the cement platform when there sounds, "Cock-a-doodle... DOO!" I poke my nose out to see Pronto standing over my sleeping bag facing the rising sun with head thrust back.

"Donut?" offers Apple, opening a sack. "Coffee?" Pronto extends a steaming cup. My associates look eager-eyed to taste the rails. "Sinkers!" I insist, taking one and the coffee. Bo's call these "sinkers" and "mud". The hooked duo has visited Starbucks this morning.

Pronto asks if everyone is finished with the Wall Street Journal he has tucked tightly under his wing. Then he greedily stuffs it into his pack citing a hard lesson learned in the cold night before. "Tonight will be different in the Rockies," and he quotes a rail adage. "I will demonstrate the difference between a tramp and a hobo. Both use the Wall Street Journal for insulation inside the pants and sleeves, but a hobo reads it first."

Cleverly showing tough guys don't complain but get resourceful, Apple pulls out a needle and thread to stitch cardboard pads inside his britches seat. "This replaces the need to search constantly for cardboard," he avers.

Next, Apple studies Pronto dry shaving and reddens, waits and asks, "Does it hurt?" "Nah, you get used to it. I don't use antiseptic either. Want to try?" "No," he pats a week-old shadow on his chin. "I started it in New York. I'd never gone two days without shaving since I was a child. Is it hoboesque?" "Yep," I kid, and take the same old razor and dry shave without a nick, telling him some tramps use a broken catsup bottle. Then Pronto reveals a miraculous cowboy trick, twirling a plastic sack plastic into a string and flossing his teeth with it. Apple grins and finishes the group bathroom by brushing his teeth with an index finger dipped in caffeinated coffee.

Apple - ever-ready - and Pronto - steady and experienced - are fast forming a bond based, oddly enough, on Arabic Music. Apple lived his early childhood in the Middle East, whereas Pronto grew up milking cows and beating drums in Northern California. Pronto and his twin brother were world champion dueling drummers, and now he alone heads the San Francisco drum-and-pipe-band, plus playing bagpipes at weddings. The pair sits on the cement pad tapping notes from the Persian musician Moein, as I look far, far up the empty inbound rail.

Apple draws a harmonica from his pack. "I bought it new at Barnes and Noble attached to a How-To-Play book at the same time I let my beard go. Listen." He wants to honor the rich hobo tradition of music, despite one-hour practice on the cement car across the Great Basin. "I'm going to play a little tune from the instruction book called "Train Whistle".

It's bad but it's free. While Apple blows, Pronto sketches the RR yard and salient features - bridge, mission, Starbucks, and our catchout platform - details that will blur in memory after a hundred similar division towns, into a small spiral notebook. This record shall be a treasure and timesaver that every early sharp tramp keeps until, like the network of lines on an old bo's face, they become firm in recall.

"Train Whistle" ends and, hearing no requests for more rail songs from Barnes and Noble, Apple disposes his harp and frowns into the sunshine. "Last night I hit rock bottom."

We brace for a certain-to-come revelation. "The cardboard bed after bucking the rails across the desert made me think while laying there shivering after we missed the freight. This metaphorically is my fire walking experience. I've just walked on hobo fire and now I can go into the world and do anything." Apple lifts his head. "I can do anything!"

I tell the duo about Todd "Adman" Waters, the millionaire Minneapolis advertising mogul. "He flies around the country to business meetings and rides the freight trains home to his wife. Adman hires employees after they've ridden a freight train or spent one night on the streets. He thinks a person must hit rock bottom too before reaching his potential."

Pronto nods grimly. "A Nobel Prize winner once proved a cell grows or alters after it goes through a period of vulnerability, and it was called the "Rock-bottom Theory". After you hit rock-bottom you acquirer the strength and confidence to grow and advance in any endeavor."

Waiting and patience are also large wedges of the hobo pie. We perch on the concrete pad for hours.

At long last, an eastbound train slides in and parks on the mainline before us. It's a stretchy "unit freight" of all the same gondolas hauling the same goods: a mystery. We leave our packs and step from the concrete platform to the nearest car. "What do these plaques mean?" asks Apple, pointing at 2'-square signs up-and-down the line repeating in bold black: Warning - Hazardous Materials!"

I mount the ladder and gaze down at tons of what appears and smells to be dry fertilizer. So simple to spread a tarp and ride the stinky cushion. Instead, I announce down, "This load falls under the authority of chemical spill expert Pronto." He scales the ladder, glances and states, "No good. It's shit! It'll blow in our eyes, and heat under the sun to produce gases. I'll pass."

Curious Apple climbs up, pinches his nose and howls, "It's manure! And there are bugs and flies crawling in it. I'd rather miss my flight." So, I'm out-muscled on the vote again and we retire with hung chins to the passenger platform.

