The Amateur American Hobo : Toronto to Washington, DC (Part V)
Once we found a cup of coffee at a shitty ghetto all night coffee joint we dried out a bit and came up with a plan. We were going to walk to the river to find a spot to set up a tarp for the night since it was still lightly raining then find our way back to the United States the next day. It was around 1:00 am when we started walking. Finally we found the river, but couldn’t find any safe, discreet camping spots. Eventually we saw headlights on the path so we proceeded cautiously. There was a truck parked on the pedestrian path with its headlights illuminating the bushes. Four or five figures standing around the truck. We thought this was a little sketchy but kept walking towards them. Once they saw us, two of the figures started walking towards Bob and I. Whatever was going on down there was not our business, so we hustled down another fork of the trail listening carefully for footsteps following us, hands on our knives. Soon we were away from the park in the river and walking up a long street in hopes of finding a different park to sleep in.
Around 5:30 am we found a small playground in an open park and decided to sleep for a few hours until the sun came up. We rolled out our sleeping gear under the play structure as two gangster dudes were smoking weed in the far corner of the park. They approached the playground slowly. Bob and I assumed that they were coming over because they saw us, but this proved not to be the case. Bob offered a greeting when the two guys got within a stone’s throw and they flipped out and ran away. I slept lightly into the early morning hours when we packed up and went to find a bus that would take us back to the US.
We managed to connect a few city buses to Niagara Falls where the rain and clouds finally let up. We smoked cigarettes and patched clothes in the open food court with a view of the falls. Soon after we wandered into the theme park on the Canadian side of the falls to find some coffee.
From the journal: “We are surrounded by shops, arcades and amusement park rides. There is shitty pop music blasting into every open area. A big ol’ slice of North Americana next to one of the most magnificent natural wonders of the continent.”
We finished our coffee and walked across the border without even a question from the guard at the gate. We walked to the gardens and lawns on the US side of the falls and dried out our gear in the sun and made phone calls to our families to tell them we had returned to the United States. After lounging heartily in the sunshine we found out that a local bus would take us into Buffalo, so we repacked our gear and headed toward the stop. The bus followed a waterway lined with industry and we saw the city lights of Buffalo creeping up. Another big, unfamiliar city where we knew no one. Bob and I resolved to catch our bus out to the catch out spot as soon as possible and continue east.
Standing in the heart of downtown Buffalo at night, the cold wind blowing through the transit tunnel in a breezeway, Bob and I were the only white kids on the block. While I was smoking a cigarette and old frail man in a wheelchair wheeled up to me and grabbed the lit cigarette then wheeled off again. We tried to look tough or at least crazy, which wasn’t hard due to the lack of sleep. After an hour and a half the bus came that took us out to a place where trains changed crews before heading further east. We got a few 40 ounce bottles of shitty beer to drink while we waited in the tall grass next to the tracks.
Some hours later a train rolled in and parked some ridable piggybacks right next to us. We were eager to get out of Buffalo and knew the thing was going east toward New York City so we got on. I slept through the remainder of the night, waking up early in the morning and packing my gear as we rolled into a sleepy little town on a river. The train stopped again for a crew change, parking our piggyback trailers right in the middle of the bridge over the river, which we would later learn was the Susquehanna. We walked off of the bridge and sat down on a bench by the river, glad we did once we saw workers walking the train. With as little cover as piggybacks offer we would have been spotted easily.
Bob and I wandered into downtown Binghampton and ate at a great little greasy spoon diner. Sipping our coffee and enjoying a pile of greasy potatoes apiece we made a plan to try to hitch hike out of Binghampton to New York as it was only a few hours’ drive. Two on ramps, seven hours and as many middle fingers later we walked back to the river to have some food and scout out a train in the small local yard. Apparently New York State was not accommodating to tramps passing through.
We hid behind a retaining wall by an empty lot while intermittently sneaking into the area by the train yard to scope out what was happening. It didn’t appear that any trains were moving or being built so we started packing our gear just as a cop car pulled in and parked right on the other side of the retaining wall. Bob and I realized soon that he was just sitting there unaware of us. We would have to sneak out of the area or wait for him to leave before we could continue our journey back to the place our train stopped in the morning. We tried walking along the retaining wall on a little cement ledge at the bottom over the river. Bob and I could safely walk about 30 yards out at which point the ledge disappeared and became impassable save for wading through the river. Bob and I decided to return and wait for the cop to leave.
