More train hopping pics

That's right, somebody knows what's up. "Live free or die."

Norfolk Southern's yard in Nola seen from under the Almonaster bridge, as good a jungle as there ever was.

Poor dead opossum in Nashville. Death haunts the tracks. Railroads can be dangerous and dark places.

Some beautiful rail side graffiti, "Harsh" featuring Winnie the Pooh. I love it.


Train hop...

I recently train hopped freighters from the 9th Ward of New Orleans to Bakersfield, California. It took 6 days, 6 nights. Here's an excerpt from my post jump journal and recollection.

Chattanooga is a train town. Coming in on the edge of the city, slightly up the foot of a mountain with a good view a prominent billboard downtown advertises Chattanooga and the “choo-choo” with a profile of a giant old time steam locomotive. Norfolk Southern’s yard is right on the edge of the downtown. The train slows enough coming in for me to pack my bag and skip off its side. I climbed up an embankment and walk out onto 11th street. Chatt. Looks to be a small city, compact but with a very tall and busy central skyline. Walking down 11th I make a bee line for the high rises. I need to refill my water, get more food, explore and use my legs some.

Six or seven blocks from its center on 11th I approach a long line and scattered groups of tired looking men and women waiting around outside a homeless and poor people’s center. A sign on the door says there’s a free breakfast, lunch and dinner among other services. Hopefully the fare is better than that in New Orleans. The weeks prior I had been living on the streets of N.O. without cash money, mostly without a roof to sleep under until I broke into a boarded up luxury apartment building and squatted. I visited the Ozanum on several occasions. Affectionately called “the Oz,” it’s a Christian institution in the city that rooms and feeds homeless men. For several nights I went for their “dinner.” Dinner consisted of a bologna sandwich: two slices of wonder bread, a hint of mayonnaise and one slice of meat. To wash it down they poured one small styrofoam cup of water per patron. Outside of this center in Chatt. I asked the security guard about breakfast and lunch. “You missed it,” he said bluntly about breakfast. “Ended at 8:30. It’s 45 past now. Lunch is twice daily. Ten and Eleven.”

“Thanks sir.” The number of folks outside this city-run center for the poor seemed incredibly large for city the size of Chatt. I’ve rarely seen groups this large in LA, San Francisco and New Orleans outside of mess halls and clinics.
I hiked several blocks over and found myself on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. A sign on a trash can promoted the neighborhood as the MLK area. Faces from passing cars, from windows and passers by on the streets, all black. I’m on the black side of town. A loud train is whipping by in the distance from where I’ve come. The houses are beat up, weathered, un-repaired. There are no new cars. The streets are pot-holed. Of course the railyard runs through here. Railyards and busy tracks were long ago either run through the black sides of cities or else the noisy dangerous urban zones around the tracks quickly became redlined, segregated and home to America’s racially oppressed. And then of course in the aftermath of the black, brown and native civil rights movements, periods of legal and institutional struggle of the long and still going freedom movements, during this time feel good measures were made by well-meaning whites and civic leaders to name streets, parks and portions of the cities after notables like King, Chavez, Castle-Haley. Cosmetic. A slap. Knee, face? Wrong side, we’re still on the wrong god-damn side the proverbial tracks.

Lurking around several back allies I discovered some of the beautiful and thoughtful graffiti which would cover the concrete-brick-iron canvasses that line the tracks everywhere across the earth. Big intricate tags of swirling psychedelic letters. Faces, bodies, sex, power, anarchy, gangsterdom, insults, jokes feminism, animals, politics, it’s all up there on the walls beneath America’s overpasses, in the grimy dim lit streets and aross abandoned buildings and fence lines. My favorite tag in Chatt., a simple question written out in neat little spray painted letters with sharp ends and smooth rounded sides: “WHAT’S UP MY NOOGA?”

I spent the better part of the day wandering around town. School just having started it seems, at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, UTC, college kids are milling about the streets around the campus. The city has an unusually large number of coffee shops. Curious about possible routes out of Tennessee I decided to get on the internet at the university’s library, to look and see if there’s any information on the CSX yard. In UTC’s library I have to circle like a vulture around the computers to eventually find one will logged on with a student’s passcode. For a society that talks big about liberty, freedom and the importance of open information for democracy I increasingly find libraries, public, private, city-run and at colleges to be very proprietary and secretive, almost punitive for those who haven’t purchased their access in one way or another. You simply can’t use the internet unless you’ve paid your fees, paid for your card, have a local address, etc.

