Train Hopping Memphis
The stiff concrete made me toss and turn early morning. I continued to lay there unable to wake from my comfortable zzz’s until broken free by the charming noise of a bellowing horn. I thought none of it as I packed my gear in a lackadaisical fashion, ready to tramp it down the highway, hitchin’ into town. Train Hopping Memphis looked like a bust after ending up in Rossville IM Facility. I sat 40 miles away from Memphis, my next hop out spot, taking me one step closer to Denver. I scuffed my boots down the slanted concrete embankment, bracing myself with every step, as the locomotive at the signal came into plain view. My slow pace quickly turned into a rampant scamper into a field of wheat. I followed the wye towards the left, trudging through the dense brush, stalking the train for the perfect moment to hop in a well. I stood silently minimizing the rustling beneath my boots, the rust-colored leaves crinkled softly with each tiny step. An engineer stood toward the front engine as I hid behind the barren branches of the woods. Twigs crunched and snapped as I plowed deeper into the brush, tramping parallel to the tracks, counting the freight cars one-by-one. My incognito attempt to reach the middle of the train left me in complete exhaustion. I removed one article after the other, my pores drenching in sweat, and then I hit a crossroad with yet another obstacle making my path longer and more drawn out. My boots squished as I reached a creek, moist clay engulfed them like quicksand, and I slipped and slid reaching for a tree to break my fall. My hands clasped the base, continuing to fall forward with a loud scrunch, as if I pulled a lever, flinging my legs spastically as I plopped both feet into the bed of the muddy creek. Water splashed like the sound of a belly-flop into a pool. I stood there expressionless, shaking my head, as I sunk deeper into the mud. My hands fumbled for anything, reaching for tree roots to pull me out, as I peeled my feet up out of the glue.
But that did not end my battle with the swampy creeks of Tennessee, just a few feet further ahead lay another one, too wide to jump across. I followed the banks, my boots squeaking with each step, until I found the narrowest point to cross. A fallen tree trunk lay across the creek. I treated it like a balance beam as I steadily walked across, one foot in front of the other. It felt like an eternity since I left the bridge, bushwacking through the woods to walk a measly length of 20 freight cars, still leaving me in sight of the engineer. Instead of trekking through the woods I moseyed further into the adjacent, ripe, corn field. I roamed around the brink of the woods like a maze leisurely treading along back towards the train tracks. By this point I no longer saw the front end of the locomotive making it at least 40 freight cars back. A thick section of sticker bushes, vines and branches separated me from the ballast. I stomped through, slicing my hands, and fingers, getting tangled in the yarn of weeds surrounding me. But, I kept at it, furiously pushing forward with a tense bit of anger draining my brow. “GODDAMNIT, fuckin’ shit…” A small culvert lay before me. I unstrapped my pack and threw her over, jumping shortly after. The first DS I tiptoed along looked ride-able judging from the plethora of monikers etched in the steel. Reaching up the ladder I poked my head over to see a small well and porch fit for riding. I unzipped my jacket and took it off along with my t-shirt letting them breathe in the sun, soaking in the rays to dry. I cooled off briefly, the breeze tickled my nipples, making my hair stand on end as I poked my head out past the container to see the signal. She changed green and that soft sound of air fizzled in the hose between the freight cars, gently hissing its harmonious sound of departure. I layered up ready to move out, and stayed low for the next several miles as we reached Memphis, hopping off behind the Target, where I stocked up on the essentials, canned fish, trail mix, and peanut butter.
To avoid the yard in Memphis I walked to a further hop out, 12 miles away. East Memphis felt neighborly, with white picket fences, immaculate homes in gated communities and a copious surplus of churches. I felt safe as I trotted along on the 4-hour trek, putting me at the signals before the Mississippi Bridge, right after sunset. But, I misjudged the thought of potentially ending up in the ghetto past dark. I guess I brain farted and simply overlooked that high probability. For the first time in a while I walked with a stone-cold petrified expression plastered on my face, alert and ready for any precarious situation, hoping it didn’t end in violence. Despite carrying a thick stick, strapped to the bottom of my pack, this would not help if a gang jumped me and started throwing slobberknockers from every which way. I walked at an awkward speed through the abandoned streets of West Memphis. Vacant buildings with broken windows and shattered glass scattered across the sidewalk became all too common as I crept through the shadows of the hood. The lights shined dimmer giving me a ghastly chill as if a spectre followed close behind ready for a malicious attack. My head swiveled like a meth addict fiending for dope as paranoia cast over me afraid of my milieu. Boarded homes with structural damage occupied families with their rusty junkers slumped over rubble where driveway once resided. Lights peeked through the boards of these homes along with yelling and other commotion. I kept walking like a speed-walker who couldn’t run.
