The Amateur American Hobo: Memphis, TN (Part VIII)
Bob and I were waiting for a train that we had heard about that would take us to Kansas City, where we could transfer to the BNSF and ride southwest to Tulsa, Oklahoma. We watched empty coal trains come and go for most of the evening but were waiting for our hotshot. The abandoned buildings by the tracks looked like prime junkie hideouts so we opted for a quiet stand of bushes behind a closed warehouse and waited. It wasn’t very cold, and the first evening passed easily with our apprehension for the coming train adventure to a new city. Around midnight our train finally pulled in for clearance. We shouldered our packs and climbed over a few strings of cars that were between us and our train. After about ten minutes of walking down the line, cursing the constant repetition of the unrideable containers on flat cars, the train aired up and crossed the great river without us. We sauntered back to the bushes defeated.
It was a long night watching trains go by. We slept in intervals Bob and I woke up in the early morning. Going through our train food breakfast we each ate a few granola bars. Bob and I read, slept and talked quietly, keeping our voices low to avoid detection by the workers in the lot on the other side of the fence. Around noon we decided to pack up and take a walk to go get some more train food. We were obviously in a bad neighborhood. The streets were littered with ripped out tires, broken glass and enormous bags of garbage.. The houses seemed to be mostly boarded up or burned out and very few people walked the streets. We shuffled along with our backpacks to a nearby convenience store, about five blocks away. Bob and I each ordered a large portion of fried chicken and mashed potatoes. As we were waiting in line to pay for the meal an old man walked in the store, grabbed a beer out of the fridge and walked out the front door unnoticed by the clerk behind the plexiglass windows. The worker that was stocking beer in the refridgerator was smoking a cigarette. We sat down at the tables in the convenience store and enjoyed our delicious fried chicken. After lounging at the table observing the sparse happenings of the neighborhood we took turns brushing our teeth in the bathroom. On our way out purchased more food. We walked to the tracks again, this time further from the river by a pedestrian bridge and a burnt out apartment building that had long ago been boarded up. The apartment looked a little too much like a crack den for my liking so Bob and I stuck to the bushes on the track side of the fence, ducking when the passing units rumbled by.
Bob and I had some information about trains in the area that led us to believe that the empty coal trains crossing the river would take us in the right direction, to a small town to the northwest where we could get off and switch to a Tulsa-bound BNSF train. Soon after we started waiting an empty coal train came around the corner, we decided to go for it if there was an engine on the rear. The rear engine on a train is called the DPU, or distributed power unit. They are unoccupied and offer excellent protection from the weather and being spotted. A DPU is generally not considered a good place to ride for extended distances as they are checked every now and then, but Bob and I were just going a short distance. As the train slowed we caught sight of the DPU and ran to match our speed with the train’s. I was up the ladder in an instant and running for the door to the cab of the unit. Bob was one second behind me and soon we were sitting on the floor of the cab catching our breath.
Bob and I explored the little compartment in the front of the unit called ‘the nose’ and opened the door to watch the Mississippi flow under us as we were crossing the train trestle high above. Happy to be on the road again and headed toward Tulsa to visit a good friend, we watched the small buildings fly by on the side of the tracks and pretended to be driving the train. Bob and I took pictures sitting in the conductors’ seats as the scenery sped by. We watched the readout displaying the speed of the train and soon noticed that it began slowing. From 30 to 25. 25 to 20, down to 15, then to 10. Bob and I were trying to figure why we would be slowing down so close to our departure point and readied ourselves to leave the train as soon as it stopped and find a place to hide in case we had been somehow spotted inside the cab. The train continued along and soon we saw a chain link fence appear on either side of the tracks. The terrain was open with no place to hide, the chain-link fences at least eight feet tall with razor wire on top and the train still moving too fast to safely dismount the ladder.
The tracks branched off to the right and we could feel the jolt as our train get switched to another track. Finally the train came to a stop and I stood up to check the surroundings before we bailed out the back door. As soon as I stood up I heard the sound of wheels on the ballast and saw the roof of a golf cart pull alongside of our unit and stop. Thinking that the driver was going to come up to the back door to the cab Bob and I got our bags and got ready to bail out the front door as he came in. There wasn’t much chance that we could pull it off but it was the best plan we could come up with being stuck in a tight spot. Sitting by the door to the nose on the stairs we crouched and waited to hear footsteps approaching the back door. Instead, the front door that we were waiting to bail through swung open and a black man in coveralls was standing in the doorway with his head turned talking to the man in the golf cart. Bob and I were close enough to see the gold tooth in his smile through the small window in the door that separated us from the compartment that he was entering. I moved my back up behind the engineer’s chair in the main compartment as quickly and quietly as possible. I hid just out of the man’s line of sight.
