The Coal Spur Kid
Conrail—Johnson City, NY
The first house I ever knew as home is less than a hundred yards from an old rail line that once hauled freight and passengers on a track that snaked along the northern edge of the Chenango River. Now it exists for no other reason than to haul in carloads of coal from the rich anthracite fields in places like Inez, Kentucky, to the local power plant that still eats up metric tons of the black stuff every day. I was only two years old when my parents bought that house and my childhood is rooted there. Nearly three decades later, I guess I’m one of those people who can say they’ve grown up around trains.
But then again, people like that always seemed to me—and still do—rougher, more hardened, and intimate with labor around big machines than I imagine myself ever being. They’re the ones who mean they’ve worked with trains, because their fathers and their fathers’ fathers did. Their histories are, in a lot of ways, more honest; so are their “growing up around trains” assertions. My father was a firefighter, and his was a beer-truck driver, and the only manual labor I’ve known has been delivering newspapers and hauling firewood on a beat-up Radio Flyer wagon with a rusty axel.
So I suppose a more truthful, or at least accurate, description of my coal-dusted childhood would be to say I grew up near trains, or, rather, near train tracks since the appearance of an actual line of lumbering cars was, at best, an every-other-day event. Even then, when I’d hear the low rumble of the engines and the metal-on-metal squeal from the hundred wheels, the real attraction to the slow-rolling monster had less (if any) to do with the actual locomotives and cars—those things that workers or camera-clad railfans would focus on—and far more with what that train could do to the things you left on the tracks.
There are the ubiquitous pennies, of course, but you should see what happens to firecrackers or beer cans, or melted plastic action figures, or some unfortunate kid’s plastic retainer, and even once the bloated corpse of a recently-deceased opossum. Anything that would crush or squish was fair game. Even then, I had heard enough derailment stories to leave the ballast rocks for throwing—which was both the ritual that grew out of frustration at the lack of anything to set on the trembling rails, and my own little futile protest against the noisy beast whose wheels screamed and whose giant steel couplers smashed and banged like gunshots too early on the mornings when I was sent out to roam but too tired to really go anywhere.
But then there were always the rails, train or not. Those actual ribbons of metal that were so hard and so straight in their silence that I’d walk on them like balance beams and never think about all the things I’d left on them to be flattened or severed. They were just there to sit on in the hot middle of a long day in July with the trees on either side of the line shading me from the sun and from the prying gaze of parents or all those other authority figures who loomed always somewhere too close. They felt like they were all mine.
And would it be too hokey or too American to say that one day I saw how these same rails stretched into the setting sun beyond the trestle, toward a point on the horizon that I could now and then glimpse between the valley’s slanting sides that had gathered and held me, my family—two, three generations deep—next to the river running along its green floor? Is it overly romantic to tell you that, on at least one occasion, it’s very likely that I wondered where those rails went, how far they could go if I followed them for a few hours or a few days?
After all, isn’t that how the railroad and its trains have made their way into our imaginations? Some kid somewhere dreaming of just where those tracks can lead, who he could meet—the loners, the outlaws, the thousand archetypes of independence—along that right-of-way, or all the hidden things that are ignored by the highway and completely obliterated from an airplane seat. They’re freedom and adventure all balled up together—or at least the twinkling possibility of these things. Hell, the railroad is possibility.
And if thinking of miles upon miles of steel and wood this way is too hokey, too sentimental, or (and this may sound like the worst of all to anyone who’s never had to wonder about these things) too hopeful, then I guess I’m stuck. Because, even if I didn’t know it when I was a bored kid on summer break just looking for rocks to throw and pennies to smash flat, that’s the stuff living next to the old Conrail coal spur taught me.
When I actually—finally—started following these tracks, walking them just to see where they went, every step down the line took me deeper into what third-generation railroader Russell Butler has called the endless love-hate affair with an ineffable, intangible beast. I found myself wandering farther and farther just to see what I could find out there. Even if it turned out to be just another long pair of rails that merged somewhere too far away, I had seen something that was new and foreign to me, something that held the fascination that everything foreign holds. And, despite every attempt to be satisfied with what I had come upon in the miles and miles of walking, it was never enough. I knew there was more to be seen, that there were more places and vistas that were yet undiscovered—undiscovered by me, at least—and I wanted, I needed to find them. But as is the case with any dysfunctional relationship, one partner will always hold a certain sway over the other for reasons that are so often terribly obvious to anyone removed enough to look at that relationship with vision that isn’t clouded by the storms of fascination and obsession.
The sway that the railroad lines had over me—that they still have over me—is, in all honesty, hopelessly wistful and nostalgic. There is a long history behind and a wealth of promise ahead when you stand on any stretch of the more than 170,000 miles of track braided and woven throughout the country. There is an entire world of senses: grime and grease, the smell of oil and creosote-soaked ties, walls of rusty steel, and polished steel where the wheels meet the rails, the seemingly immovable tons that can suddenly lurch into a smooth, determined roll.
The railroad has in it a song to sing to anyone who is willing to listen, one especially melodic to all of us who grew up in those once-impressive factory and industrial towns that are scattered all across the wide table of the nation like so many handfuls of rusty crumbs. For those of us whose parents pushed us away from home as soon as we could fend for ourselves—not because we were talking up space but because, and I heard it enough myself, “There’s nothing worth sticking around here for”—the most important thing was, no, is the idea that someplace out there is bigger, more exciting, more…everything that isn’t here: that America that all the old travel posters told us to see from the observation cars on The California Zephyr and The Empire Builder and The Starlight Express, the America seen from an open boxcar door.