As I walked deeper into West Memphis I put myself in a ghetto of black people, all hood, all racist, and the hatred flowed so freely off their tongues as they sat on their corners treating them like stoops. They sipped on grape j00se getting tipsy in the street with their homeboys huddled around em, rappin’, cursin’, nigga this, nigga that, until they spotted me. The only white boy roaming the streets of the ghetto at 9 PM, with a backpack, caught their drunken eye.
“A man…Aaa man…I’m talkin’ to you cracka ass white boy…yeh YOU. The fuck you doin’ here boy…”
My head shifted from looking at the ground to the inebriated group of black men lounging on the corner.
Before I even got the chance for the words to roll off my tongue one cut me off.
“KEEP WALKIN…I SAID…KEEP FUCKIN WALKIN…ain’t nobody care about your white ass…get da fuck outta here boy, before sometin happens…you know what it is…”
My feet kept marching forward as my head stuck glued to their fake silver chains, oversized t-shirts and sagging jeans. Didn’t they know in prison that meant you were down? I broke free and tilted my head back to the street, walking further and further away, my ears catching glimpses of laughter, and antagonizing phrases trying to provoke me.
“You rap white boy?”
“Fuckin’ pussy ass mo’fucker…that what I tought…KEEP WALKIN…shiiiiittt…bitch.”
This wasn’t some college party where a drunk kid threw a punch and I beat his ass. I stood there as a pariah in a crime district, where my color skin was not accepted, surrounded by gangs and groups of men five deep. People probably got shot and stabbed every day here. Security bars lined store windows with bulletproof glass shielding clerks from potential harm and here I tramped through all the muck. My eyes caught glimpses of handshake drug deals going down, along with a lot of people just standing around staring at me with beady eyes of disapproval. I just kept on walking counting the miles down until my destination.
I avoided confrontation, kept my head down, my hood up and wiggled my hands into my gloves. Why? It covered my skin making the “W” disappear from my chest. I calmed down, and shifted to a more casual, comfortable stroll, slowly exiting the turmoil behind me.
My stomach grumbled, but I feared walking into any fast food joint this late at night in an area where I was not well liked. So I let my appetite plateau from a gurgling digestive noise to an empty void state. Involuntarily muscle spasms felt like pulsating ripples of loose skin. My legs shook and I began limping onward so close to my destination I almost crawled to ease the discomfort, but I kept my spirit up and hobbled forward.
I reached an abandoned district of low-income housing. Brick buildings stood there decrepit, every opening nailed with wooden boards, and graffiti scrawled over every inch of wall, “RIP Betor” (Rest in Peace Ronnie Bobal, a graffiti artist from Memphis, TN who died of a heroine overdose at the age of 29). East Georgia Street set me a mile or so back from an easy access point to the tracks right behind the industrial wasteland of rubble in downtown West Memphis. A smile broke out across my exhausted face as grease dribbled down my hair and into my red teary eyes. I glanced up to see a spastic black man dancing in the street next to a dime-store hooker. She stood there tall and in 6-inch red heels, covered in a red scandalous shawl barely covering her fat ass. Her bleach blonde nappy hair mixed with streaks of brown masked her eyes. She wore enough makeup fit for a circus clown. She waited patiently as the man danced, tapping his shoes together, singing, spewing non-sense out of his mouth. He grabbed her hand and placed something in it. I presumed it a twenty or another denomination of money.
I tried to creep by without conversation, but my efforts were futile. “Yo kid, what you doin’ here…you in the army. That a big backpack to be carryin’…name Kevin…where you from?”
“Nah kid, where ya comin’ from?”
“HUNTSVILLE, ALABAMA….daymmmm…how you get all the way to deez parts?”