Bob was closest to the door itself and didn’t have as much time or space to maneuver in. He ended up in a wall sit with his backpack on his lap, trying to hide out of sight below the porthole window on the door to the nose. “That’s it, we’re fucked, we’re going to jail.” Were the words that kept running through my head. Either the man in the nose would open the door to the main cab or the man in the golf cart would come in the back door. We waited for one of the longest minutes of my life for one of these two things to happen when finally the front door to the nose slammed shut. Bob and I were alone in the engine, the golf cart and the worker in coveralls had disappeared.
Once we had collected our wits enough to make a decision about what to do next we made another look out the main windows to make sure that no one was around and then bailed out the front door. We dismounted to the fence side of the train and found another string of empty coal cars to hide in while we calmed down and took inventory of our situation. Standing on the porch between two cars Bob pointed out the one thing that never fails to raise a tramp’s attention, a white unmarked SUV driving on a service road next to this yard. I was taking a piss as the SUV went by and found it hard to manage the activity while hastily climbing a ladder on the other side of the string of cars to hide from what we presumed to be a bull. We waited some tense minutes before we decided that we hadn’t been spotted and then hatched a plan for escape. The sun was setting in the west and twilight was setting in. The headlights on the DPU we were riding became more and more pronounced every minute as the darkness set in. Bob and I decided to wait for enough darkness to set in such that we wouldn’t be spotted easily roaming the yard in search of an escape route.
Soon Bob and I heard nearby a few quick soundings of a train horn and saw across the yard a loaded coal train pointed in the opposite direction – back toward Memphis. Judging that the train would leave soon Bob and I made a quick decision to run for it, across the beams of the DPU headlights and through a hip deep moat of rotten smelling stagnant water. Soaking wet from the waist down Bob and I arrived next to the train just as the hissing of the air brakes started. With that sound we knew it would be leaving momentarily and we both slithered our way up a ladder and plopped down in the corner of the car on top of a giant pile of coal as the train started to pick up speed and leave the facility. Bob and I were pleased to discover that the cigarettes were not damaged in the moat crossing and each smoked a cigarette with shaky hands as the train was leaving the fenced in area.
In the darkness we rolled back the way we had come, our damp and rotten smelling clothes slowly chilling us in the humid evening air. In another twenty minutes we dismounted the ladder as the train slowed again exactly where we boarded four hours earlier. The squishing of our wet shoes accompanied us down the tracks to another clump of trees where we were able to lay out our sleeping bags and hang out our socks, shoes and pants to slowly dry.
Some hours later the hotshot we had attempted to catch the night before slowly rolled in and stopped for clearance. We were packed up quickly. Our shoes and socks were not nearly as wet as they had been when we hung them up but were still damp. We walked the train again with the same results, we couldn’t find a place to ride on the train and were left to return to the bushes and wait once more. The night passed slowly by, in the early morning we walked up the tracks a ways to another spot on the bottom of a decline. It was well hidden, a little bit of foliage between the hill and the tracks before the back of a neglected loading dock for a warehouse. There were pieces of styrofoam strews everywhere but no signs of any camping in the area so we set up for a wait in the daytime, hoping for an intermodal train. After finally finishing the giant box of cheez-its that had fed the both of us for three meals I made a sign to mark the spot out of boredom.
Bob had visited Memphis a few years before on a cross country Greyhound trip and was somewhat familiar with the city. Soon we had a plan to head to the river close to downtown. We stopped at the public library to use the internet on the way through downtown Memphis. We walked for a while along mostly deserted streets until we saw our destination: an island in the middle of the Mississippi that housed a scale-model of the entire river. Outside of the library a girl was walking down the sidewalk carrying a pack. As customary when encountering other tramps, we exchanged greetings and chatted for a moment. She was in somewhat of a hurry, having packed her gear up and left before her traveling partner woke up and was headed to the bus station to get out of town. She told us with a hint of shame that she hadn’t gotten along with the person she was traveling with and decided to take her mother up on an offer for a bus ticket straight home. We parted ways and headed toward the river, walking across an elevated walkway to mud island, where the river model was.