Whether or not I could ever get to that other place wasn’t (isn’t) really the question—just knowing, or at least believing, that there was someplace beyond the little sphere of my world was enough. And all those trains that run on all the hundreds and hundreds of lines, from big yards and stations, through small, lonely towns and back, they’re a physical connection to all the people who have stories to tell and all those places that are just waiting to be seen. Any little thing that can remind me of this is like a message in a bottle washing up from out of that great sea of the nation.
Conrail / Norfolk Southern—Allentown, PA
I didn’t know who “Steam Train Maury” was, but I did know he was dead after nearly ninety years. And while I suppose there was an obituary written for him in some newspaper somewhere, knowledge of this unknown man’s death came to me in the blustery cold of late November on the dusty yellow side of a train car. The little remembrance was a simple one—his name, birth and death dates, and a solemn “R.I.P.”—written in a quick-yet-deliberate script next to a sketch of a flapping swallow-tail flag with a diamond holding an eponymous capital letter V in its center.
It was easily the tenth one of these simple monuments I’d seen on different cars of this train parked on a service spur running under a rusty hundred-year-old trestle that carried the Conrail and Norfolk Southern mainlines over the Lehigh River into Allentown, Pennsylvania. This was the train and trestle I had walked five west-bound miles of track to photograph with their respective bulk and lacey nineteenth-century girders lit by the orange of a setting sun against the grey of a departing cold front.
And it was really no surprise to see something written on the train. Spray paint on the freights is really just a descendent of the New York City subway graffiti movement that exploded in the early-1970s and was snuffed out less than 30 years later in defense of the mostly symbolic “quality of life” ideal that it supposedly attacked. But it makes perfect sense that graffiti writers would want to paint on trains—the New York subway outlaws got their work to run through all the boroughs; this latest version could get it out to the whole continent.
Still, that image I had always thought of, like a lot of people, was of vibrant aerosol paintings. This memorial to Steam Train was as far from a swirl of transformed letters and numbers as it got; this was just a quick little thing, maybe a few inches square, like something you’d absent-mindedly doodle while talking on the phone. Only, it was on the side of a train and was repeated exactly, specifically, again and again on the cars. They were all alike and freshly-made and said he had died today. I had no idea who the man memorialized was, but such repetition on so many cars that came from so many different places made me realize that this drawing must have been made by someone next to this very train, someone who could be as close to it as I now was, and my mind wandered.
A vision of a craggy old hobo tramping sadly along this same worn path, mulling over the death of his long-time hobo-buddy—good old Steam Train—with a bandana pouch tied to the end of an old walking stick he’d slung over his curved shoulder and (why not?) a dusty fedora perched on the back of his greasy-haired head. Some grey beard who’d been riding the rails for years, marking the cars he’d hopped with a hunk of paint stick he’d likely picked up off the ground in some yard somewhere or from a maintenance shed way down the line. He would’ve been just like the old hoboes back in the day when hopping an interstate train wasn’t considered neither atypical nor federal offense.
And my mind jumped to a middle-school English class where I had given a terrible, thrown-together book report on Jack London and only talked about his train-hopping days. The only thing I could recall about the story was how he had dubbed himself “Skysail Jack” and carved his moniker into water towers, shed walls, and bridge supports along his routes to let everyone know he’d been there; and how his tramp compatriots had an entire pictorial language they’d perfected and learned. A whole list of symbols that told others fresh off the train what the new town had to offer them: where a friendly woman lived, a place for clean water, whether the local law was vicious or lenient, and a hundred other things that any weary, dirty traveler would want to know. It was a complete network of silent, secret communication solely for those in the know.
But now I knew that was more than a century dead and gone and I kept coming back to this drawing and my imaginary artist because they were both right here, in front of me. The drawing gave birth to the artist, and I could see for myself the little details that spoke of this human presence. There was one line that was supposed to meet up with another but stopped short; and then there were the cracks in the car’s surface that a fluid drawing hand had gotten caught on. I could even drag my finger down the drawing’s edge and smudge the paint that was still a little wet. I felt connected to the train, to the drawing, and, suddenly, to whatever hand had put it here.
I’d seen sketches like this before and never thought much about them. Really, they’re not much to think of—all but invisible when the train is roaring past and then dwarfed by those big, more ostentatious spray painted graffiti they exist among. The ones I had seen before weren’t so different from this, either. Sure, the motif would change and the dates, if there were any, would differ, but I had always chalked them up to some drunken kid’s need to do something while hiding out along the tracks somewhere. I mean, that’s what I figured because it’s exactly what I would’ve done. Or I just supposed some transient, some homeless down-on-his-luck guy, was lurking around looking for some secluded spot to sleep in.
I snapped a photo of the little thing. I don’t know why. No, I do. It had something to do with the hopeless sincerity I saw in it. The act of any public memorial is only half-selfish—it’s something mollifying for the one doing the memorializing, yes, but its whole intention is to be seen. Whatever we get from seeing that memorial is innately and tightly bound-up in the re-acknowledgment of mortality that always seems to fall onto us like epiphany, as if we had somehow forgotten that we can’t be here forever. But even in out own worn-out, selfish denial, we can be altruistic as well.
This artist surely knew, or I suppose hoped, there would be at least one other witness, one more person to stop, maybe for just a glance, but still stop and think about this dead man who meant enough to someone to be remembered, even if it was in this unconventional way. When I took that photo, Steam Train, whoever he may have been, along with his memory, continued on, off in another direction. The drawn-on train carried him down the line to who-knows-where, but the image written onto the film in my camera would now part from the train, become something else even. Instead of just riding that steel route, I carried it to the photo lab and then, eventually, back into my own home days, weeks after it was penned onto that dusty car. The memory of a man I didn’t know would now live with me. Even in death, he kept right on going.
And doesn’t everyone want to believe that there’s someone out there who’ll care enough to leave a little remembrance of each of us when we’re gone. Just a little something that maybe someone else might see so, in our sad absences, we can keep on going, even if it’s just as so many quiet reminders that we really were once here. The littlest memorial, even if we make it ourselves, will quietly say to everything that gets left behind, I mattered in some small way.
