Chapter XIV: The Education of a Hobo
I was back on the street, looking for a road to Baton Rouge so I could get started. A mile before entering town, I ran into a guy I'd met briefly at the seamen's mission in Mobile. He was on his way to Galveston to see a friend who'd promised to help him find a job. We decided to travel together, at least for a while. We played it safe by staying close to the river, as far from the main drag as possible. Fewer police were in the rundown section of town than in the business districts, we knew. We passed a grocery store. My friend decided to hit the grocer for something to eat. He came back with a box of soda crackers. "Not exactly caviar," he commented, "but twice as filling."
It was about 6:30; the sun had set. We found a shadowy doorway and sat down to eat our crackers. He was right. They were filling. The ferry was just across the street. How were we going to make it across on that boat without paying? A touring car slid slowly around the corner. We paid no attention to it. It steered right up beside the curb, only a few feet from where we were sitting. A powerful spotlight was turned on; its beam was directed into our faces, blinding us. A voice boomed, "Put your hands up or we'll blow you all apart!"
We stood up, my upraised hands still hanging onto the cracker box. Two men, double-barreled shotguns drawn, moved in, searched us, then shoved us into the car. We were on our way to jail. Holy Toledo, is that all there is? Jail?
We'd been caught in a roundup. Sixty men had been picked up and taken to the police station. We were processed before a table where three policemen and one young guy were sitting. "How about these two?" the policeman directed to the young guy in civilian clothes.
"No," he drawled, "that's not them."
We were put into a holding cell. Some men were already in there, stretched out on deck. "What the hell is this all about?" I asked anyone who was listening.
"That dummy sitting there," someone told me, "claims he stepped out of a restaurant and was robbed by two men. Says they took his week's pay. Twenty bucks. Bet it's money he lost in a poker game; he's trying to make his wife think he was rolled."
About five more men were brought in. There were no natives among them. The "victim" had stated that, when the robbers spoke to him, they had sounded "alien to the area." The two alleged robbers were never picked up. The whole search for them was shut down at midnight.
We had no blankets, but a hot stove in the cell overworked itself that night. At 6:30 the next morning, we were awakened by the roar of motors. Several big vans had pulled up beside the police station. "All right now! Y'all pay attention. We don't want to see your faces in town after this morning. Y'all hear? Just to make sure we don't, we're gonna take you outta town. Now, all those going north and west, go and get in that big van on your left. The ones going south and east, take the van on your right. Now git! And don't y'all come back in this here town again. Hear me good?"
Like a herd of sheep we shuffled out and climbed aboard. "Well, maybe they're doing us a favor. After all, we were heading west, so it'll be that much less we have to travel," I consoled my friend. The truck drove a good five miles out of town. In a clearing on the roadside, the door was opened.
"Okay, y'all, end of the line! Now, y'all remember what that officer told you back there. Don't be seen back in town." The driver slammed the door and took off. At least 20 of us were left standing around looking silly. Our surroundings seemed familiar--flat green countryside sprinkled with clumps of brush, a farmhouse in the distance.
"Why, the sonofabitch!" exclaimed one of the men. "They took us south instead of north! The guys wanting to go south must have been taken north! Them southern hoosier grit-eating bastards! I hope they croak."
Another fine mess. How were we to get back to Baton Rouge, onto that ferry, without winding up in jail again? Southern police humor, if that's what it was, was not appreciated. Well, let the whole station house laugh; we'd show `em.
My friend and I broke away from the others. Staying off the road, we worked our way back to town. At the city limits, we cut across some farm land to the river, being careful to stay out of sight. Several times I sank almost to my knees in swampy muck. My feet were soaked, my clothing ripped and torn by bushes and occasional barbed-wire fences. I looked like a scarecrow. We hoped to reach town at sundown.
Once again we reached the ferry. Few automobiles were making the trip this time, and very few passengers were boarding. One thing was certain: if we hung around studying the approach, worrying about how to obtain free passage, we'd be spotted quickly and picked up by the cops. That could set us back several months. No, we knew we had to get the hell out fast.
