Chapter XVI: A Dinner on the House
At noon two powerful Mallet engines hooked onto the lead car. A railroad detective came into the jungle. "We got word it's all clear up ahead. We're going to pull three trains out of here, one every 25 minutes. The first one's getting ready to leave now. Get aboard while you have a chance," he advised, adding, "If anyone's going to Abilene or Wichita, there's a train making up that should leave around five or thereabouts." He turned and went back toward the yard.
The women with kids were on their feet, picking up odds and ends, getting prepared to move on. I hopped into the first car that looked clean. Not all the jungle inhabitants left right away. Why two-thirds preferred to stay behind hoping to catch other trains, I'll never know. Maybe they didn't fancy riding with women and kids.
I was aboard, a whole car to myself, and the train was moving west. My stomach was full, yet I mechanically took out a slice of the good home-baked bread and slowly munched away as the world passed by my door; those army cooks and bakers knew their business. I thought about the railroad bull, playing conductor so meekly when perhaps only a little while before he'd been putting people in the slammer and kicking them in the ass when he found them on railroad property. I wondered how he felt about his new role: had he sincerely enjoyed passing on information to people less fortunate than he?
Lulled by the sound of the fast-moving wheels and full of bread, I slid the door two-thirds shut against the cold and stretched out on deck. Some hours later, when the chill night air woke me, the train was barely moving. The night was black. We seemed to be working our way through valleys and around mountains across creaky trestles. I felt lonely. Now I wished that I'd boarded a car with people in it. Another living creature, even a cat or dog, would have been better than the black emptiness of the frigid boxcar. I sat glumly, listening as the wheels telegraphed clickety-clack for every tiny separation in the tracks over which they rolled.
When dawn broke, a sprinkle of white on the desert shrubs advertised that light snow had fallen during the night. When the sun rose it would all melt away. Across the plains mountains on the Mexican side of the landscape were visible, but neither color nor line in the barren, forlorn desert marked any border. Three times that day we pulled to a stop under a water tower in the desert. There were no houses from which to bum food, no restaurants in which to exchange dishwashing for a meal. During the fifteen minutes needed to get water aboard and allow the engineer to oil some locomotive parts, it was possible to change cars or race to the water tower for a drink. I was satisfied with the car I was in. It was clean, and the cleanliness outweighed the loneliness.
I'd heard a guy in a Florida jail tell about a time when he'd been in a car with ten other men. As the train had slowed on a hill, two men came out of the brush and climbed aboard. They took out 45-caliber guns and forced everyone in the cars to empty their pockets. I had thought about this a few times and never could quite understand how a man could stoop so low that he would rifle the pockets of people as poor as freight train hoboes. At the same time, I had heard that some men on the road did carry a few dollars tucked away on themselves. Not me, though. They could hold me up; they'd find nothing.
At three o'clock the train began to slow down. A mile ahead there was a fair-sized town, Alpine. I knew my train was heading for El Paso, but my stomach told me to get off and find something to eat. I could catch the next train to El Paso. It never occurred to me that a few other guys riding the train would have the same idea. When most of us disembarked, we took the side away from town. We stood there as the train slowly worked its way out. We waited for the caboose to go by so we could cross the tracks into town. My mind harbored but one thought: hurry up and fill that stomach!
When the caboose finally passed, we got a shock. Standing before us, one foot on the running board of an old automobile and one arm cradling a shotgun, was the sheriff of Alpine. At the wheel sat his deputy. "You men stand right where you are! " he ordered. "No need for you to come into town; you're not welcome. You can sit right down there on the track if you like; another train will be along here in about four hours."
What else could we do? With all homes and businesses on the other side of the tracks, we were stymied. The sheriff produced a chair and made himself comfortable where he could keep an eye on us.The deputy backed the car up and headed back toward town. I kept my eyes on the more experienced heads. From the looks on their faces, I could see that they were seriously pondering the situation. One old guy motioned to the sheriff that he wanted to talk. To everything he said, the sheriff shook his head no. "Cow-punching creep," the old guy pronounced quietly as he returned to us. "All I asked was for him to allow a few of us who could afford to buy some bread and baloney to walk to the grocer's. He said no."