Standing there with the sun setting and the November wind rustling the few stubborn remaining leaves, I thought about Jack London and how the ninety-odd years he’d been dead was just about the same number of years Steam Train Maury had been alive. I thought about who they both must have left behind and figured it was about time to go.
It was already getting dark and I hadn’t even started the five-mile hike home back up the tracks. The thin chill that had been dancing around all day slumped right down into a heavy cold so I decided to walk the long trestle into the city and get something warm to drink. It wasn’t the safest route in, but most large trestles like this have an open grate catwalk down the middle or on one side for workers to use. This one had a wide center walk and, more importantly, I knew that any train crossing it in the dark would have its lights on and be visible from a good half-mile away. In the worst-case scenario of two trains crossing at once—one bound north, the other south—with me somewhere in the middle, I could lie facedown on the catwalk and have at least a few feet of clearance as the cars rumbled by above my head. And while this was an unlikely situation, I still hurried across in a half-jog once I managed to climb the rocky embankment that led up from the maintenance line below.
My head tucked down and into the stiffening wind, I watched the river rush by and listened to the hollow thump, thunk-thump of an uprooted tree trunk caught in the eddying current against a massive granite support some twenty feet below. The sound of the wind and watery trunk in my ears left me all but unable to hear any train that might roll onto the trestle, so every ten seconds I’d toss a quick glance back over my shoulder and then ahead into the dark looking for only the bright headlight of an oncoming locomotive.
Walk, walk, walk, look. Walk, walk, walk, look. I knew you can never be too careful. I’d heard the stories: veterans who’d worked twenty, thirty years on the railroad were killed everyday. Like the maintenance worker who bled to death after a chemical tanker’s brakes failed. The runaway car rolled silently down the line he was repairing, picking up speed the whole way, and cut him clean in half across his midsection. Or that one about the engineer whose locomotive backed into a line of parked service vehicles and crushed three guys between the bumpers. These were the professionals with hardhats and work boots and high-visibility safety vests. Where that left me, in my worn sneakers and baseball hat, was something I never wanted to think too much about, and by the time I was finally across I was shivering and needed to catch my breath.
I still try to figure out where he came from. Was he there the whole time watching me come across? Or just ahead of me on the trestle? Did he climb up from the riverbank underneath the last stretch? Was he behind me and I just didn’t realize it? Whatever it was that happened to get him there, he was no more than ten feet away when I noticed him on the other side of the tracks blowing warming breaths into his gloved hands. With the sun not completely gone down behind him, I could still make out his dirty jeans, a backpack, a heavy black garage jacket bundled against the cold, and the worn bill of a baseball hat peeking out from under a hood. I figured he was just one of the city’s many homeless up here to drink or piss or sleep. He seemed oblivious to my presence, but I still wanted to get out of there. A couple hundred dollars-worth of camera equipment was reason enough to not stick around. Staring back across the trestle, he shifted his weight from one foot to the other as if impatient for something to arrive, and when my shoes slid on the loose ballast, he looked my way with a slow, unsure turn that said he was as surprised as I was to come across someone else up here.
In the long seconds that passed we surely sized one another up, or at least that’s what I did. I wondered if I could fight if I had to and thought I might get a good quick shot in, unless he had a knife, or a gun, or anything. I tried to gauge how far away the street lights on the busy main road were and wondered how long it had been since I’d actually had to run from anything, or to anything for that matter. In my mind I practiced what I’d say when he asked me for a cigarette, or my money, or my camera. All the things I’d learned from TV told me to just give them what they want and stay alive.
When he blew into his fists again, still looking at me, I was ready to do whatever I had to: run, fight, hand over everything valuable I had and head to the police station to file a report if I could still move. But something drew his glance back down the tracks again and he took a second to look, never moving his hands away from his mouth, before turning back to me, opening one fist into a casual spread-finger wave, and then pointing down to the trestle to where a blinding yellow light said a locomotive was just beginning to rumble its way in our direction from across the darkening bridge.
It tore between us, southbound, with all the noise and terror that is a fully-loaded freight train pushing toward high speed—a high-priority “hotshot” of double-stacked shipping containers that probably wouldn’t be stopping or even slowing down until it reached its destination. In the spaces between the cars flashing by, I would catch moments of him watching them. Like single frames cut from a boring film, I could see him frozen in random poses: standing there looking down the length of the train with a hand on his head to hold his hat down against the wind; facing the cars but watching their path with his hands in his pockets; again blowing into his fists or shrugging his hood back up around his neck.
Then it was past as quickly as it had come upon us. And he still stood there, hands deep in his coat pockets, watching the flashing red light on the rear of last car disappear around the bend. When the world was again enveloped in the eerie quiet that arrives in the wake of a passing train, he looked over his shoulder toward the bridge and back again to the bend ahead, hopped over one rail then the other in a few light steps, and made a casual bee-line toward me.
I had run into plenty of people in the time I’d spent along the tracks—spend enough time anywhere and you’re bound to meet someone. Most were older men; some retired rail workers or train engineers who simply couldn’t stay away, others were just guys who’d fallen in love with the idea of the railroad as kids but never really saw it as a career option. They both always seemed to have at least one camera with them and they always talked openly about a basement dedicated to model trains. And, depending on where you were, there were usually a few dog walkers or drunks wandering a stretch of track. Of course the few times I had to give identification to security guards or railroad cops and talk my way out of a trespassing ticket were always in the back of my mind, too. But all my encounters had been in the light of day—mornings, afternoons—making them, at best, friendly, or, at worst, barely genial. In the dark, away from the security of passing cars and pedestrians, on your own, even a guy who has just waved and warned you of an on-coming train is suspicious.