Finally jumping on an open computer I realize that the CSX corporation’s website itself has excellent maps and explanations of their routes and yards. CSX has tow yards in Chatt. The bigger one is actually in Wauhatchie, a little hamlet a few miles beyond the city to the southwest. Here is where I’ll hop out of town and head west. I decide that I’ll aim for Memphis and see what happens. From Memphis I can either head north to connect up eventually with the big Union Pacific routes that go west, or I can transfer over to the BNSF mega trains that scream across the continent from port to port, through forest and desert, day and night, no stopping for anything. Either will be fine I figure.
After failing to find a bookshop selling maps and striking out in my attempts to bum some spare change for a cup of coffee I decide to walk to Wauhatchie. Sparing change is a depressing experience that everyone should try. Make it an experiment. Go out to a busy street, sit down and ask passersby for quarters and dimes. Or walk through shopping districts and transit malls. Americans are infected with a bizarre guilt and shame/anger distrust complex when it comes to giving and receiving pennies on the street. It really makes no sense, but virtually no one wants to give and unless you’ve ever truly been poor and desperate, depending on lot in life, few can ask for change without feeling a profound sense of shame and loathing. It makes zero sense. People are willing to shill out serious cash for complete garbage, junk food, shitty films, clothing, and all the other wash-ashore consumables that get bought up and disposed of faster than they feeling of helping another out would dissipate, and yet people don’t share. No sense whatsoever. My attempts to raise a dollar fifty cents reminded me of some things an old friend taught me a few years back. I went out with her to raise money for a political cause by going door to door in rich neighborhoods in a small coastal California city. She remarked to me after a few hours work that I had trouble, “a problem” asking people for money because I only would ask once and then give up. And they way I asked was all wrong. I asked as though it really didn’t matter if they gave or not. “It’s your class, man,” she explained. “You’ve never known true need and never been in that position where you have to ask someone else for something you’ve got to have, can’t live without. You’ve always been on that end of things with the change rattling in your pocket, the money in your bank, and the beggar looking up at you.” A few years later this same friend and I yelled at one another, a little drunk in some stupid argument with a not so stupid lesson at the end of it. Outside an all night burger joint on San Pablo Avenue we had been eating and handing out spare change to the endless procession of homeless men, junkies and forlorn types shuffling out of the West Oakland darkness. I was annoyed and made it known. “You and them and I, we’re all here right now together. What’s it hurt, what difference does it make, who cares what they need it for? Give the change man! Be thankful. Be humble. We’re together,” she said. I never quite figured out what she meant in full, but the episode had an enormous impact on me. It made me finally and more fully realize that money is a relationship, not a thing. No matter how green it is and how crumply it feels, it’s a vector between us, not an object or thing in its own right. It measures power. It means inequality. Nothing more, but I ain’t say less. This much, these things of power and inequality are life and death, crime and so-called law.

“Spare change sir?,” I asked the single men walking down the street toward their office in white collars and shiny brown dress shoes. They look away with a bizarre expression on their face, as though they can’t figure out fast enough whether to chastise me, a young fit white man, to “get a job!” or whether they want to just hand over a buck. “Got any extra change?” I ask the small groups of men and women heading into and out of the cafes and restaurants. No response at all. The only man who gave me change, thirty cents, was a black man walking toward a bus stop, still in his work uniform, a janitors jumpsuit. “I’ve got to keep enough for the bus home though, bro,” as he counts the dimes and nickels and hands me as much as he can.

My same friend, so wise in the ways of money and how it fucks up our humanity, she once told me straight up that, “it’s always the poor, the working folks who give the most.” It truly is. To be rich in this world is to horde in greed. To be truly wealthy in health friends and community is to share unabashedly, to be as my friend says, “in this together.” Some of us, most of us on these streets, Chattanooga, New Orleans, where next? We’re all in this together.


Clearing "them" out...

Down on the UP tracks in Santa Barbara along the stretch where my guerilla garden grows there used to be a community of houseless folks. It appears that the city and the cops have cleared them out. All that remains of their campgrounds are scattered piles of trash and the things they couldn't bring along, where ever they've been forced off to.


Detox, cops, death in jail....

I was dumpster diving in Santa Barbara, easy pickings. Stopped by a deli and found dozens of tamales, chicken fajitas, sandwiches neatly wrapped, priced, expired not one day and tossed out with the trash. I packed em' in my black backpack and headed off down the street.

"Food N ot Bombs! Dinner deliveries, are you hungry tonight?" Lots of the folks on the street were happy to see me, took some food. In a parking lot down by the only SRO hotel in SB I stopped and handed food to a man and woman, Alice and Michael. They were happy, but Michael looked worried.

"Brother, let me ask your advice," he started. "I'm detoxing but I need to get up to Cottage Hospital. I don't have a way to get there. The walk is too far." Michael holds his hands up. They're shaking violently. He's undergoing alcohol withdrawal. It's the only cold turkey that can actually kill someone. When a hard core alcoholic goes off the bottle she or he experiences such a fantastic stimulation of the nervous system used to the powerful depressant effect of booze that it's possible to die, die horribly.

Michael explained that the paramedics, when he called, told him that they couldn't pick him up unless something was wrong with him. "I'm shaking and feel sick. Something's very wrong." Apparently the medics disagreed and would not transport him to the hospital miles away. He called his detox program and they told him to come in with a police escort. Michael thinks he has warrants out. He also drank two beers earlier in the evening. It was Alice's idea, and a good one at that. Small amounts of beer will keep the withdrawal from killing him. But Michael tells me for the last ten years he's been used to a fifth of vodka per day followed by countless beers. Two drinks lasted a couple hours but the shakes and pain is coming on strong now.

