Saturday, June 12, 2010

George of the Train Yards

We spent three days on that train. Somewhere in the loop we made from South to North Dakota and back again, our hunger sent us off the train in search of food. One of the nicer bums from the train suggested an orphanage he knew of nearby and went to solicit a handout. My stomach was growling miserably making it hard to wait for that anticipated meal. An interminable time later he returned with a sack of sandwiches and oranges, their citrusy fragrance making us salivate. This luscious lunch was quickly disseminated between us with unheeded warnings to save some for later. Our hunger was too fierce and left no room for patience. Without restraint we gobbled up every bite. That simple meal from those generous nuns filled my stomach and my belief in humanity. Thank you. It warms me still to this day.

One of our traveling companions was a memorable man named, George. A lanky Indian, he stood 6’6” tall, with a forward stoop, shoulders rounded, long ropey arms, swinging bent like a gorilla. We nicknamed him “George of the Jungle” after the loveable cartoon character. He was silly and fun, and the time we spent with him was a welcome respite from the road we’d been traveling. With his friendly face and warm heart, I felt comfortable for the first time since we’d left home, and relaxed in his presence. He took us aside, kept us under his sheltering wing—away from the other rougher bums. He led us to a hobo camp hidden in the trees alongside the train yards, passing lights that warned of incoming trains, and levers that diverted some to adjoining tracks, where all the tracks met at the roundhouse. We kept asking new arrivals to the camp, which trains were headed out of state. We’d had enough of circling the Dakotas. After finally finding directions we hoped we could rely on, we said our good-byes to our newfound friend, George. At the last minute, he took me aside and placed a short, whittled stick in my palm. Closing my fingers around it, holding my hand tenderly, he entreated me to be careful, and use the homemade weapon to poke out the eyes of anyone who might attack me. I was touched by his brotherly concern. I carried that token of his friendship across the country, clutching it in my pocket like a talisman, rubbing it like a worry stone. Maybe it really did hold some strong protective magic, for we never encountered any danger during that whole adventure. Looking back now through many years of living, I realize how taut a tightrope I had walked, how quickly it all could’ve turned ugly, and how different my story might’ve ended.

Wherever you are in your story George, I send you my deepest gratitude, and wish you well.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Hopping Trains

Jerry’s constant need to move, along with the fear that there may be warrants out for skipping parole drove us to the rails. He decided we’d hop a train. Our first accommodation on this leg of our journey that fateful summer was an empty boxcar sitting at the end of the tracks. It was just dusk as we jumped up but as we hauled ourselves inside, it was as black as midnight. We quickly discovered it was already occupied by at least four other hoboes who grumbled warnings at our intrusion on their territory. We scrambled to a corner nearest the door in case we needed a fast escape. Being night blind, I was very apprehensive about my new surroundings, let alone the invisible inhabitants lurking in the shadows. Periodically, faces would appear in the dark, lit by the glowing embers of their cigarettes. The faces weren’t any friendlier than their greetings had been when we came onboard. One large fellow sidled over near us, staying protectively close. I think he realized that I was a girl and felt a brotherly obligation to look out for me. We finally settled into a hesitant silence, broken occasionally with suspicious whispers at the other end of the boxcar. Sometime around midnight or later, we were jolted awake to a loud crash and bumped down the track. Thinking we would finally be on our way, we waited expectantly. Nothing happened. Dozing, we were again awakened by this same jarring shove down the tracks. Wondering what was going on, someone peeked out through the open door, which we had been wisely warned to stay away from at the risk of losing your head if it slammed shut on you.
The lookout announced activity down the track—the bulls were about. At this
everyone tucked further back into their corners and whisperings circulated as to how a bull carries an iron pipe to rouse unsuspecting bums from sleep. Moments later one appeared at the open door. We all sat there frozen in place, holding our breath. He informed us that this car was just going to be bounced around all night and we might want to get in a car on the other line. Relieved that he wasn’t there to bust heads and happy to leave our bumpy bed, we climbed down and scrambled to another car. He advised us to close the door to avoid the attention of the other bulls. Rumors ran wild how hoboes had died in closed boxcars, so the door was left slightly ajar.
Morning greeted us with a rolling start, the train gradually gaining speed, and with the clickety clack music of the wheels on the track singing a good morning to us. We realized we were finally on our way. We were headed north to the Dakotas. The doors on either side were flung wide and a cool, crisp breeze blew across the stifling car. A glorious view of flat farmland stretched out in every direction, with rustic red barns and gray-white farmhouses dotting the landscape. I was exhilarated by the sheer vastness of this country and this new adventure into life during my seventeenth summer.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Loitering on the Street Corner

We stepped off the bus onto the street corner with some colorful characters. There was a long-haired hippie with a guitfiddle (Jerry's name for guitar) who immediately caught Jerry's interest. He always had a magnetic compass for finding kindred spirits and a few tokes of a joint. We stood on the corner "loitering" under the glaring street lights. Jerry convinced the long-hair to let him play his guitar, and I shivered as the night surrounded us with questions. I'd never heard the word "loitering" before. I never had occasion to. As the night went on, someone warned us to move on or we'd get in trouble for loitering. I couldn't understand why. All we were doing was standing there on the sidewalk. Jerry asked the long-hair if we could crash with him for the night. He reluctantly agreed. We followed him to his apartment. We sat around the living room, Jerry smoking joint after joint with the long hair and his roommates. As the roommates stumbled down the hall to bed, the long hair mumbled that we could sleep on the living room floor. It was still chilly at night so I urged Jerry to ask if he had an extra blanket. He grudgingly brought out a sheet. In the morning, I again urged Jerry to ask if we could take showers. He warned us that the bathroom was a bit messy. That was an understatement. I gingerly stepped over, around and between dropped clothes. Stepping into the grungy shower, I spied something black on the wall--a glob of someone's hair. I hoped it wasn't pubic. Unused to life on the road, I think I was beginning to miss the comforts of home.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

On the Night Bus

After the scare from the night before, we decided it would be best to get out of state as soon as possible. We hitched a ride to the bus station. We were on the night bus to South Bend, Indiana. I had just enough babysitting money to buy two tickets, two tickets out of Toledo, out of my father’s house, out from under a stepmother whose love was hard to come by, and whose judgment sent me running with a man three years older than me, three weeks after I met him.
I’d never been in a bus station before. There were lots of black people in line for tickets, waiting in seats, milling about. I was a sheltered little white girl, who had never crossed the tracks that divided color in 1972. I began to feel the reality of what we had started when they asked for our luggage. Just the day before, I had walked away with the clothes on my back, my straw fishing basket purse, and my white bible with my name embossed in gold letters across the front.
We sat in the back of the bus. It was a long walk down that aisle, past all those people of color, all those eyes looking, feeling every inch of what I’d done. This was my first exposure to the world outside my father’s house, outside of his way of thinking.
We met at a bowling alley playing pool. He asked for my number and called me the very next day. I was a tall, skinny big-eyed girl. On a summer day in early June, just a few days after meeting, he came over to my house to see me. We sat on the front porch talking, me complaining about how my stepmother treated me, while he handed out dreams. Once we decided, we just got up and walked away, down that familiar street where I grew up, through all the neighborhoods, into our future.