The uneasiness that had been relieved by that wave he’d given me suddenly returned, and I thought again of running, worried that he’d be right on my heels if I did. I made a fist around the keys in my pocket and waited.
The first words were his and, to my surprise, my anxiety faded almost as soon as he spoke. He said there was a fox carrying its little kits one by one across the tracks seconds before the train screamed through—that’s what he was pointing at—and the whole time he thought we were going to helplessly watch her get hit. The relief he felt at the fox’s survival came through in the timbre of his low soft voice.
He was taller than he looked from across the tracks—as tall as me—and when he stuck out his hand to shake hello, the wrists that poked out between the too-short cuffs of his jacket and the bottoms of his cloth gloves told me we had a similar build as well. Short hair peeked from under the sides of his hat and faded into scruffy week-old stubble on his cheeks and chin that only half-hid a clearly boyish face. I couldn’t tell how old he was, maybe somewhere in his mid-twenties, but he asked the stock railroad questions that always come up—Was I waiting for a train? Did I see the one laid-up back on that maintenance line? Were there any cops around? I knew these questions were a way to gauge my reasons for being around trains without coming off like an interrogator or nutjob. They worked as sort of code that told him as much about me as they told me about him. I answered each in turn and, through his eager additions of his own information, learned that we were both on the long list of those who found themselves fascinated by the train.
He said he had made his way from the same direction I had to also take photos, and he showed me his pack that was loaded with equipment and film while telling me how surprised he was to find someone else who came to this out-of-the-way spot. He described a long line of new chrome auto carriers that was stuck waiting on the trestle an hour or so earlier and how the sun was reflecting off the river so that it was like the cars were lit from below and netted with shadows from above. Since then he’d just been hanging around, waiting to see if any other trains would roll through and was, it sounded, relieved that I didn’t seem like someone who was going to rob or kill him, or even hit him up for a cigarette.
We talked about the train that just came through and about this spot and how it looked at different times of the day and year. He knew all about the big Norfolk Southern yard that was less than a mile from the trestle and, through this intimate knowledge, hinted at ways to get into it without too much risk. When he asked what I thought about graffiti—another stock question that can often reveal more than any other when it comes to trains—I told him the truth, that I liked it and was happy to shoot it and had even done some back when I was a kid living in New York. He smiled and gave a little chuckle at this and I noticed two deep dimples appear on either side of his mouth when he nodded in what I took to be agreement. He wanted to know if I ever saw so-and-so painted on the trains around here and when I said I had—had, in fact just taken a photo of a bright green-and-blue one the day before—he gave that same little nod and chuckle. I added that I had just seen something odd on the maintenance spur train back across the river and wondered if he knew who this Steam Train Maury guy was.
Together, walking the short half-mile to a 7-11 in town, I learned that, in addition to a physiology, we shared a first name as well. Still, he insisted that he usually went by his surname, Vauxhall, even if people usually screwed up the pronunciation of it—ending it with a hard x. In his soft voice that teetered on a mumble, he said, as if in passing, to just call him V; it was easier and that’s what he went by on the trains, most of the time anyway. And then, perking up, he told me all about Maury Graham, a five-time “king of the hoboes” and “official grand patriarch” of rail riders, who had suffered a stroke just a few days prior and was found dead this morning. But it was OK. The old guy had been sick for a while, lived a good life, and a lot of people will remember him.
And right then I felt a rock of disheartened recognition appear in my stomach. As soon as I made the connection he had implied—the one-letter nickname “on the trains,” all that Steam Train Maury information right at hand—I saw that this guy, the one who walked the tracks, hung out on trestles, lugged camera equipment on his back for miles, who was, for all intents and purposes, no different than me, had been the one memorializing the dead man on the cars. It wasn’t some old hobo sentimentally remembering his friend. V admitted that, while he never met the man or even knew anyone who had, he still felt it was important to get the word out that the old tramp had “caught the westbound.” And I felt like I’d been cheated, like someone who suddenly realizes they’re the butt of a joke everyone else (even just one other person) was in on all along.
As we left the store, coffees in-hand for the long walk we both had ahead of us, I wanted to be away from and done with him. I felt an odd sense of betrayal at his not being my idealized and romantic vision of a lamenting hobo-artist, so I lied and said I had to go over to the photo store to drop off some film and then meet my wife for dinner in a little while. Whether or not he believed me, I still don’t know, but he gave a nod that I took to say OK. I half-heartedly suggested we go out and shoot together before the snow started falling and I momentarily brightened at the memory of his hints at knowing a way into the big NS yard.
He took off his backpack and rummaged around in it for a minute before coming out with a pen and a torn sheet of notebook paper. On it he told me to write my e-mail address or phone number and said he’d give me a call next time he was going to go out. I wrote both down so he wouldn’t think I was just trying to get rid of him and said to call whenever, that there were a lot of places I wanted to check out. He stuffed it into his coat pocket and nodded in agreement giving me a quick “see you later” while heading down the sidewalk before disappearing into the dark weeds that backed the scrubby woods bordering the tracks. I still had his pen.
Norfolk Southern—Allentown, PA
On an unexpectedly warm Tuesday morning in December, I got a terse message from V asking if I wanted to come to one of his favorite “benching spots”—someplace to take a look at trains and shoot some photos—a classification yard near Allentown where Norfolk Southern would sort and arrange cars based on destination and assemble them into full trains, “manifests,” that would eventually take those cars to wherever they needed to go. I knew from looking at atlases and online maps that this spot he was talking about sat right on the edge of the large NS holding yard V had hinted at getting into when we first met.
