By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
TODAY'S OLD-TIMERS, OF COURSE, ARE not the old-timers of yesteryear. Even a decade ago, there were still a few left who'd been tramping since the hobo glory days of the Depression. Most of them are now dead or indoors, and a generational shift has occurred. The romantic hobo of kitsch and legend can be safely buried.
The old-timers of today hit the rails in the '60s and early '70s, most after coming back from Vietnam to a country into which they no longer quite fit. Others were casualties of the '60s drug culture who either lost everything or decided after some consideration that Main Street America was worth avoiding. As harmless as most of them now seem -- usually blind drunk, and pretty damned rickety even when they're not -- they're a gristly bunch. More than a couple of those present are members of the aforementioned organization, the FTRA, the object of a storm of media hype in the 1990s, when they were blamed for a string of murders. Most of these turned out to be committed by one man, Robert "Sidetrack" Silveria, who confessed in 1996 to killing 28 tramps. It's not even clear that Silveria ever claimed to be in the FTRA, but the reputation stuck, and whenever a newspaper or tabloid-news show wants to warn kids to stay in their cars and in their bedrooms, they trot out "the killers of the rails."
SocX and Ultra Heather trade while New York Slim offers up a Leatherman tool.
You've met a few of the old tramps already. There's also New York Slim, a 6-and-a-half-foot black man with an enormous laugh and a tiny, cockeyed dog. Only the white hairs in his beard give away his age -- without them he could pass for 40. He survived a POW camp, but stays sober and radiates calm. Slim's generosity and easy regality win him the instant loyalty of almost all the younger tramps. He complicates the common assertion that the FTRA is a white-supremacist group: A couple of members do have swastikas tattooed on their arms, but Slim is not only accepted, he's treated with more respect and deference than anyone else around. These days he's rubber-tramping, getting around in an old blue pickup rather than by rail.
Then there's Magoo, who, like Tennessee, is never without a beer in one hand, sometimes with a pint of whiskey in the other -- even shortly after sunrise, still sitting on his bedroll. "They call me Magoo," he tells me, "because I can't see past . . ." he pauses for a good 10 seconds before coming up with ". . . dusk." It's often hard to figure out what Magoo is saying, not only because of the drunken circuitousness of his conversation, but because he laughs his way through most everything he says. There's also Longhaired Donnie, not a vet ("I got a wing-nut pass," he explains, "but I can't get a wing-nut check. Figure that out.") and not an FTRA member, "just an old hippie." With his long brown beard and crumpled face, he looks like a wrinkled elf, though his eyes don't start twinkling until he's had a few beers.
Finally, Crazy Angel is only 29, and thus hardly an old-timer. But he's been riding the rails since he was 14 ("I don't know," he shrugs when I ask him why he started, "I got tired of all the bullshit"), and mainly hangs with the older tramps. When I first see him it's like a vision out of The Road Warrior -- he's tall, lanky and long-limbed, and walks down the tracks a stride behind his pit bull, Meathead. The dog wears a collar studded with 2-inch steel spikes, carries his own food and water in woven-leather saddle bags, and is so well-trained he might as well speak English. Crazy Angel's muscled arms are tattooed with grinning skulls, the letters FTRA, and a big red swastika. His nose and lip are pierced with hoops, a metal spike protrudes from his brow, and he has puzzle pieces tattooed on his shaved skull. Behind his glasses, though, Crazy Angel's eyes are shy and questioning. He speaks in soft, gentle tones, and laughs a goofy stoner's giggle. When asked how he got his name, he blushes a little and says sincerely, "I guess it's 'cause I'm a nice guy." And he is.
IF THE OLD-TIME TRAMPS ARE THE PAST, fading as fast as their overworked livers, train-hopping's future likely lies with crusty punks -- street kids so named for both a frequent disregard for hygiene and a bristly punk-rock attitude. There are plenty of others taking to the rails these days, but most of them do it part-time. The crusties, who at this particular gathering are rather slimly represented, are more often homeless, and if they can get as romantic about trains as anyone else, they also ride them out of sheer practicality.
Take Rocco and Ben, who've been traveling together for more than two years. Rocco, 23 and the more voluble of the two, hails originally from Virginia and most recently from San Diego. He's got short black hair, hated is tattooed on his neck (it was hate originally, before he added the d), and he dresses in standard crusty fashion: faded black Slayer T-shirt, cut-off Carharts patched and repatched, so well-worn they look like leather. "Why I started," he says, "is because I got kicked out of my house." He was 17, using a lot of crystal, living on Ocean Beach and looking to get straight. "I never thought about being on the streets," he says. "I was like, 'What the fuck? How do you sustain? How do you eat? What do you do?'" He met a kid who told him he'd just come in on a freight train. "It was like Ding! -- the light bulb -- 'Why did I not think of this?'"
Rocco in his winter riding gear