The admission was free and we took our time studying the cities mapped in bronze along the banks of the two-inch deep model. The channel started all the way up in Minnesota and ended at the Gulf of Mexico, a large pool with fountains in the middle. Bob and I split an order of french fries at the cafe just alongside the Gulf. After walking back across the bridge Bob and I decided to walk to the place where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, the Lorraine Hotel.
Walking south back through the park on the river we spotted another group of crusty travelers just waking up. They groggily sat up in their sleeping bags and rolled cigarettes and we joined them in the routine, introducing ourselves and exchanging the obligatory “where ya from where ya going” conversation. We met BB, the person the girl we met earlier had ditched. Also among the group was two guys from Hawaii who were hitch hiking across the entire country after flying to Seattle. It turned out that they had stayed for a few nights at our friend Clark’s house in Tulsa, which was our next destination. They talked about the crazy night they had with a young Japanese guy they had met. He had invited them all up to his hotel room and they had all drank into the early hours of the night before stumbling back to the park by the river to pass out. The group told us that a local church was having a soup feed in the park in a few minutes so we stuck around.
Before long a white van and a few other cars pulled up in the parking lot and we all walked to where tables were being set up. We declined offers for clean socks and blankets but heartily enjoyed generous portions of the soup that they brought out in a big pot. As we were eating a short and boisterous woman evangelized about the coming of the lord and the end of times. On point was one of the guys from Hawaii who retorted “Jesus said that a long damn time ago, if someone tells me they’re coming back I start to wonder after 20 minutes.” She brushed the sarcasm aside and started rattling on about a lake of fire with no doors on the bottom to escape. We finished our styrofoam bowls of soup, bid the other tramps good luck and continued on our way toward the Lorraine Motel.
It was a short walk from downtown and we stood across the street at the historically accurate and meticulously maintained street front view of the hotel. Now attached to the building is a flashy museum called the National Museum for Civil Rights. We walked to the corner opposite to the hotel and talked with someone that Bob had met on his last visit to Memphis named Jacqueline Smith. Jacqueline had been living in the Lorraine Hotel at the time that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. In the 1980s, long after the place gained fame from the incident, it was developed into a museum and the tenants evicted for the purpose. The neighborhood became gentrified and the poor black residents were pushed further out of the city center. Jacqueline had been living on the street corner across the street from her former home for 22 years to protest the changes in the neighborhood after the assassination of MLK. She believed these changes were in direct contradiction to everything that the man had stood for while alive and that the people now working in his name had helped to create them. She had had a few troubles with the authorities but seemed to be at a stand still where they left her alone. We were interested in talking about how she managed life sleeping on a couch under a tarp outside in downtown Memphis all year long. She showed us a catalog with some warm winter clothes that her relatives had bought for her. After we listened to a quick but thorough history lesson we wished her luck, said our thanks and continued on our way.
Bob and I were tired from walking all day with our backpacks, we decided to get some food for a picnic and go back to the tracks. We had in us one last night for trying to get a hotshot out of town from our little waiting place by the bridge and had some hours to kill until it came. We relaxed and set up at a little vehicle turnaround up near the bridge sipping on some beer and eating more fried chicken out of plastic bags. There was a big oak tree with a clump of bushes and trees around its base. Bob had a notion to climb the tree, and was twelve feet off the ground when I noticed the crunching of car tires on gravel and saw headlights approaching. “BULL!” I called up to Bob, as I grabbed both of our packs and tossed them into the little clump of bushes at the base of the trees and made myself as small as possible next to them, hiding in the foliage like a brer rabbit. Holding my breath I watched as the SUV crept along the tracks near to us and eventually turned back into the neighborhood.
Sufficiently spooked by the encounter to leave trackside property until we were actually trying to catch our train and well hidden in the bushes as per usual, we packed our thnigs and headed toward Beale street, the center for blues in Memphis. Arriving at Beale street we were overcome by the perpetual party atmosphere, a solid six to eight blocks of bustling bars, neon signs and high volume blues bands. Some of the music was blasting from open bar-rooms, some of it was projected from bands set up right on the sidewalks. Bikers, sporting the usual leathers and tattoos wandered in hordes. At the very end of the street was a line of plain clothed cops watching the whole scene unfold. We took our stroll up and down the street but didn’t feel particularly inclined to stay very long and returned to the bushes by the tracks, the twilight having shifted into another dark, tepid night.