He mentioned that he usually liked to go alone, but for whatever reason—I never got around to asking—he had decided to bring me along. The message explained how it was only about two miles from his apartment and we could follow an old canal towpath all the way there. Outside, it was warm enough to recall the easy weather I had been resigned to not see for months and, in my haste to be out in it, I had already forgotten the wet rag of disappointment and frustration that had flopped down when I found out who V actually was. I thought a nice walk near some water would afford some time to get reacquainted with him, to get a meaningful conversation going on the “deeper issues” the railroad couldn’t help but dredge up.
So I agreed to go and fifteen minutes later we were walking along the gravelly path with the sharp-angled sun on our jacketed backs and a crisp breeze in our faces. The shallow canal that used to ferry boatloads of anthracite coal between Mauch Chunk and Easton predated the railroad that followed it. But this was the case for countless lines, especially in the waterway-laced northeast. A trail would grow up along a riverbank and become a major transportation route; a canal is cut around those impassible spots or, like the one we were following, it was dug as glassy-smooth answer to the churning turbulent eddies of the wide Lehigh. Eventually, the rails are laid along the same general route and that’s that. Now, the slow flowing ribbon of water carried only small sheets of ice that had broken off from the larger cracking masses along its edges. There were crows in the trees and the low rumble of idling locomotives rolled between their sharp calls.
V didn’t say much, despite my attempts at engagement, and the first twenty minutes of our walk passed painfully with me trying to lead him into what I imagined would be an enlightening discourse on the meaning of his fascination with trains—and writing on them.
Attempt number one went something like: “Being out here by yourself probably gives you a lot of time to think…. I always end up making lists of stuff I have to do or remembering something I didn’t.”
A few minutes went by.
Number two: “I never really got into it, but you probably know other people who write….”
The frustration I met months ago, when I first understood that V was just some guy like me and not a wild artist-hobo packed full with stories of love and loss and adventure collected from a life spent on the rails, had returned. I felt sure he was going out of his way to avoid talking about something that, I thought, should matter to him.
So a third to truly test the unresponsive waters: “Can you get arrested for something like this? For drawing on cars? Because I’ve had to deal with cops for just being too close to an engine. I mean, given the rail companies’ histories of protecting their stock at all costs, I’d imagine they don’t look too kindly on people ruining expensive equipment…”
Silence and a look in the direction of a hidden cardinal’s cry.
His gait wasn’t fast, but the stride was long—his frame, like my own, borders on lankiness—but somehow it carried him a full step ahead of me, and more than once I found myself working to catch up after slowing to look back down the path. V didn’t look back—not at the path or at me.
Halfway to our destination he slowed a little, turned his head slightly, and shot his first full sentence of the trip over his shoulder at me: “Don’t fuck around when we’re in the yard.” At which I give a half-chuckle that could easily have been read as dismissive—mostly because it was—and he just went on walking at the familiar pace.
Only I got to thinking about his advice, no, his order, and I really began to take offense. How could he have forgotten that I wasn’t some stupid kid looking for a new party spot where I could spray-paint the names of my favorite heavy metal band or brand of cheap beer? He had to have known that I had years of experience and was serious about trains; and the more I thought about it, the more I began to resent his bald-faced assumption of my naïveté and general lack of common sense. So I quietly fumed over it for another hundred yards down the canal.
And then he began to say more. He enumerated all the rules and precautions that had taken him a lot longer than this walk to internalize as second nature; the ones that, as he began to break them down in a matter-of-fact way that sounded like it was straight out of an instruction manual, I saw had kept him out of jail and, more importantly, in one piece:
1) Don’t walk between the rails; stay on the ballast. That old image of “walking the line” on the crossties or on the rail itself, as if it was a just a shiny steel balance beam, is just stupid. For all of their ridiculous weight and size, trains can be dead quiet when they roll and will sneak right up on you. By then you’ll be able to feel the rails’ camber bend, but it’ll be too late to do anything but get flattened. A train doesn’t care if you’re in its way. This fact is paramount.
2) When you cross an empty line, look both ways twice and move across the track diagonally in four steps. This is the minimum number anyone needs to move with any measure of safety: one step outside the rail on a secure tie, two between, and a fourth onto a tie on the other side. You do this because no one wants to carry you and your broken ankle home.
3) Respect the cars at all cost; they are not your personal jungle gym. Never, ever go under a car. When you must climb over one, use the grab irons and ladders and always maintain three points of contact with the car. Get up, across, and off as quickly, but as safely, as possible. If you can go around the train to get to the other side, do it. Climb only when necessary.
4) Most importantly, always be aware of your surroundings. Never wholly lose yourself in anything you’re doing. Know at least two ways to get out of wherever you are and don’t hesitate to use one if you need to. Safety has many meanings in a yard.
Within thirty minutes of the end of V’s lecture, we had crossed a narrow pedestrian bridge over the canal, moved through a muddy stretch of bare trees, and climbed a shallow rise. Stopping at the top, V finally looked back with a half-chuckle and his creased brow unfurrowed in what I could only read as something that was at once relief and, at the same time, measured calm. A few short feet below us sat at least ten full lines of cars, their rust-mottled roofs stretching uninterrupted a good half-mile in either direction through the deserted yard.
V loped down the muddy bank toward the trains and held up a finger to silently say Wait here a minute. He looked both ways, twice; crossed, in four sure steps, the only empty line; stood with his face to a gleaming sun-yellow boxcar and looked around once more before waving me into the quiet yard.
There’s a quick moment in Style Wars—Tony Silver and Henry Chalfant’s 1983 documentary on New York City subway graffiti culture—when one prolific artist, Donald “Dondi” White, attempts to describe the near-transcendental feeling that accompanies a visit to a train yard. He says, “It’s like you’re in a yard of metal giants…. You’re, like, a little dude in the midst of all this metal and you’re here to produce something.”