Bob and I walked back to where the tracks crossed over the Susquehanna and waited for the next eastbound train that would take us closer to New York City. Bob was watching our packs as I snuck into the yard to look for the red flashing lights of the rear end device that the railroad puts on the end of every train. As I was getting close I heard a train approaching from the west and ducked into a thicket of small trees to avoid being spotted by the lights of the approaching engine. Once it had passed I ran along the train back to where Bob was sitting. We shouldered our packs and found an open boxcar not far away. I remember hearing the air brakes hissing, signaling our departure as I drifted off to an uncomfortable sleep.
I woke up at daybreak to find that we were stopped along a section of track next to some woods. Bob and I hopped out of the open boxcar door and bushwhacked up to a road. We noticed immediately that all of the license plates read Pennsylvania. A quick walk around town confirmed the suspicion, we were in the town of Bethlehem, PA. A consultation of our train information led us to walk for a few hours down a strange road leading to a juvenile detention center. We turned around and walked back to town discouraged. Bob and I reluctantly agreed to fork out the twenty dollars for a bus into New York City as we were only about an hour away and were looking forward to seeing friends, taking showers and sleeping on soft surfaces.
The bus found its way through the busiest streets I had ever seen into the heart of Manhattan. Bob and I had a friend named Paul who had been living in New York City for a few years, and he gave us directions to his house in Queens. The subway was overwhelming but we found our way out to his place and got some food to cook for dinner at the Asian food mart down the street from his house. After showers and food we took the subway back into the city to meet Paul at his work; the comic book store across the street from the Empire State Building.
Paul gave us twenty dollars despite our protests to go buy some drinks while he finished closing the store. Bob and I walked into the bar a few doors down, told the bartender that Paul sent us and were immediately welcomed as friends. Apparently Paul often stopped by the bar for drinks after work and had built a rapport with the staff. This turned out to be the case almost everywhere Paul took us that night. As another part time job, Paul worked in a restaurant in Times Square. Through the service industry connections and Paul’s charming character we drank and ate for cheap all night, not an easy task in Manhattan. And of course Paul would hear nothing about us paying, treating us to a genuine party night in New York. After pinching pennies for so long the extravagance of multiple seven dollar beers felt ridiculous. Bob and I felt much more comfortable drinking malt liquor under bridges at this point. Around 4:00 am we found ourselves in Times Square by accident, so I can check that one off my list. However, I didn’t once catch a glimpse of the statue of liberty.
We had a comfortable few days resting, reading and watching a few movies at Paul’s place. I went downtown one day to meet with my cousin Scott who was studying at NYU. Scott showed me the workshop where he and his classmates built all sorts of creative gadgets. We got a bagel and some coffee and declined all offers for betting on chess games we were trying to watch in the park at Greenwich Village. We stopped to take pictures of some street art we found. As I was leaving for the subway and we parted ways Scott snapped a picture and handed me some cash to help me and Bob on the rest of our travels.
One night Bob and I visited a fellow traveler living in Chinatown, she made us drinks and we shared train stories and asked her about her experiences living on a boat in the New York harbor through the winter. After all those miles it was nice to share some time with a traveler who knew what it was like being on the rails and road for days at a time. We wished eachother well and headed up town to stay for a night with the drummer from my band in college. He was in New York doing a program teaching kids and was pretty busy, but we got to hang out on the roof of his apartment complex and watch the city lights from within manhattan while we caught up and Ben told us hilarious stories about the kids he was working with.
Early in the morning Bob and I took the subway to Chinatown and were looking around for the place to catch the cheap Bolt buses when a small Chinese woman with a stack of tickets in her hand approached us. “Where you going?” she demanded. We didn’t know really how to respond so we told her we were looking for a bus. “No, where you going?” She demanded again. We told her Washington DC. “Fifteen dollar.” I asked that she take us to the bus before we gave her the money, and she speedily walked across intersections and side streets to where a bus that said Washington DC was parked against the curb. We gave her the money and boarded the bus, easy as that. Soon we were cruising down Interstate 95 past Philidelphia and on to our next destination, the capital of our great nation.