“Hoppin’ trains, that’s where I’m headed actually…you know if the tracks are closeby?”
“Ohhh shiiiittt…yeh…yeh…yeh…not military, so you a train hoppa. You a train hoppa kid…you hop dem trains and end up places. What are ya…like a straggla?”
“Hah…yeah I guess…I work seasonal jobs and wander around between, headin’ to Denver.”
“DENVER…by train…boy it cold up there…you crazy. How you hop the train…like how you a train hoppa, where you ride?”
“Porches, boxcars, grainers, anything with a floor really…”
“Huh…you speakin’ non-sense kid…where you from?”
“Delaware, I told you already.”
“Nah but where ya comin’ from…”
He chattered his teeth as his head bobbed and weaved side-to-side. I noticed his short-term memory was shot to hell, as he reiterated the same questions over-and-over until finally I broke free of his antics.
“I gotta get goin’ dude…gotta catch one of these trains to get to Missouri.”
“Oh…you a train hoppa are ya…you hop dem trains…Well…nice to meet ya.”
The broad stood there speechless, and expressionless. I knew her line of work made hard circumstances for her and put her in danger. She just stared blankly like a zombie as he grabbed her hand, swinging her arm, as they stumbled into the adjacent field.
I skedaddled on down the empty street figuring he just paid her for a blowjob behind a bush and chuckled. What a fuckin’ night I thought and I made it out alive. Air brakes screeched and wheels squealed along the tracks catching my interest. My head jerked to the left and I sprinted behind the vacant complex, laying low in the empty parking lot sprawled out against trash and rubble.
Two NS front engines gingerly edged along the tracks, stopping briefly before the river. Their cargo consisted of empty coal trains, exactly what I wanted to hop to get to Kansas City, MO. I jumped up to my feet and flung my pack over my shoulders ready to make a run for it. As I set foot on the ballast I checked both directions of tracks only to see another oncoming train.
“Shit…,” I backed down and fled to the dilapidated wall of crumbling brick, seeking cover. My ride slowly crept along the tracks picking up speed until crossing the bridge leaving only coal dust in her tracks. “Dammit, that was my chance outta here,”
I lay down briefly against the earth her cool breath chilling my back as my ears wiggled in excitement from the noise of a oncoming front engine. BNSF crept by me at a snail’s pace with empty coal cars following behind in the consist. I wandered behind the shadows of coal cars walking another mile in the direction I previously came. My body drowned in sweat and I de-layered while I thought about where to ride, trying my best to keep my eyelids open from their droopy, jaded state. Every coal car sat there porch-less, and I did not want to ride suicide through the night. I strolled alongside the string of coal cars roaming towards the back-end of the locomotive. A car parked alongside the train and caused me to halt in my tracks, retracing my footsteps, any attempt at riding the unit looked nil. So what did I do? I walked all this way probably 14 fuckin’ miles. I wasn’t giving up that easily, not to empty coal, not to any stopped train. So without hesitation, I clasped onto the brisk rungs of a ladder and hopped into the top of an empty coal car. The slippery metal box felt intimidating like a fortress with deep impenetrable walls. I let go of the ladder and immediately slid down the 45 degree slant planting the back-end of my rump against the floor. Coal dust spattered into the air brushing soot across my face, causing me to cough uncontrollably. I pulled out a few pieces of cardboard, laying them across the coal covered floor.
Then came the ingenuitive thinking. How the fuck would I get out of here with my backpack? I monkeyed my way between the reinforced beams of the metal box swinging up the triangular buttress. My ass sat against the frigid beam, my legs dangling freely, a story above the ground. Well, that looked impractical with my 40 pound backpack on, so I pulled out another idea from the old noggin’. What about rope I thought? I reached in my pocket pulling out 20 foot of rope, tying it in half with knots every few feet. I shimmied across the perimeter of the coal car, my legs scrunched between its inside and outside wall as I progressed towards the ladder. Tying a loop around the first rung and throwing it down into the car, it just reached the top of my backpack.
I braced myself with the rope and climbed down the wall like a soldier. Now, I just needed to stay awake whenever it stopped so I did not die from getting crushed by loaded coal at the industry.