Later in the afternoon the wind picked up. A cold breeze swept in from the prairie. We buttoned our coats and pulled up our collars. The sun was sinking fast. Lights appeared in windows in town. The townspeople walked up to the tracks to peer across at us, as if we were on display. It grew dark. Where the hell was that train? I felt like I was starving to death. I'd had enough of this two-bit burg and wanted out. I saw well enough that this demeaning law enforcer expressed the moods and feelings of Alpine's population. I felt like spitting on the whole town.
At last the sound of a train whistle came through the cold night. A few minutes later it chugged into town and stopped. It was a local, going from town to town and picking up cattle cars. Right now 20 open-slatted cars were coupled to the small engine. "Get aboard!" the sheriff shouted. We opened a door and climbed in. The car had been used recently; dung and urine-soaked straw lay three inches deep. The stench was almost unbearable. With every move my arm rubbed against the side of the car where traces of dung still adhered. The train moved slowly out of town, maintaining that slow pace for the next three hours. It stopped once along the way to pick up one car. We huddled together for warmth. The person in the center was best protected. A cigarette, once lighted, quickly went the rounds, its original owner never seeing it again. If there ever was a common bond, this situation surely created it.
Alpine had won every round. First it had prevented us from entering its precincts. Then it had forced us to ride away from it in a cattle car. That sheriff must still be laughing about it. We'd have been delighted to hear that Alpine had been blown off the map.
The growls of my empty stomach weren't the only ones. "I'll tell you one thing I'm gonna do," announced a burly blond fellow. "When this outhouse comes to a stop, I'm gonna walk into the first restaurant I see and order a meal. I don't give a goddamn what they want to do about it, either."
"Me, too, " vowed another.
"Yeah, count me in," chimed a third.
Within five minutes, 15 men had volunteered to join the blond in ordering meals they couldn't pay for.
A dim glow on the horizon told us we were approaching a small town. Marfa, Texas, was very small indeed. No one met us. We scraped the dung off our shoes on the gravel and made for the few lights in town. Of the original group of volunteers, only 12 were left, with the blond leading the way. Only two places that looked like they could be eating spots were lit up. One was a combination drugstore and lunch counter. The blond said it looked too poor for us to lay such a burden on it, so we crossed the street to a cafe with a small counter inside and a sign in the front window: "Hurley's Cafe."
By now there were only seven of us. The big blond still in the lead, we ambled inside and sat down at the counter. I took another look: only four of us! There were no customers. Behind the counter stood a young woman and a man a bit older, her husband. The cook, older than the other two and built like a football halfback, peered from the kitchen door. The young woman put glasses of water in front of us. Had the owner asked to see our money, a practice common in those days, the episode would have been quickly over. But he didn't. Maybe he thought four people would bring in a sizable sale. "What'll it be?" asked the waitress as she placed a napkin and silverware in front of me.
"A hamburger steak with lots of onions and a cup of coffee, please," I ordered. The others said they'd have the same. Why didn't we order porterhouse or t-bone steaks as long as we weren't paying for the stuff?
The waitress and her husband stood a few feet away, keeping a close watch on us. Our appetites had been slightly dulled by the coffee and bread and butter; still, it was too late, even if we'd had the inclination, to pull in our horns and bow out. On came the main dishes. We ate in silence, cleaning the plates to the last morsels. By now all three members of the establishment were clustered behind the cash register, waiting for the bill to be paid. They undoubtedly were also waiting for our exit so they could air out the place.
The silence among us seemed to last an eternity. "Who's going to break the news?" the blond fellow wondered aloud. Three sets of shoulders shrugged. He cleared his throat. "Sir," he began. The three behind the cash register must have sensed what was coming; hostility appeared on their faces. Our blond friend began again. "You see, sir, we're without funds. We don't like to see you bear this expense alone. I used to be a deputy sheriff in Oklahoma. When things like this happened there, we'd present the county with a bill--and they always paid off. Could you do the same?"
The owner stepped toward the phone. "Well, I reckon we'll just wait till the sheriff shows up and see what he thinks."
The waitress removed the glasses of water from the counter. The cook rolled up his sleeves. Hurley screamed into the phone. "Well, operator, if he's not there, call his home!"