We decided to give the frontal approach a shot. We marched right up to the ticket man. He was alone. That gave us hope; with people around him, he'd be afraid to give free passage for fear of being reported and losing his job. We stood before him. Frankly, we looked terrible. The man studied us. Then my partner spoke up. "In the name of God, man, give us a break! We're trying to get to the other side to catch a freight train. We have no money for food, let alone fare."
The ticket man glanced fearfully around. No one was in sight. "Pass," he breathed.
A mile from the ferry landing, trains were being made up for the trek toward Memphis, Little Rock or the Dakotas. We checked and found out that our train would be ready to go at two in the morning. The night grew cold. We located a sand house and managed to squeeze into a corner. A sand house is a small shack built around a powerful stove and surrounded by sand. The stove's heat drives the moisture out of the sand, making it gritty. Every locomotive has a sand box inside. When the track becomes oily, the driving wheels slip and slide. That's when the engineer lets sand flow down a pipe in front of them. It creates sufficient friction to stop the sliding. We remained unnoticed in our corner when the brakeman came to fill buckets with hot sand to pour into the engine cab's sand box.
On cold, wintry nights, the sand house is favored by men on the road as well as railroad bulls. For that reason, there's always plenty of room in a sand house. In the four or five times I have kept warm in such a place, only once did a bull hustle me out, threatening to break my head if I ever came back. One bad thing about sand houses is that you're not the only live thing basking in their warmth. Though it's true that few men attract lice, the same can't be said about crabs. I did my share to carry on the crab strain; every famished one of them and their young seemed to thrive on chewing on me in sand houses. When these parasites turn up on you, it means not only plenty of baths, but boiling out all your clothing and smearing Blue Ointment all over your body. Most times, even this gives you only temporary victory. More than likely, next night, you'll be in another flophouse, ready to entertain a new crop of the pests.
Around 1:30 we shivered our way outside. Our train was all made up. Luckily, the yard was too windswept for the bulls to be out checking on hobos. A quick look and we were quickly climbing onto the roof of one of a long string of empty reefers. We unhooked the latch, then let ourselves down inside, securing the latch again.
Reefers are used to transport perishable cargo like fruits and vegetables. If they require ice (oranges, apples and grapes don't), two compartments, one on each end of the car, store it. As the wheels turn, a belt between the wheels runs a fan that circulates air around the cargo inside the car. Compared to conventional boxcars, reefers are kept clean. They offer privacy, each compartment accommodating only two people. There's no room for walking around, as in a boxcar, and visibility is zero; it takes a climb to see out. During daylight, if the car is loaded, the filler door has to be left ajar to circulate air. The brakemen pay strict attention to this part of the operation. If, from the caboose, they see a filler door closed, they make it a point at the first stop to raise the door and check the car over. For an empty car, it doesn't matter whether the filler door is open or shut. At night, the brakemen can't spot doors, so it's safe to pull it shut to maintain heat inside. If it had rained during the day, a piece of cardboard could be rigged to keep the water out, but it required experience to make it work.
Spotting the right reefer had been easy. Since most fruit and vegetables from the West were being shipped east, most empty reefers headed west. If the car used ice as a refrigerant, water would always be dripping from a drain at the end of the car. If the car was loaded, there would be a seal on the door locks.
Newspaper is always handy to have along on the road. Besides its use as a fire starter, it's good as a blanket. A few sheets, loosely folded, can be fitted between the back and the jacket. Another sheet, rolled up, can be stuff up your pants leg to keep cold air off your legs. Some old-timers insisted it was the newspaper ink that created the warmth. Whatever it was, newspapers prevented many a cold night disaster.
The engineer called in the brakemen with the whistle. The cars humped; air brakes were tested. The train lurched forward, starting slowly. We rolled out of the yard. Way up ahead, the shrill wail of the whistle told the world in two blasts that we were now about to highball. Our rattler rolled westward toward Texas, edging ever closer to the Gulf of Mexico. Almost every hour we stopped and sidetracked to let a fast passenger train pass or to sit and wait for signals. We didn't mind. We needed sleep.
