Train Hopping Memphis
With the recent rainfall, and playing hide and seek from workers and the bull, I threw up my white flag. Never again will I waste two days trying to infiltrate BNSF Memphis Yard to catch a southbound train. With the elevated track in the middle of the yard the only logical access point is the drainage culvert of Johns Creek. Ankle deep swamp water and soggy boots did not appeal to me in the slightest. I packed up my bag and tramped it down Lamar Ave. towards the NS Yard off of Southern Avenue. When I reached Lamar Ave. and Get Well St. I snickered as my eyes witnessed a raunchy sign, a woman holding her bra straps with panties on, the Catwalk of Memphis. It looked empty with only one vehicle in the parking lot, a black, souped-up Escalade with chrome rims. Some gangster stepped out with saggy jeans, a crisp white t-shirt and a blunt in his hand, puffing it furiously as his chain dangled side-to-side.
“Haaaay buddy. Hayyyy…Hayyyy…you walkin’ come over hurr. Ya you…I wanna axe you somethin’.”
“What in the fuck,” I thought as I stood there with a deep expression of hatred molded on my face. “Whatttt? Whadda ya want? I’m not walkin’ back over there…headin’ this way.”
“Aight…aight…I’ll come to ya. Hold up.”
A tall, lean, transgender, black man walked over to me with a garbage bag in hand. He smiled and his mouth looked like a jack-o-lantern as half his teeth fell out from years of living on the streets. His hair slicked back into a little nub ponytail and he wore tight jeans, beat up sneaks, a torn t-shirt and a leopard scarf. He walked with a flamboyance about his step.
I stood there annoyed, eager to leave and unsure of what he wanted, but nonetheless I listened to him.
“Whadda ya want man? I’m tryin’ to get somewhere,” I yammered in a dickish tone from restlessness and aggravation.
“Juss tryin’ to help. I seen ya with ya backpack n all. Ya lookin’ for work boy? They pay cash cross the street. Cleanin’ rooms n all. Pay ya same day n even give ya a room. It’s better than the streets…”
“Thanks man, but I’m just tryin’ to get to Huntsville. Just a few more miles to the train yard.”
“Okkkaaay…juss tryin’ to help. They can get ya a bus ticket. But haayy now, have a nice day.”
He waddled away and in that moment of turning down work I knew I was a bum just wandering the streets, a train tramp, street kid, whatever you want to call it. And in that moment of self reflection, I did not care. I just wanted to see my wife. Work. No work. Bum. No bum. I’m still me, wandering aimlessly through life, reading and writing.
The last few miles always hurts my body the most. Maybe because of exhaustion, blisters or the fact that nine miles with 40 lbs. strapped to your back isn’t comfortable. My shoulders felt like compressed springs of pain, ready to explode. My bones ached with every pace, but I always kept at it, eager to hop the next eastbound train out of East Memphis.
I hated Tennessee. Between the rude people and urban blight I wanted to leave as quickly as possible to avoid any confrontation. My experiences of breaking out of Rossville IM Facility, getting clobbered by rain riding empty coal to Springfield, and the racism I experienced on my 12-mile walk through West Memphis all screamed get the fuck out of Tennessee.
In that instance of thought I snapped out of it to a raspy voice hollering from a stoop. A black man yelled over at me with permanent whisky face through his inebriation.
“Ayyyye there boyyyy…you…ya needa dollah…ya needa…needa…dollah…cuz I’ll give ya one. I’ll give ya a fuckin’ dollah.”
“No thank you,” I politely said with a slightly confused, downtrodden, expression.
“WHOOO boyyyy…he dodn’t wanna dollah…fuckin’ get outta here then. Ida give ya a dollah. Get ya non-workin’ ass outta here white boy. Keep walkin’.”
My brain flashbacked to West Memphis. I wondered if there was any relation between this man and Johnny homeboy sippin’ grape joose on the corner? I chuckled at the job comment as I continued pacing the streets. More than likely he had a few illegitimate children of his own and lived off welfare and EBT. Who was he to tell me how to live my life and patronize me with a “dollah.”
My temper cooled to its normal manner as I approached Forrest Yard near Haynes and Southern. I wandered east to check the front end of the train and noticed the white crew change van parked next to the locomotive. Quickly I changed direction and crossed the street not really worried about stealthiness. After all, I roamed through the ghetto and if there was one thing I knew at all about black people, they didn’t call the police. They handled matters without the 5-0 crawling around in their business.
As I waddled next to the train tracks the slopy ballast plateaued. People walked all around on the sidewalks, down the streets, shooting hoops, drinking beers from brown paper bags, and relaxing. I walked in plain sight. They knew. I knew. I did not care. An old black man approached in a wheelchair and looked over at me with a smile and twinkle in his eye.
“Maaaannn. I know what you doin’. Wish I could walk…take me wit you…want outta this town…somewhere new.”
I smiled as he rolled away and suddenly all my anger dissipated. I appreciated life much more at that moment as I looked down at my legs, taking my next few strides to freedom, relieved of previous unnecessary qualms.
Vehicles zoomed by in both directions, and once I heard a few seconds of silence, I lunged for a loaded coal car. As I hung onto the ladder I squeezed between the two coal cars, walking between a GM and unit coal train. Voices and engines drowned out my footsteps along the ballast. After ten coal cars I peered out towards the roadway looking directly at the middle of an industrial building. My grimy, black fingers clenched the ladder to sit atop another loaded coal car headed eastbound towards Springfield, MO.
After an hour, right before the sun left for bedtime, she aired up as cirrus clouds dawdled above me ready to sprinkle at any moment. As always I switched to unit coal at the next siding. This time I avoided wiggling through the window and instead gained entry through the unlocked nose. I loaded up on water in the fridge and lay on the floor most of the night ready to skip out to a loaded coal car at the next yard, Muscle Shoals. But, something about BNSF units always gave me unwanted trouble. Suddenly, the smooth ride with A/C and tunes turned to a game of hide and seek, a fight to stay out of jail, or get pulled off 80 miles outside of the next town. What happened?…