And while that specific reference point may have been located somewhere in one of the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s subway storage yards, it’s a point that I came to see is mirrored in every train yard. It’s a point where I found my tiny, squishy, breakable mortal body forced—or, actually, placed—in direct contact with countless tons of unfeeling metal that could, without any goading or even on a cold whim a mile down the track, squish and break that tiny body a hundred times over and never look back. Fear can do a lot for reverence. That’s why there was a definite reverential lilt to Dondi’s voice in the film and it’s the exact same reason for the little moth of anxiety that was fluttering its sturdy wings in the dip of my throat when V seemingly evaporated into the steely air of the yard.
I lost him after stopping to run my hand over the clean berry pink and apple green lines of some intricate piece of graffiti that, from a distance, proclaimed someone’s pseudonym, but from here just dissolved into looping swirls of color. Or, he lost me. V was stopped looking closely at a drawing two cars in front of me just seconds before and then he was gone—that quickly, that quietly—and a chill of panic instantly rolled through me and left its ghost to shudder up and down my sweaty back.
I suddenly felt incredibly and utterly alone. I’d been around trains more than enough times, and had always thought it would be incredible to explore an entire yard overflowing with cars. And it had been. Here, standing quietly, were cars I had only seen in a blur as they passed at a crossing, cars from long-defunct railroads that were now called, honorifically, “fallen flags.” I could touch their rusty sides and be connected with every place they’d been; I could read the penciled work orders some repairman had made—“doors lubed 10/89”—and wonder who had worked on it since. And there were all the other things written or scratched or painted on the cars—nicknames, messages, political rants, a tic-tac-toe game started but never finished—that told me, reassuringly, that I wasn’t the first one to be next to this car.
In fact, in the fifteen minutes we had been walking up and down the lines, I had finished an entire roll of film, reloaded, and was half way through a second. Snapping photos of the cars’ details out on a line somewhere, even a secluded stretch of track, was one thing; but when there are suddenly cars all around, they close in and become something entirely different.
The air in the interior of the yard, between the closely-laid lines, was colder than it had been on the outside and sunlight struggled to make its way even halfway down the cars’ sides. I became desperately aware of the walls of metal that had been around me this whole time, the ones I hadn’t been paying attention to for want of capturing all the new angles and details being this deep into the yard afforded. I didn’t even know where we were in the yard or how far down the lines we had gone before V disappeared; I was just following his casual footfalls, craning my neck like a tourist.
I thought back to our first meeting and grew positive that he’d abandoned me with a spiteful laugh. That he lured me out here as some sort of retribution for ditching him after the trestle those weeks ago. I wondered if someone could be that spiteful. Or maybe it was that he saw someone—a worker or a cop—and ran, got away, left me to be caught. Maybe he even tried to signal me, say Quick, let’s get out of here! with some specific hand gesture that I never noticed.
It was the same panic that accompanies the moment you understand you’re lost deep in the woods or in some city you’ve never been to before. That separation from everything familiar and known. I wanted to yell out, call to him in both anger and fear, and let him know that I knew he was still out there and that he was an asshole for taking off on me. But as I took in the air to shout, I realized that if there was a worker or a cop somewhere nearby they’d surely know the layout of the yard better than I and catch me once they heard the false anger crack a little and echo around all the lifeless metal.
So I did nothing but stand stock still. The crows had flown from the trees and the sun had gone behind one of those thick winter clouds and made the growing shadows kick up the wind into sudden gusts strong enough to rattle the dangling metal security tags on the cars’ doors and make them sound like someone’s jingling keys.
When the temperature rises or drops suddenly—in the bright early morning or when that brightness is quickly snuffed out—the very physical shape of the cars changes just a little. Their riveted and welded seams expand or contract by mere hundredths of a millimeter and send out high staccatos of discordant pings or low aching groans that, as I stood there wide-eyed and alert to every slightest noise or motion within ten feet, frightened me enough to push the pulse in my wrists to a pounding I could feel as those eerie songs careened around me. But up ahead, beyond the fat belly of a black acid-etched tanker, or maybe a little behind me, on a line, or maybe two over, the rolling grumble of footsteps on ballast began to drown out every other sound.
I invented arrest scenarios and figured out what I could sell to raise bail money. I told myself I would be a first-time offender and would get by just fine as long as they didn’t make an example out of me. But if they did? In the hyper-cautious post-9/11 world, being too close to any large machine, if you didn’t belong there, was automatically suspicious; and I had read about overzealous railroads pushing for felony convictions of trespassers. The fears of a terrorist derailing a few hundred cars were, surely, a bit reactionary; but when those cars could be holding millions of gallons of toxic chemicals, maybe there was something to worry about.
As quickly as I could, I dropped down onto my haunches, as if dodging something swung at my head, into what was little more than a standing fetal position, and peered under the cars to see where the sound was coming from. This, V had told me, was the safest way to look around. Hopping onto a ladder or platform or coupler on the end of a car wasn’t worth the risk and only added more obstacles if you did need to get out of there in a hurry. Crouched with my hands on the large loose rocks, I was stable enough to scan the low horizon and swiveled my head as far at it would go, first right, toward what I remembered to be the yard’s entrance, and then left into its depths. I found no one.
I stood like that for what felt like too long just trying to figure out what to do, whether or not I should just pick a direction and head that way in a straight line, hopping between cars until I got to the edge of the yard. Once there I could follow the access road back, I figured.
And then I was struck with the gleaming realization that I could get out. These weren’t impenetrable walls, I told myself; they only held me there as long as I let them. And when I again stood and looked around at the high metal sides of the cars, at the grimy old grey hoppers filled with barley or kitty litter or flour, at the freshly-painted boxcars that carried I didn’t know what, I felt a change, a new sense of security in their silent weight surrounding me. There, buttressed by so much potential energy, I began to see the odd calm and peace that is hidden in the train. It was, I now realize, not unlike the serenity that accompanies a day-long hike, miles-long bike ride, or anything that pushes the body to a confrontation with what its owner thought were its limits, physical or mental.