As dawn approached, my riding companion, wondering aloud what part of the state we were passing through, climbed up and opened the manhole door enough to see out. I sat up, paper still stuffed up my pants legs and sleeves. I felt like a stuffed straw man; maybe I even looked the part. In any case, I was warm. My buddy backed his way down and pulled out his sack of Bull Durham. We both rolled cigarettes and sat back, puffing away. Up ahead the mournful whistle cut through the early morning mist as the train clattered past small towns, depots and sleeping villages. "We must have caught something about as good as a milk run," grumbled my partner. "Seems to be dragging its ass mighty slowly across the state. I bet we aren't averaging 30 miles an hour."
"I know we stopped at least three times," I chimed in.
"Yes, and must have lost an hour each time. At this rate, we'll never make Texas till late tonight." Reaching into his coat pocket, he pulled out a very small packet about the size of a pack of cigarettes. It held a needle and a spool of thread. "You carry one of these?" he queried as he threaded a needle.
"No," I told him, watching him start sewing up a small hole in his pants knee.
"Better get yourself a few needles and some thread at a five-and-dime store. Always handy to have if you're gonna hop rattlers the rest of your life," he advised. He took off his jacket, inspecting it carefully; then he started on a button. "If you're gonna travel this route for any time, there's only one way to do it: that's the right way. Be prepared for any emergency. Know the road. Do it right. Just like steamboating. To be a good sailor, you gotta know your ship, everything about it. Right? So, to ride these rattlers coast to coast you gotta know `em inside out. I've seen too many guys who thought they knew everything. Not interested to learn anything new. A few went to the hospital, a few went to the grave. How long you been riding these rattlers?" he wanted to know.
I sat there marveling at this guy. I figured him for about 40, yet he talked as if he'd done a lot of traveling. I liked the way he'd sewed up that hole in his pants. He wasn't pushy; he talked as if he knew a great deal and wanted to share it. I felt his concern for me; he didn't want to see me killed on the road. I learned something from everything he was telling me, just as I learned from the old-timer who showed me how to keep from being guillotined in a boxcar doorway. "Oh, a couple of weeks," I guessed.
"Well," he went on, relighting his cigarette, "suppose you were to hear words like `buggy' or `cage' or `chariot' or `shanty'? How about `doghouse,' `monkey,' louse house,' `crummy,' `palace,' or `way car'? What do you think all those fancy words refer to?"
"Something to do with a farm?" I guessed.
"No, no! We're talking about railroading. This is all railroad language, words you hear on the road, in and around railroad yards."
"Never heard them before," I assured him.
"Well, they all mean the same thing: caboose. You know what a caboose is?" he quizzed, handing me a match to relight my cigarette.
"Yeah, I know."
"Good. Almost every railroad line has its own lingo. For instance, you get up around Colorado, you hear railroad men call a locomotive `the hog.' In the South it's `the pig.' In the East it could be `the kettle,' or maybe `the jack,' or even `the smoker.' You see, all different names for the same thing."
I handed him back the matches.
"How about whistles?" was his next question. "How many do you know?"
"I know two long toots; that means highball . . . opening it up wide, full ahead," was my answer.
"Is that all?"
"You mean you been riding these rattlers for two weeks and you only know one whistle signal?"
I settled back; he was getting ready to tell me plenty.
"Now," he continued, "the one you hear all the time is two long, one short and one long--tells you the engineer's coming close to a highway crossing. If it was only one long blast, that would mean approaching a railroad station or another rail junction."
"Oh," I put in, trying to sound smart.
"Suppose it was two long and one short. That's the engine getting ready to pull over to a side track. That signal's used when approaching a meeting place for trains, or a waiting point."
I kept nodding wisely.
"Another one to remember," he went on, "comes after the train has left or is about to leave. Yeah, you better remember this one if you don't want to be left behind. It's either four or five long, and it's the engineer calling back the crew. If you drift any distance from a car, always keep in mind that whistle signal; it could save your life."
At this point a sharp wail drifted back from the locomotive: two long, one short and one long. "What's he saying?" my friend questioned, a gleam in his eye.
"We're meeting another train," I guessed.
"No! That's two long and one short. This was two long, one short and another long. I just finished telling you what it meant!"
"It slipped my mind," I admitted. Just then my ears picked up the faint clanging of a bell. It grew stronger till we passed it. Then it gradually became weaker and weaker until it was out of earshot. A little sheepishly I offered him my answer, "It was a highway crossing."
