How to Hop a Freight Train and Not Get Caught
Outside Ocoee, Tennessee—My notes from Nashville are sparse and somewhat illegible: If I'm reading them right, the city was populated mostly by roving ensembles of high school musicians, and thirty-something males wearing boat shoes and white shorts; I suspect there's more to it than that. Our stay was brief—we checked out our first minor league baseball game of the trip ($7 beer night! Go Sounds Go!) and then fled east—but one notable story did come out of it: My friend Alex met a man, in the restroom of a downtown hotel, who said he was "hopping freights" from Los Angeles to Boston.
He was dressed in green from head to toe, and wore scruffy blonde facial hair and a thick layer of accumulated sediment and grease on his face that his PR firm might have called "earth tones" or "special-ops chic," but which Alex said made him look "like he was tinged green." He hadn't showered in ages. The man explained to Alex that all underground freight-hoppers (they're a rather tight-knit community) have a guidebook, which they circulate to anyone who's really serious about the craft. Bound together and passed around like an old-school 'zine, it explains which cars you can and can't jump on, when and where to do it, and, most importantly, how to evade the guards. He was in Nashville only by accident; he thought he'd hopped a train to Philadelphia, and now he was in a bit of a pickle. He needed to be in upstate New York in time for blueberry season, when, he said, a farmer had promised him $2,000 if he worked for two months—which sounds like a pretty bad deal, actually, but when you're re-living the Great Depression, I suppose you're not really in a position to pick your price.
Alex, weaned on Woody Guthrie, pretty much lost it at that point, and when he tells the story I just imagine him like Elmer Fudd in one of those old cartoons, who, upon receiving a blow to the head from a massive anvil or bundle of carrots or something, literally sees stars, gets all cross-eyed, and falls straight back to the floor.