All around me were the real things I had been photographing and idealizing. They were hard and dangerous and covered in the dirt of labor, yes, but they were also dotted, more often than not, with paintings and drawings done by people who were not me, but who were like me, more like me than I had thought. And all the places that they hadn’t written or painted on held the same potential for communication and contact.
I took comfort in this and by the time I noticed that the footsteps had stopped and that the sun was beginning to crawl back out from behind the heavy clouds, the weight of panic had already fluttered away leaving me free to stroll down the line, deeper into the yard. I raised my camera to my eye far less but saw more—the marks some worker’s boots had made on the rungs of the ladder; a handprint in the dust of a door; a sketch, like V’s, only much older and faded into the very paint of the car, that said “Water Bed Lou’s in Love.”
It wasn’t until my second lap of the innermost line that I finally saw the greasy cuffs and trail boots moving down the other side of the car next to me, trolling slowly back toward the far end of the train. Their familiar long stride told me V was right there, that he had been no more than a couple lines away.
And, as if out of the air, the lightest sting of disappointment and loss appeared. The feeling of being utterly alone, within tilted metal walls in what amounted to little more than a mile-long hallway barely three feet wide, evaporated entirely. I’d had the opportunity to get out of there or to continue on, taking photos and exploring the foreign world for as long as I wanted by myself, and I embraced it. Now with the appearance of another body, it was no longer me focused solely on myself. Even though I had known that V was somewhere out there, his actual presence was only an idea. He was no different from the boot marks or handprints I’d seen; he was no different than anything anyone—including him—may have written on the trains.
This connection reached me as he did, with a half-chuckle that asked Where’ve you been this whole time?
Delaware & Hudson—Binghamton, NY
Even months later, after I had moved from Pennsylvania back to my old hometown in upstate New York, that double sense of being found and of finding something lingered on. This was due, I’m sure, in no small part to the increasing frequency V and I had spent lurking around together before I finally left. Each time we went to a new spot, or even one we were familiar with—like the old trestle or, what would be come to be called in the parlance of the railroad, the “hump” yard in Allentown—I’d felt more sure and aware of everything around me. It’s not that I had stopped looking at the larger train; the massive engines and long snakes of manifest cars still made my mind wander and heart jump a little. But now, when I would walk next to the laid-up trains or even circle around a lone car left on its own, I looked more closely.
In New York, alone, in the deep cold of early March, I still went—in what came to be the shorthand for any activity around them—“down to the trains” on a near-daily basis. I had done my homework, too. Downloading satellite images from the internet and digging through street and surveyors’ maps had given a virtual guided tour of all the regional yards and trackage. In no time I found that the old Delaware & Hudson yard—where long lines of cars would sit unattended waiting for locomotives to reassemble them or pick them up and move them to one of the four other yards around town—was just a short walk from my front door.
And I would follow tracks for miles, walking their straight and snaking lines, only half expecting to find any cars and not minding too much if they never appeared. The long walks down any newly-uncovered stretch—fourteen miles one day, ten another—took me into spaces that would have been mundane from the front seat of a car but, on foot, became new and foreign. They were the lesser-seen pieces of the more familiar towns and cities that fell within an ever-widening circle of exploration. Small, innocuous places like Sanitaria Springs and the epic-sounding (but diminutive) Steel City that I had hardly even heard of—barely dots on the map—suddenly took on an importance that, had I not marked them as reference points and mileposts on one long journey or another, would have, as far as I knew, remained invisible forever.
There is something about coming across some forgotten or neglected thing, about finding a new town or field or burnt-out industrial area—any one of the thousand things that train tracks go past or through or near or around—that I can only describe as an odd mingling of trepidation and delight. With every next step farther down the line into an unfamiliar space, I would feel an inherent loss of control that bred a certain fear and, at the same time, fostered it. But my surprise that would manifest as open-air exclamations of “Where’d this come from?!” and “Who knew this was here?!” acted as a buffer to that fear and, more often than not, was a warm hand on my back that kept urging me on: just fifteen more minutes and then I’ll turn around, just to that next bend in the track, just to the other side of the bridge. There is always just one more step and I’d usually have to force myself not to take it and head home.
I figured out that I could go to the D&H yard in the morning after my wife had gone to work and walk up and down the lines with abandon, distracted only by the occasional shunting of a manifest or the windy rumble of a hotshot roaring westbound on the Canadian Pacific mainline that edged (and officially owned) the yard. Through the winter, it served as the more-than-apt replacement for the busy Norfolk Southern one V and I had grown intimately familiar with. New to me, though, was the snow that laid itself down on Binghamton nearly every night and how it would blanket the footprints I had made between the lines the day before; and mine were the only ones to disturb the whiteness that appeared that much more brilliant with the light sprinkling of anthracite dust that fell, itself like snow, from the hopper doors of the mile-long coal trains that trundled their way east throughout the cold months. But any journey into the D&H yard had taken on a second purpose.
While there was always at least one scenic photo to take of the scrub- or wood- or wastelands that pop up around trains, there were dozens, sometime hundreds more to take of the train, of what was written on it. The time (and miles) I had spent with V in the months prior to my prodigal return had quietly turned my lens more and more toward the drawings he was doing and the ones that had been done long before his. I began to know the images and monikers—Bozo Texino, Herby, Colossus of Roads, The Rambler, Smokin’ Joe, The Solo Artist, and hundreds more—that began to pop up everywhere once they were pointed out to me.
