The Bend (auto-fiction about freight train hoppin...)
My body ripped up at a ninety-degree angle, my eyes popping open, hearing what sounded like a freight train. Brian was asleep, his rucksack propping his head up like some 1930s Depression-era freight train hopper. If Dorthea Lange were here, she’d have gotten a good photograph.
The train whistle throbbed, that loud, wheedling wail. How could Brian sleep through this? Because he was used to it. He’d been doing this for fifteen years. I’d been “on the road” for three months, tired and dirty and in some deep existential quagmire.
I’d met Brian in New York—Buffalo—drunk, stumbling up the lonely streets trying to find the abandoned park at four A.M. where I’d stowed my pack, when I’d nearly knocked the guy off the sidewalk. An exchange of words, some drunk yammering, bitter feelings, and then blam: I’d woken up the next morning in his garage, early sunlight piercing the darkness like a baby beginning to exit the womb, seeing the world for the first time.
I’d asked Brian to hitchhike west with me and, to my astonishment, he’d agreed to come. Now, a mere week later, after a few days hitching across the USA, we were here, hiding out at “The Bend,” the spot in North Portland where the train tracks bent around a sharp turn and the trains went slow enough that you could hop one.
The heavy whistle blew again and I saw the fat, yellow headlight from the first car of the train. Watching these Titanics of the railroad was fascinating. It was highly illegal and very prosecutable by law. The “yard bulls,” train cops, had the right to beat the crap out of you. I’d heard stories about severed limbs, death.
Ahead of us, to the immediate north, was a fork in the tracks, one track veering left, one right. There was a track switch sitting in the middle. A sign saying, “DANGER: HIGH ELECTRIC CURRENT.”
The train appeared suddenly from around the bend, maybe a hundred yards east, chugging. The incredibly loud crunch of steel wheels rolling ruggedly on tracks began to pump and purr and pop.
“Brian,” I tried again, but he only mumbled something indecipherable.
WOOOOOT WOOOOOOT….WOOOOOT WOOOOOOT
The train whistle blew through my fear and anxiety. I was twenty-six years old. Brian was in his early 30s and a world more experienced than me. I was an intense dude, a burgeoning writer, but very white, very middle-class, and very American, in all the senses of the word. Brian was blue-collar Middle America and an expert in the seductive life of the crime underworld. He’d run away at fifteen and had never looked back, hopping freight trains, stealing copper from warehouses and selling it. He knew things. I respected and also feared him.
The train gained. I roughly shook Brian’s shoulder. “Brian!”
He woke up with a scare, his body shooting into a forty-five degree angle, confusion wrenching itself on his face.
“What is it?” He said.
“Listen,” I said.
The train whistle blew harder than hell. We could actually feel the rumble of the ground as the massive beast approached, as if God were letting us know what he could do. Brian scruffed onto his knees and peered over the brush, his eyes barely over the rim.
“Shit,” he said. “That’s our train. I’ll hop first. Follow me. Wait for my signal.”
My heart began beating harder, like the train’s approaching wheels clacking on metal and the sound of that pounding, pumping, pummeling whistle, announcing the arrival of Zeus.
Before we knew it the head of the train came right at us, the headlight gigantic and all encompassing.
“Get down!” Brian hissed.