"Right. That's it . You're learning. That's not all, you know; there are others, like backing up or ordering brakemen to different parts of the train. But basically, the ones I told you are the important ones. Just memorize one a day till they become second nature to you. Know what I mean?"
"Gotcha," I agreed.
He pulled out his timetable map. "Lake Charles is a subdivision," he informed me. "We'll probably stop there. I'm hungry enough to eat a skunk. Maybe we can get a chance to hustle some grub somewhere."
The air was warming up now and my eyelids were growing heavy. When I woke up, perhaps two hours later, the train was slowing down. I could hear the click-click of the wheels as they rolled over a branch line and some transfer tracks, sign of an approach to a big town or city with a lot of railroad traffic. My friend was at the hatch door. "We'll be stopping at the other end for coal and water. Get ready to get off. Keep an eye peeled for the railroad bulls." He climbed down, rolled up the papers, brushed himself off, and then went again to peer out. When the train finally stopped, we were a mile or so west of Lake Charles. Cautiously, we clambered down from the cartop and worked our way around a few others. Finally we found a narrow dirt road. It was at least two blocks from the nearest house. "Let's get a move on," my partner urged. "We don't have much time."
As we hurried, we noticed other men emerging from other boxcars. They too were heading for the small section of homes nearby. "I'm going to hit that yellow house. You hit the one where that car is parked. Don't take all day. Meet me here as soon as you get something," my partner advised. He started across the lawn toward the back door. Noticing the other men rushing, I hurriedly knocked at the back door of the brown house. The back door is always better than the front for bumming. The kitchen is usually in the rear, and people might resent your walking up to the front door just to panhandle a meal. If they're willing, they have to walk through the house to get it for you. So approaching the back door is considerate.
I heard footsteps. I straightened my shoulders and, grabbing my coat cuffs, I tugged on the sleeves to pull out the wrinkles. The door opened and a sweet, gray-haired woman appeared. "Yes?"
"Ma'am, I'm traveling through to the West coast to find a job. I'm very hungry. If you can spare something to eat, I'll work for it willingly."
She opened the door a few inches more. "Land sakes," she quavered. "I don't know what this world is coming to. You're the third person today. Every day someone knocks, asking for food. Well, the good Lord has been kind to us; I won't turn my back on someone in need. You believe in God?"
"Oh, yes, ma'am. I pray all the time."
"That's a good boy. Have faith and the good Lord will provide." She toured her kitchen and came back with two sandwiches. "This will help you on your way," she declared.
I thanked her and sped back to our rendezvous spot. I was there first. I took out one sandwich: jelly. I nibbled on it slowly. My partner was still missing. I peered toward the engine; a lot of activity was in progress. Another engine was being hooked on. I grew nervous. I took a few steps toward the tracks. The new engine had been secured to the train. Four long blasts came from the steam whistle. Ah, yes . . . calling the train crew. I started toward the train, trying to pinpoint the car I had ridden in. I made up my mind to hop onto any car, just so I was on that train as it rolled out of Lake Charles. Turning again, I saw my partner trotting toward me, waving me ahead. I picked up speed.
We found our car and climbed down. I opened the other sandwich, which was a pork chop one. I offered him part of it. He refused; the man who had answered his knock insisted he eat his meal right at the door: spareribs, potatoes, bread and cabbage. He was full. He lay back, smoking, while I worked over the pork chop. With two powerful engines pulling our train, we were speeding toward Texas. The border was not far off.
Stretched out, resting, I studied my shoes. The heels were worn down to almost nothing; a few of the nails showed. Gaping punctures in the soles displayed my socks. The uppers had long since separated in places at the sole edges. There were no shoelaces, only shaggy twine.On the road you must have good shoes. Already I was finding it a bit difficult to hop a moving train, for there wasn't enough heel to stop my foot from slipping through the first step on the ladder as I pulled myself aboard. My big toe, emerging from one shoe, had already been banged up hitting the jagged rocks of the rail bed. That same toe had felt a splinter, thistles and a hot cigarette butt. To continue my trip, I would have to make a decent pair of shoes my number one project in the next big city we reached.
