Hitchhiker travels on trains with vagabonds
October 6, 1986
By Larry Ciptak
[Note: this was my first published piece for Point Park College’s student newspaper]
"Ever hop a freight, kid?" J.W. asked.
I told him no.
"Hell, you haven't lived 'til you've hopped a freight."
With that my newly found hitch-hiking partner and I headed toward the train yard.
"I hope you can fight, kid. There's some nasty characters around here. We gotta watch out for the bulls, too."
J.W. was referring to the railroad police.
"The bulls aren't so bad in Oregon but they're hell in California. They'll throw you in jail just as soon as spit on you."
"They won't bother me," I thought, "I made it here from Los Angeles without a hassle. Why should this be any different?"
As soon as we entered the train yard we were confronted by a group of Mexicans. When it became evident that they didn't speak English, J.W. pointed south and said "Mehico." They smiled, turned around and headed north.
In the summer of 1983 I decided to break out of my suburban shell and travel around the country. I had developed a wanderlust that I thought could only be satisfied by experiencing life on the road. I helped a friend move to Los Angeles, and visited my sister there. I ended up spending my air fare, and instead of wiring home for more, I decided to hitchhike back to Pittsburgh.
I met J.W. at an on-ramp to Interstate 101 in Ukiah. Calif. He was an unemployed ironworker, drifting around the country taking bit-jobs to survive. We reached an agreement: I would spend what money I had on the two of us and he would show me the ropes of hitchhiking. My mentor and I set out for adventure.
Our goal was to hop a train from Eugene, Ore., to Portland, Ore., where J.W. would head west and I would hitchhike home to Pittsburgh.
As we sat drinking beer, a "northbounder" (north bound train) rumbled through the yard, but was moving too fast to hop. There were now 15 hobos waiting for trains. I hadn't expected a crowd; I certainly never hitchhiked with 15 people. Among them were six illegal aliens, an ex-con from San Quentin, Calif., and his crippled partner, J.W. and one extremely naive college kid.
As we stood around a fire the hobos built, I introduced myself as if I were at a frat party.
"Hi, my name is Larry," I said as I extended my hand to shake. One bum cleared his throat, turned around and spat. Another looked at me and asked "izzatso?" One came up and mumbled, "Mississippi Jack. Glad to know ya," and handed me a jug of wine. This was no frat party.
Hobos don't use their real names. Most probably don't remember them. They go by "Mississippi Jack," "Montana Pete," "Ole One Eye" or other aliases as adaptable as they are. They are patent liars and those with the best lies are cast into the hierarchy of hobodom.
"Once had five girls in Vegas," Mississippi Jack said, "Pert near had a heart attack." Instead of rebuking this obvious lie, the others egged him on.
"Wha'd you do to them?" one asked. "What'd they look like?" another queried.
Hobos don't have televisions, but you would swear they get their stories from Magnum P.I. or Hawaii Five-O.
I remembered reading somewhere that bums like to drink cheap wine, so I found a store and bought some Mad Dog. I was hoping the wine would help the hobos overlook my nice backpack, clean-shaven face and Nike shoes. I wanted them to think I was cool and accept me into their subculture. Emile Durkhiem (the sociologist) would have been proud.
It was assumed that the wine would be shared communally. The bums wasted no time in polishing off the booze, and several went to get more.
I couldn't figure out where the vagabonds got their drinking money, and being the straightforward type, I asked. Their answers stunned me: These clever bums apply for food stamps under different names in different counties each week of the month. They sell the stamps for a fraction of their worth and buy booze.
We hopped a freight in the morning and headed toward Portland. What hobos do to pass time is amazing. I am not an animal hater; But, in the spur it of the moment, I joined the bums in throwing rocks at grazing animals.
We "mooed" every cow we saw. And it wasn't just animals that we harassed. In towns people dropped their mouths when they saw the lot of us dropping our drawers and extending our posteriors toward them.
The irreverence didn't stop there. Keep in mind that a train stops traffic and draws attention to itself. As we passed through a small town, one hobo urinated from the train while stunned townspeople watched. I was shocked, not so much by the man urinating, but from the existence of two cultures so drastically different yet so close together.
One of the hobos started to harass me. "Wherd'ja get the money for tha' wine last night? Got any more?" J.W. intervened and threatened the bum with the "red ball express," hobo slang for being thrown from a moving train.
A derailment ahead forced the train to stop short of Portland. The booze had taken its toll and soon the vagabonds were asleep. We were awakened by a Chinese railroad bull armed with a flashlight in one hand and a gun in the other.
Holding his pistol on us, he searched each person before ordering us out of the train yard. I was so scared I could barely talk; the others accepted the episode casually.
It was so dark out when J.W. and I headed toward Portland that we had to feel the tracks with our feet. We came across a family of five living in a station wagon underneath a bridge. I gave them $4 for a ride into Portland to look for a mission where we could stay for free.
The "hobo hotel" was closed, so we slept in a boxcar along the river. In the morning we headed toward the mission for breakfast. It was in the basement of a run-down building in the poorest section of town. If this area were in Pittsburgh, I wouldn't even drive through it.
More than 100 bums had gathered for breakfast. The only prerequisite was that everybody say a prayer before eating the stale bread, oatmeal and lukewarm tea. I couldn't help thinking about the five-course meal that awaited me in Pittsburgh.
I couldn't stop looking at an old man who was missing pieces of his nose and ears. He seemed to realize I didn't understand and offered some information.
"It's the rats. If you pass out drunk, they come up from the river and nibble on you. They go for the nose, ears, and fingers."
He held out his hand to illustrate.
"You wake up in the morning and you're covered with blood. Then you realize it's the damn rats."
I put down my bread and said a prayer.
After breakfast, J.W. and I went to a bus depot where I spent my last $1 on coffee. The time came for us to part; he offered some advice: "Don't ever forget what you saw these last few days. You don't want to end up like me."
I turned around and headed for home.
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