"We need intelligence," grumps Pronto after the manure train pulls out. He firmly knots his green bandana at the throat, and leaves the fireman's pack with us to more freely penetrate the yard for facts. Twenty minutes later, our radios bark, "A shack advises us to forsake the main and try the East make-up yard one mile up the track. I'm on my way back for the pack." He arrives, adding hopefully, "Eastbounds depart twice-a-day."

The forced march is the foundation of hoboing as much as the riding. That, with hearty mission food and outdoor air and bed, tone the shaggy subculture fit as community college athletes. Walk, walk, you must walk to the main yard, climb strings to the right track, "frisk the drag" to find a proper car, locate the jungle and rest until the freight pulls out, or maybe catch it on the fly. All that under a 40-pound pack. I used to take a jump rope to skip inside the boxcars, but after the initial strenuous outings traded it for a hammock. Hoboettes - female riders - especially love the regimen and complementary "hobo diet" of being trapped day and night on a moving train with only what little they brought aboard.

We march the steel ribbons under the bridge and toward the rising sun. I speed ahead of the others with my own thoughts and faults. The illness plus last night's miscalculations nip my heels for a quarter-mile until my trance is torn free by a blast on the left from a building door of rap music. I glance up protectively only to see a lady in a tight red dress and a three-foot purple beehive hairdo jitterbug out the back door. She tilts her head and utters, "Come to the party, darling tramp!" She has enough hair for a hayride, but I shake my head no! and hasten by. Fleet footsteps by my partners catch me, and together we decide it was an Alice in Wonderland party still swinging from the prior night.

We trudge eastward like cart-horses for thirty sweating minutes to the Last Chance Liquor Store. The shack has named it as the landmark along the mainline next to the make-up yard. We enter to buy juice, coffee and milk - the execs are no boozers - and then exit to sip them against the warming back store wall.

Across two mainlines from us lies a bowl of some twenty tracks comprising the Grand Junction mile-long East makeup yard. Here, car strings are clanged together by yard hogs to form entire trains that, twice a day in each direction, pull out. Freights are built on minimal parameters, so after a few yards you start to notice patterns. An old timer uses these to paint a canvas of the yard in his mind with the sounds, images and feelings in order to make his own move onto it. We face the stock-still morning bowl until Apple finishes his coffee, and then all straighten. "We need info," he says. "Radios on," and off he marches with a resolute jaw. Our programmer has tremendous people skills, knows the questions to ask - time, track, direction, destination, cars, cuts - and a razor memory.

The procedure when one peels from the base camp is for the mates to wait patiently with their radios on as the scout probes the yard with his off so it doesn't tweak and stir a worker. When Apple wants to talk, he'll buzz us. But today he returns on a lope in twenty minutes. "There was no time to radio. The twelfth track over... They're backing units onto our Denver Man!"

We collect the gear and hump into the yard, scale a couple car strings, and hike to the correct rail where our freight sits in wait. Apple, the youngest at twenty-five and strongest, hands us his pack and jogs to the tail to engage a brakie, as Pronto and I turn toward the head so that the team will soon evaluate the entire train. "Radios still on," I shout after him.

With no bulls about and time on our hands, Pronto and I "frisk the drag" walking the mile-freight to select a ride. A boxcar is best in ill weather, but today's is perfect. We stride past empty hoppers that would be energetic, but are seeking a container or piggyback for a smoother, longer, faster haul. Thwarted, we finally focus on one battered gondola at mid-train. It is a metal shoebox on wheels with 5'-sides to cut the wind and see over. We spring up, over, and in. The floor is clean of dirt with a few scraps of wood to sit on. In minutes, the walkie-talkies ring in our pockets.

"It's going to leave!" pants Apple by radio. "I'm running!" The brakes test now and the units rev. "Faster!" Pronto screams into the mike. "Can you see me?" huffs Apple.

Closing swiftly at an eighth-mile, we crane over the gondola to spot our sprinting pal. Pronto waves and shouts directly, "We see you!"

The locos roar and tug hard up front, the gondola shocks and it rolls. The scenario then becomes an algebra problem, and this is what's going through Apple's mind, I'm sure: Man running 12mph is 1/8-mile from the target accelerating away at 1/8-mph/second. Will Apple reach the gondola or miss it by fingertips?... What I forgot to factor in is the unplumbed depths of the man's heart, and perhaps his fear of missing the train and flight to New York. Incredibly, though winded, he accelerates and in one minute touches the tail of our 10mph car.

I stare hard down at him and say evenly, "Apple, pick a ladder rung. Grab it." He latches and the train pulls him away, feet dangling. "Now swing your feet up." They purchase the bottom rung. Pronto exhales and I rub my eyes.

We pull his arms over the top. He flops with a heaving chest onto the metal floor, encircled by smiling mid-husbands as over a newborn. "What a way to land a train!" he gasps. He had run for two months in Central Park for this one stellar moment on the rails. A new light takes Apple's eyes; he's changed in one death-defying leap into a man. "Welcome aboard, bro!" Pronto claps him strongly on the back as the freight chugs up the Rockies.