I was excited about Texas. I spent most of the trip between Beaumont and Houston peering out of the small overhead hatch, watching the countryside pass by. I was amazed at the large herds of grazing cattle, the big ranches and the oil derricks. But where were the cowboys?
The train stopped in the Houston yards. We hightailed it to the street before a railroad bull could spot us. "This is where I leave you," my partner announced. "I'm gonna scout around and see if there's a rattler leaving this evening for Galveston. If not, I'm gonna hit the highway. With any luck, I could be there in a couple hours. What are you gonna do?"
"I think maybe I'll look for the seamen's mission. They might put me up for the night. I have to get a pair of shoes. Then I'm heading west."
"Hey!" he exclaimed. "I just thought of something. Hit the undertakers up. Good place to get clothes and shoes. One more thing: about a mile from here, just a few yards past the city limits, is the jungle--in case you don't get a flop for the night. At least there'll be a fire going. Don't expect anything to eat unless you take along something for the stew pot. It's been nice knowing you and riding part of the way with you. Take care of yourself." We shook hands and he left.
I trudged on until I came to the ships' channel, which I remembered from my trip on the Lake Gaither. I followed the channel, passing warehouses, small factories, oil tanks and spur tracks. Then I bumped right into a policeman. Quickly, before he could size me up, I spoke. "I'm looking for the seamen's mission. I know it's around here somewhere."
"You a seaman?" he inquired, looking me up and down.
"Yes, sir," I said, wondering if he was going to take me in for vagrancy. He started to say something, then hesitated. This is it, I said to myself. He's going to pull me in.
He cleared his throat. "Stay on this road. About half a mile from here you'll see some oil tanks. Go past them one block, then make a right. The seamen's mission is right across from the YMCA."
The mission was right where he said it would be. Unlike the one in New Orleans, which had been crowded, this one had few inmates. The man at the desk was friendly. He examined my two discharge papers from the Lake Gaither and the El Lago. These, along with my pink seaman's passport, were my most precious possessions. Without them, I had no way to prove I was a seaman. Naturally the first thing any officer aboard any ship would want to hear about would be my experience at sea. My discharge certificates would inform him of my ability, seamanship and conduct while employed. Strange that in some circumstances a slip of paper was a seaman's best protection.
Satisfied, the clerk explained that the mission did not house anyone. He would give me a voucher for one of the cheap hotels in the area, good for a night's lodging. A voucher for supper and one for breakfast would also be issued to me. That was the sum total of assistance the Houston mission offered.
"Shipping must be good here," I commented. "I don't see many seamen around the place." I took the vouchers and left, slightly depressed. I found the flophouse, registered and was assigned a cot in a room with ten others. After a quick wash I meandered off with my voucher to the restaurant. It was a small, narrow cafe with a counter seating 25. Kept alive by the vouchers of its transient customers, it served food so bad they'd have been out of business if they had depended on cash-paying customers. The stuff had been cooked hours before and left steaming in open pans. Sliced bread sat on the counter in a wicker basket. Flies buzzed around where they pleased, landing in the sugar bowl, in the bread basket, on the utensils. I ate around the fringes of my meal. The liver smelled of rancid oil. The chili beans were so spicy I couldn't taste them. After fighting swarms of flies all through the meal, I had little remaining appetite for their dessert, bread pudding with raisins.
Back at the flophouse, I waited my turn to wash out my socks and underwear in the large sink. I hung them on a makeshift line in the hallway and went to catch some shut-eye. I woke up late. Most of the men who had been in the room had dressed and gone. Only three of us remained. I went to retrieve my laundry. Some sonofabitch had stolen my socks.
After breakfast I set my sights on getting a pair of shoes. With my big toe still sticking out through the front of my worn-out shoes, I headed for the main shopping street. I visited every shoe store I saw. All I asked was, "Have you a pair of left-behind shoes in any condition that might fit me?" After an endless number of stores, one storekeeper finally explained, "Customers don't leave their shoes behind like they used to."
It was already late in the afternoon. I had wasted the whole day trying in vain to bum a pair of shoes. Now I turned to bumming something to eat. A butcher shop came up with five hotdogs. Heading west, I located the jungle a half-mile outside Houston's city limits. My partner had underestimated the distance by quite a bit.
Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.
The Kid from Hoboken: Book One