I learned that some who drew these little icons were graffiti artists looking to broaden their media horizons; others were actual hoboes who still rode the rails as a way of life; and still others, most in fact, were just rail workers who could take advantage of their free time and access to train cars. Looking closely, looking for them, really, revealed, in many cases that there were people all over the continent producing a wealth of these little things. “New York Slim” was obvious; “The Rambler” was from Port Beaumont, Texas; “The Kodak Kidd” frequented northeast Pennsylvania; “Ozone” and “The Raven” were from Roseville, California; “Chad the Dogcatcher” worked in Enola, Pennsylvania; and “Virginia Zeke” spent a lot of his time in Richmond.
Many of the cars that would run on Norfolk Southern trackage would end up riding the Canadian Pacific north and it was likely that V and I, although hundreds of miles apart now, saw many of the same cars in our yards. So I began to notice V’s flapping flag design appearing more frequently, too. Older ones that had faded and weathered sometimes looked like they’d melted into the very metal of the car; others had been covered by indifferent graffiti writers or repairmen who had to put a new company logo or tracking number over them. The new ones he had been brazenly applying when we went out shone bright white or deep black—he used only these two colors—on dark- or light-colored cars.
When I asked him why he used this specific design, he explained that the flag itself was an old logo for the Lehigh Valley Railroad—a local favorite—but co-opted and made personal with a lone V instead of the original L.V. in the diamond. He said that there were probably thousands of these little flags flying on cars and that he had found out through online photo sharing sites that a few had even made it all the way out to California, Texas, and British Columbia, places he himself had never been to and likely never would.
I’d seen it plenty of times. The actual drawing took only a few seconds, but each one was neatly crafted; the speed came from repetition, not a disregard for precision. Every line was of equal importance—from the circle that would become the ball on the top of the flagpole to the symmetrical diamond in the center of the flag—and there was an undeniable craftsmanship in V’s method of first sharpening the paint stick with a pocket knife before standing mere inches away with his left hand on the car and drawing the image at eye-level.
I stood close a few times and saw the soft pigment of the crayon melt on sun-warmed paint of the car and his hand adapt to the effects of the heat by twisting as he drew, like an architect or draftsman spins a pencil to always keep it sharp. And when V tossed half a broken paint stick to me and lifted his chin in the direction of a hulking white refrigerator car, I didn’t know what I was supposed to write. Bands I liked flashed through my head, as did brands of beer and the initials of a girl I loved, lists of vulgarities, political views, and the image of a goofy-looking dog I used to draw on my notebooks in fourth grade—none of which felt like they were the right thing to put on the side of a train. There is a temptation that accompanies every blank space and I felt the urge to fill this blank space with an image that meant something to me, something that could be, like all the names I’d seen often enough to feel like I knew them personally, a moniker, an alter-ego of some kind.
Winding my way among the cars in the snow-coated yard, I would often stop to look back down the lines just to see the prints I had made and wonder what someone coming across them would think. Would they see the back-and-forth zigzags and assume some brakeman was just doing his job, walking the lengths of the trains to inspect the cars? Would they think it was some kids from the working-class neighborhood that abutted the yard playing around on their own industrial jungle gym?
If I could choose, I would want them to follow my tracks, putting a foot first in one then the next, taking a few slow steps next to a train then crossing to another to stand — like I did — and face the car. If they looked up from the prints they were following they would see my quick sketch of a pompadoured guy with Xs for eyes and a pair of crossed train tracks behind him drawn by someone called The Coal Spur Kid.
Then maybe they would conjure up a story for that guy they’d seen on the side of the car and, in telling it, carry him on to someplace new.
* * *
Selected Works Consulted
Abel, Allen. “The Art of Vandalism.” Saturday Night magazine (n.d.), archived on North Bank Fred: Freighthopping, Hoboes, Boxcar Art <http://www.northbankfred.com/canada>
Butler, Russell. “Steel Road, Evanescent Route: My Life on the Line—the Railroad Line” (n.d.), archived on Michael Poulin’s BoxcarArt.com <http://www.geocities.com/boxcarart101/colossusinterview.html>
Cooper, Bruce C. Riding the Transcontinental Rails: Overland Travel on the Pacific Railroad 1865-1881. Philadelphia: Polyglot Press, 2004.
Daniel, Bill. “Monikers and the like.” Personal email, 2 Feb. 2005.
————. Who is Bozo Texino? Dir. Bill Daniel, Prod. Bill Daniel. DVD. 2005.
Gastman, Roger, Darin Rowland, and Ian Sattler. Freight Train Graffiti. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2006.
Hultrans, Andrew. “The Mark of Bozo.” Stim magazine, vol. 1, no. 2 (June 1996), archived on Stim Online <http://www.stim.com/stim-x/0696june/features/hobo.html>
Kaplan, Eben. “Rail Security and the Terrorist Threat.” Backgrounder. Council on Foreign Relations online, 3-12-07 <http://www.cfr.org/publication/12800/rail_security_and_the_terrorist_threat.html>
Kerlansky, Mervyn, and Jon Narr with text by Norman Mailer. The Faith of Graffiti. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1974.
London, Jack. The Road. Archived on the Jack London Online Collection <http://london.sonoma.edu/Writings/TheRoad/>
McKay, J.R. “Bozo Texino.” On Mainline Mac’s Homepage <http://www.geocities.com/lokomac8/bozo.htm>
Parlsen, David. “Art or vandalism, railcar graffiti roll across the land.” Wausau (WI) Daily Herald, 6 Jan, 2004, p. 1A.
Poulin, Michael. “Beer and Boxcars: An Interview with Hollywood and Rum Runner” (n.d.), archived on Michael Poulin’s BoxcarArt.com <http://www.geocities.com/boxcarart101/colossusinterview.html>
Silver, Tony, and Henry Chalfant. Style Wars. Dir. Tony Silver, Prod. Silver and Chalfant. DVD. Plexifilm 2003.
Trackside, Mick. “Freights & Chalk.” Personal email, 31 Jan. 2005.