Empty Coal Car

To avoid BNSF Memphis Yard, I walked 12 miles to a traffic signal along the Mississippi River.  East Memphis felt neighborly, with white picket fences, immaculate homes in gated communities and plentiful churches.  I felt safe as I trotted along on the four-hour trek to the hop out, but I misjudged ending up in West Memphis after dusk.  I guess I brain farted and simply overlooked that high probability.  For the first time in a while, I walked stone cold and petrified, vigilant to any precarious situation, hoping it did not end in violence.  Despite carrying a thick stick, strapped to the bottom of my pack, this would not help much if a gang of men started throwing slobberknockers and kicks from all over.  The weapon helped ease my mind a bit though.

I walked at an awkward speed through the abandoned streets of West Memphis.  Vacant buildings with shattered glass scattered across the sidewalk became all too commonplace as I crept through the shadows of the hood.  The lights shined dimmer stretching deeper into the west side as my back stiffened with each step and cold chill.  My head swiveled in paranoia afraid of my surroundings.  Boarded homes with structural damage occupied these low-income neighborhoods, and rusty junkers slumped over rubble where driveway once paved the way to garage doors.  Lights peeked through their plywood boards and fumes of bickering filled my ears with commotion.

I just kept speed walking, putting myself further into a ghetto of black people, nearing the hop out.  Racist hatred flowed so freely off their tongues as they sat on the street corner treating it like a stoop.  They sipped on grape Joose getting tipsy 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 after dark.

“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.  “I…I’mmm…headin’ to…”  Before I even had the chance to roll the words 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 eyes gawked for a split second at their fake silver chains, oversized t-shirts, and sagging jeans, didn’t they know in prison that meant you were down?  I broke free of staring, and marched forward, walking further and further away.  My ears caught glimpses of laughter, and antagonizing phrases trying to provoke me, but I ignored them.

“You rap white boy?” said another random black man, giggling as he started beat boxing.

“Fuckin’ pussy ass mo’fucker…that what I tought…KEEP WALKIN…shiiiiittt…bitch.”

The chatter faded as I sped off down the sidewalk just a few miles from the hop out.  I avoided any 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, calming me down, as I shifted to a more casual, comfortable stroll, slowly leaving the turmoil behind me.  My stomach grumbled, but I feared stopping to eat.  I let my appetite plateau from its gurgling noise to an empty void pit of stomach acid.  Involuntarily muscle spasms in my legs pulsated like ripples of water.  My legs shook and I began limping onward so close to my destination that I almost crawled to ease the pain, but I kept my spirit up, and hobbled along.

Security bars protected store windows with bulletproof glass shielding clerks from potential harm and here I tramped through it all wishing I was somewhere else.  My eyes caught glimpses of handshake drug deals, along with many people standing around, staring at me with beady eyes of disapproval.  I just kept on walking, counting the miles down, until my destination.

I reached district housing closing in on industry.  Brick buildings stood there decrepit, every opening nailed with plywood boards, and graffiti scrawled over every inch of wall, “RIP Betor”.  East Georgia Street set me a mile from the tracks right behind the industrial wasteland of downtown West Memphis.  A smile broke out across my exhausted face as grease dribbled down my hair and into my red teary eyes.

Train Hopping West Memphis
Street art in West Memphis

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 six-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 like a crackhead.  He grabbed her hand and placed something in it.  I presumed it was a twenty or another denomination of money.  I tried to creep by without conversation, without success.

“Yo kid, what you doin’ here…you in the army.  That a big backpack to be carryin’…name’s Kevin…where you from?”


“Nah kid, where ya comin’ from?”

“Hunstville, Alabama…”

“HUNTSVILLE, ALABAMA….daymmmm…how you get all the way to deez parts?”

“Hoppin’ trains, that’s where I’m headed actually…”

“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?”

“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 lack of short-term memory, reiterating the same questions over-and-over until I broke free of his questions.

“I gotta get goin’ dude…gotta catch out to Missouri.”

“Oh…Well…nice to meet ya.”

The prostitute stood there speechless, lacking expression.  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.  “What a fuckin’ night,” I thought and I made it out alive.

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  1. Yeah I rode my bike through KCMO a few years back, but got the hell outta there pretty quick. Riding trains always puts you in the bad areas of every city…it’s just easier to hide in the shadows at night and more trains roll through.