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.