A short pause. The phone rang. "Look, Phyllis, if he's not in his office and he's not at home, call Jake's place. He must be there playing cards."
I asked myself if it had been worth it. A human being has two reactions to hunger. The first is panic: he'll take any risk to be fed. After his stomach is full and a penalty threatens, he feels fear. Our stomachs had been filled; now we were wondering what was in store. A beating? A stretch in jail? Or maybe a floater out of town? Whatever might come was already taking any joy out of the badly-needed meal.
The phone rang again. "What do you mean, he's not there? Well where the hell is he, anyway? Keep trying, that's all."
The cook moved out into the doorway near the street door. If we tried to make a break for it, he would make sure the attempt failed. The blond spokesman tried again. He wanted to discuss the county paying the bill. Hurley shut him up. "No need to say any more until the sheriff gets here," he told him.
The phone jingled. Hurley grabbed it. "Yes. What do you mean, nobody knows where he's at? Just what the hell are we paying that man for?" In the pause we could hear a female voice squawking into Hurley's earpiece. "I'll tell you what," Hurley said when the squawking stopped. "He's probably up there screwing the new whore who blew into town last week. Did you try her place? What do you mean, you can't do that? I got a right to know where the sheriff is every minute of the goddamn day . . . well, to hell with you, too!" He slammed the receiver down hard, his face red. Then he looked each of us over real good.
"All right, men. If the goddamn law is that bad in this town, then the feed is on me. You all hear that? It's on me." A few seconds earlier, the Hurley's Cafe staff would have stood and cheered if we had been lynched. Now, after Hurley's grand gesture, they congratulated us for having the courage to pull off such a stunt.
"Why, I'd have done the same thing if I was starving," confided Hurley. "Yeah, many's the time I was edging up to it myself," concurred the cook. Mrs. Hurley just smiled and refilled our cups of coffee. The cook brought out some Prince Albert tobacco and passed it around. We all rolled cigarettes and tilted our heads in pleasure. I sipped on my coffee and thought about how little it takes to stir up emotion in people. Remembering the sheriff's house outside of Houston where I had bummed another meal, I realized that he, too, had behaved like a compassionate human being. Had it been because he'd been asked to and was made to feel important? Suppose we'd asked Hurley. Would he have given freely? Did his rage result because his benevolence had not been called upon first? Nobody appreciated having something pulled on him. I was thankful for the outcome and thankful, too, for a guy like the blond ex-sheriff from Oklahoma. Without him there could have been a very different ending.
Naturally we all swore that someday we'd make the bill good. I don't know if the other three tried to do so, but I did. Some 45 years later I went back to that town. I found Mr. Hurley long dead and the cafe long gone. I did find Mrs. Hurley and tried to pay her. She refused the money.
Out on the street, we ran into a half dozen of our companion freight car riders. They were surprised that we were still in one piece. They had expected Texas justice to prevail; maybe they had even looked forward to see us all swing in the breeze from a tree limb.
We gathered around the water tower at the end of town. A small fire warmed us against the cold Texas night as we waited for the train. At two in the morning the El Paso freight stopped. Her three big engines were quickly serviced with water. But it was enough time for us to find an empty car and get aboard. None of the boxcars were empty, but the two coal gondolas were available. Despite the fact that we couldn't lie down due to the filth, we piled in, spurred by our desire not to press our luck with the local sheriff.
As rides go, this one was miserable. Fortunately the train moved fast behind its powerful engines, even through mountain passes. By dawn we were more than halfway to El Paso. El Paso: the pass. The city lies snugly against its sister city of Juarez, Mexico. A bridge over the Rio Grande (or Rio Bravo) links the two. Our train crawled through the back streets of El Paso to the outskirts of the yard west of the city. We hopped off.
First we needed a place to stay, where we could wash up and get something to eat. We were all intent on staying out of trouble. We wanted to avoid jail. Someone said there was a central feeding place for the jobless, an armory. It wasn't far off.