What to do? I ride off on my bike after telling them to wait for me. When I return I've got a plan and a little cash. It's simple. I'll slip a cabbie twenty bucks and he'll drive Michael to the hospital. No medics, no cops, no bullshit. But when I get back Michael is gone. Alice says the cops rolled up and he took off, afraid that they would lock him up. "In jail they'll just throw him in a cell on the floor. No attention. He'll be in there for time. He'll die in jail."

Alice tells me where Michael might have gone. I ride off looking for him to no avail. While coasting up and down State Street I hand out a few more meals to street folks sitting on benches or walking through the crowds of Friday night party animals. The street is crowded wtih the drunk men and women who frequent the meat market clubs and shitty bars. When I get back to the spot I left Alice she and I talk for a while. She's really concerned about Michael. "Where'd he go?, I hope he didn't just lay down somewhere."

She wonders, "maybe he'll call me? I've got to go in and get my room straight though. I'm afraid the manager will come up and kick me out. I wanted to sneak Michael into my room, look after him, but they charge us $20 a night for guests. I don't have that kind of money. They saw me trying to sneak him in tonight, knew he was in there last night I think. I should go up and clean, prepare in case they try to punish me." She goes up but before she's gone she turns and says, "you know, for all thier good intentions, all these cops and programs and shelters, they really set the odds against you, make it so you gotta break the rules to do right."

"Yeah, yes," I reply.

I ride off and take one last stab at finding Michael. I spot him walking, sort of stumbling up the street not too far. He sees me and smiles, "I left when the cops came. I might have warrants."

"I know." Here, let's get you in a cab. It takes several tries but we finally flag a cab over. The driver eyes Michael suspiciously. Michael is holding a blanket and large bag. He's clearly homeless. The cabbie is being a fucking prejudiced dick. I tell mike to get in the cab and hand the driver $20, way more than the ride should cost. Probably double the price. Take him to Cottage Hospital, I direct the driver. "Goodnight brother," Michael thanks me.

"Good night brother." Tonight you're good. No drinks, no cops, no death in jail, no shaking and suffering in the street. You've got scirrosis of the liver. You're an alcoholic. You've lived hard. How many more nights ahead?


Deserving Poor

How does one survive in a strange city with few friends and no money?

You take what you can get. New Orleans is easy to live in because of one simple fact: the hot-plat- to-go. The to-go plate is everywhere, of course. It's that styrofoam or paper box - the "doggie bag" - the package you can take the rest of your food home in after eating at a restaurant. But in Nola it's a bit different. More than half the meals consumed in this city are to-go, served in a styrofoam plate. Only the tourist eating at the nicest restaurants actually eat on a real ceramic plate with metal knives and forks. Working class Nola along with the white collar stiffs of the Central Business District largely get their lunches to go and eat them out of the disposable dish with plastic utensils.

I suspect this partially evolved out of segregation when blacks had to get their food at separate windows or the back door of the kitchen. There was a time, not too long ago (the 1960s) when most establishments in the city did not serve blacks except perhaps in to-go plates. Not that most blacks could even afford the cuisine or had the time to dine in. Many were on the run to get back to work. The vast majority of blacks were so impoverished that spending money on a fancy meal was out of the question. So goes the American racial hierarchy.

The to go plate nowadays is everywhere. Even the best restaurants will hook up a container for diners when leaving with leftovers. This makes eating in New Orleans a treat for homeless people like myself. By about lunch time everyday, especially after 4pm the curb-sides fill up with bags full of ordered food, some of it half eaten, some of it not even touched, in to-go plates. Much of it is fried potatoes or bread, but it's not hard to score a large dish of jumbalaya, spaghetti, or a chicken salad. You can either dig through the trash, or else you can ask every tourist you see with a dish if you can have it.

Ah, New Orleans cooking! The best.

So today I was rummaging through someone's trash, a condo-dweller of the Warehouse District (a recently gentrified portion of the city) who has thrown out some very nice items over the last few weeks looking for lunch or else some laundry detergent, candles, electronics, golf clubs, cell phone accessories [all things this person has tossed away]. As I was digging through this persons refuse a truck pulled up. The man behind the wheel called out, "hey man!" I half expected to be accosted for going through someone's trash, perhaps his? Instead he handed a five dollar bill toward me. I took it and thanked him. He said little and drove off.

Why me? I'm a young white guy. I am perhaps thought of by many who see me digging through trash as a member of the deserving poor. I don't drink on the streets and I look relatively clean. Many who see me must think I'm just a young good ol' boy down on my luck, so they want to help me. I find this ironic because physically I'm obviously in my prime, so how could I be deserving? Why don't people label me as a lazy bum?

Race, class, gender.... I meet a dozen homeless black men everyday who are shunned by most. I give away much of the change I come across because truth be told I really don't need it, even though my privileges allow me to accumulate it more easily. So I'll stick to digging to-go plates out of the trash, cause we all deserve better than this........