Strangers on a Train

With a nineteen-year-old Houston street kid as my guide, I hopped freight cars, gave bulls the slip, and tasted freedom—for a day, anyway.

AS ONE MIGHT GUESS, there are simpler ways to hop a freight train than the way a gutter punk does. For instance, you could wait outside a rail yard for a train to stop, find an open boxcar, climb in, and remain inside until the train gets where it’s going. Then, presumably, at that final destination you’d step from the train with a new view of yourself. You’d have shaken free of the confines of schedules and even concrete time. You’d have tweaked the system, gotten something for nothing, and accomplished a feat few dare to attempt, having seen the country by a means of travel that most folks classify, in terms of desirability, somewhere between hitchhiking and getting kidnapped. But that would be boring compared with the gutter punk way, or so I learned from a nineteen-year-old Houston street kid, a hopped-up thrill seeker with multiple lip rings, a taste for WWII-era military attire, and a home in a tattoo parlor doorway near the intersection of Westheimer and Montrose.

Already I need to back up. It was a year ago April, in a Marfa art gallery, of all places, that I met “Dennis,” a made-up name that will hide the kid’s identity and make him sound significantly less disaffected than does the nickname he actually goes by. It was opening night for an exhibit loosely billed as an installation/performance piece: The gallery had moved an Austin music lover’s living room and 10,000-volume record collection out west for a ten-day listening party and lecture series. Among the usual crowd of 75 or so ranchers, writers, artists, and tourists was a handful of gutter punks who’d swept in with Dennis. He had just jumped off a train in Alpine, a tall, wiry, engaging kid, with eyes the color of the sky on the first day of spring break and a slack-jawed grin that softened his sharp cheekbones into a look of perpetual amazement. When he laughed, he looked as if he couldn’t believe just how wonderful and funny life could be, and when he told a story—like the one about how his heroin-addict mother had been sent to prison for killing a liquor store clerk when Dennis was ten—he looked surprised that you might think such a thing was unthinkable. He was an upbeat kid and handsome enough that you could actually forget the foot-long, cherry-red mohawk that, left unattended that night, fell to one side of his head.

When the record collector played something by the Ramones, Dennis approached the turntables with a request. He knew that the punk forefathers had once covered “Do You Want to Dance?” but it was not their 90-mile-an-hour version he wanted to hear. He asked for the original 1958 recording, by a one-hit wonder from San Francisco named Bobby Freeman. Dennis said he used to listen to it with his parents when he was little, before his mom was locked up and his dad, a homeless guy who preferred thievery to begging, booted him from the nest at fourteen.

But his father gave him one great gift before casting him into the world. To Dennis’s utter enchantment—not to mention that of the Marfa art lovers who now sat enrapt at his feet—his father had told him stories about how he used to ride freight trains. And thus began Dennis’s hoboing existence of the past four and a half years. As he rolled through the story, his wonderment transferred to his audience, and his chest puffed up as he fielded dumbfounded queries. Isn’t it dangerous? Hell no, it’s fun. Where do you sleep? Wherever I am. How do you know where you’re going? I always wind up wherever the train takes me.

He didn’t just describe total freedom, he personified it, and when he returned to the gallery the next night, I was waiting with more questions. This time he was ready for the spotlight, his mohawk waxed into long red spikes. Even though he was barely coherent—a ghost-faced attendee said he’d seen some of Dennis’s cronies huffing what looked to be Sterno—he did manage to string together a couple of sentences about having tutored novice train hoppers. And he said he was willing to do the same for me. I almost jumped out of my shoes.

ON AN ALARMINGLY COLD NIGHT eleven months later I was learning at the hand of the master. We were lying in a field of tall, wet weeds in a particularly sketchy part of Houston’s Fifth Ward, across the street from the rail yard. Dennis was dressed for the weather, with a long, olive-green U.S. Army greatcoat cinched at the waist with a brown leather belt, his mohawk now forsaken for a warmer full head of light-brown hair. The hour was nearing midnight, and we’d been hiding since five, first for a couple of hours under a bridge, then for four or five more amid the chiggers and stray-dog turds collected in the weeds. Earlier, a railroad cop, known as a “bull,” had thrown us out of the yard, following in his pickup as we walked from the tracks. Here Dennis turned to me and the two friends he’d brought along for the trip, “Dave” and “Rich,” and explained a rule that all train hoppers know: If you’re caught in a train yard in the Northeast, the bull will likely beat you. But in the genteel South, you get a second try. So we would wait in the weeds until night fell and the bull’s shift ended. And there we waited. And waited. And the boys smoked bowl after bowl of pot while I itched at the chiggers. While we waited.

I must have been dozing when Dave whispered to Dennis that open boxcars were rolling through the yard. “Let’s go!” said Dennis, as he threw on his backpack and ran across the road. My first step was somewhat slower than the kids’, and they got to the train fifty feet ahead of me. I was still shaking sleep out of my head

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