The National Guard Armory occupied a full block. Men were walking in and out of the main gate. Inside a state trooper directed me to a corner of the lobby, where I was registered. The registrar told me, "You'll be given two meals--supper and breakfast. Since you're here early, though, you can have an extra breakfast. You'll be assigned a cot for tonight. Supper will be served from five to seven. You'll be expected to help clean up the area after supper and to set up your own cot. In the morning you are to fold your cot before breakfast. This is all we can do for you. Too many people need assistance. Here's your card. Show it to the man at the door."
The feeding system was well-organized and required a minimum of effort. It was done cafeteria-style. All the butter you could use was on the table. After eating you took your own dirty dishes to the dishwasher.
I had a whole day to explore the city. A border town, I had been told, is always a bawdy place, full of winos, junkies, petty thieves and tourists. Sometimes it's very difficult to stay out of trouble. No matter how hard you try, everything turns out wrong. I was determined not to let this happen to me. I passed up the wilder parts of the city and located a YMCA. I went into the reading room, pulled out my maps and studied them. I also wrote a letter to my mom, telling her everything was great and the world was treating me kindly. Why load worries onto her? A three-cent stamp would not be hard to come by; I could walk into a drugstore, envelope in hand, and speak to the man behind the counter in a voice loud enough for everyone nearby to hear, "I'm trying to mail this letter home to my mother in New York. Could you spare me a postage stamp?" (I was only turned down twice, both times in Los Angeles.) Many of these drugstores had lunch counters, and on a number of occasions I was even invited to have a sandwich and a cup of coffee.
It was time to return to the armory. Half a block from the main door I could smell beef stew. Inside a line of several hundred men was forming. Ten large ash cans, fifty gallons each, steamed away on the army stove. Army men cooked and served. As each dipper of stew was raised from the can and poured onto the tin plate, at least a half a pound of stew, mostly meat, was deposited. Seconds were permitted, but very few men needed them. These army cooks seemed proud of what they were doing for the jobless. I had no idea who--county, state or federal government--was supplying the food. Obviously, though, this was the best way to keep men from bumming individual restaurants and homes and ensuring that each got an equal share of what was available.
I needed a shower badly. Razor blades were available, and several men volunteered to cut hair for as many as they could before "lights out" was called. The cots stood in tiers. Two thin blankets provided enough warmth. An army sergeant made the rounds to make sure that everyone took a shower. An army doctor made quick checks of the men for obvious signs of disease.
I awoke at 6:30 to the delightful odor of breakfast. I folded the cot neatly and stored it, packing the blankets away for the next crowd due that evening. A short wait in line brought food. The next step would be the streets. To my surprise, no one was allowed outside. All doors were locked. The armory had acquired some new faces while we slept: members of the Immigration Department, a few Texas Rangers, several local cops and two state troopers. When the last man had eaten, an announcement was made for everyone to stand in a single line. Slowly, uniformed authorities passed down the file of men, occasionally questioning one or taking him out of the line to a small office. Immigration was searching for illegal aliens, Mexicans and Canadians; the police, troopers and Rangers were after known criminals. A few words from one of the local cops about the wisdom of leaving town and not getting arrested for vagrancy were not really needed.
Big blackboards on the wall listed train information needed to get out of town in either direction, along with locations to catch the trains. Once outside, I began waiting for the train west. On board, I settled back for a long ride. However, just a few miles outside of El Paso, the train stopped. Up and down the tracks, heads popped out of cars. Why the sudden stop? From a dirt road a few yards from the tracks hurried about a dozen tall, lanky Texas Rangers. At each freight car they ordered the occupants to come forward. Some Rangers insisted that the men come all the way out of the car. A Ranger appeared at my car, scrutinizing each face. "Any greaseballs in here?"
"What you lookin' for?" asked one of the riders with a slight smile.
"Greasers, illegal Mexicans. That's what I'm looking for. Well, none in this car." He moved on to the next one. An hour was consumed by this search. The Rangers netted four or five captives. Apparently, this had been a surprise move. There was no place on the train for anyone to hide. No one could have jumped off without being seen. The Rangers had the train surrounded. You couldn't help but feel sorry for the victims. After making it across the border, eluding local police and getting aboard a train, they had probably figured that within a few hours they would be out of the state and en route to a more prosperous life. Instead they'd been yanked off the train in the desert, within a hair's breadth of success.
Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.
The Kid from Hoboken: Book One