After wasting a sufficient amount of time the next day, both of us in a sour mood from another night of unfruitful scouting for rides on the train we had waited for. It was time for plan B, to catch a bus to another, larger yard on the outskirts of the city and try to find our way onto a westbound train from there. We got off the bus at a desolate, industrial location in east Memphis. Scouting the yard from a safe distance we realized that the whole thing was extremely well lit, as if it were perpetual daylight in the yard. We walked to the west end, up onto a highway onramp, over the guardrail and down to a grassy abandoned lot to wait for a train to come out of the yard. We were trying to see if the trains would pull out at a slow enough speed to catch “on the fly.” We lay back on the dirt hill, smoked cigarettes and watched the faint pinpricks of stars fight their way through the dense light pollution in the sky as we waited.
Some time later we heard the distinct rumble of deisel engines and grabbed our backs. We quickly crossed the 50 yard field as the units of the train passed out of sight. Soon we were standing on the ballast looking for rides, as the train sqeaked by at a manageable speed. Finding no “wells” to ride in, a discreet and safe ride, we were tempted by the long porches on either side of the doublestacked intermodal shipping containers. Since riding porches is fairly conspicuous and we were in unfamiliar territory, not knowing which cities and towns we would roll through if we boarded the train, we decided not to get on the train as it gradually picked up speed and rumbled off back toward downtown. Despite missing the train, our hopes were high for finding another ride.
As the train passed we saw another lot across the tracks, not quite as empty. There were a few semi trailers parked 20 yards from the tracks. We could see that two of the trailers were shut, but one was wide open. The trailer became our home for the next two days, two long days of torrential rain. We watched a few trains roll by, unconvinced that they were going the same way we were. We shared nights of eating fast food hamburgers and drinking malt liquor which we took turns venturing out during breaks in the torment to retrieve. There was the constant hum of mosquitos in our ears, we spent the whole duration of the stay swatting at mosquitos and iching from their bites. We saw no activity at the building on the other side of our lot, the field across the tracks became flooded and perilous.
After two days and two nights of waiting glumly in the semi trailer the rain let up. Discouraged by the intermodal yard and its security Bob convinced me to set out in search of the general manifest trainyard, the more traditional boxcars-and-grainers type of train. My one fear in leaving the trailer was that the rain would start up again once we left, leaving us stranded far from our sheltering home of the trailer. We packed up, hopped down from the trailer, crossed the tracks, plodded through the soggy field we had come in thruogh and crossed the road over the tracks to the industrial district on the other side. We came to a convenience store and I watched the backpacks outside while Bob went in for some snacks and a fresh pack of smokes. While he was inside the store I got propositioned by a deathly skinny prostitute behind the store and hit up for change by a dirty alcoholic reeking of stale booze and cigarette butts. Being a poor traveler myself I usually declined to give people change since, you know, I needed it too. However, after the guy persisted by showing me his state ID and slurring all his words telling me he had a job, I yielded the 35 cents in my pocket so he would go away.
When Bob came out of the store we resumed our walk along the long featureless road, putting a few miles between us and the store when as feared, it began to rain again. Slightly annoyed by the rain I looked for an overhang to hide under. On the side of a factory we were walking by there was a smoking area with an awning so we hoofed it across the lawn quickly and sat in the dark at the picnic table udner the awning to wait for another break in the rain. As the break came we realized that we could access the roof of the building by squeezing between the bars of the locked grate around the ladder on the side of the factory. From the roof of the building we could make out some of the trainyard that we were waiting on the outskirts of, and resolved to head further east looking for a way in. The only access road we saw had a security kiosk at a parking lot near to the road leading toward the manifest yard. In a foul mood and spooked by the kiosk I was unmoved by Bob’s convincing to explore the options further, we kept walking.
We were in the middle of nowhere when the rain started up again. My raingear was enough to cover my pack of belongings – which I preferred to have dry over my person. Over the next hour I lost control of myself, downtrodden by my poor luck, hygiene and diet while in Memphis, soaking wet, wandernig on sore legs through the middle of nowhere industrial nightmare of east Memphis. Bob weathered two storms stoicly that night, one of the unremitting downpour, another of my laundry list of sailor’s curses thrown back at the storm at full volume. After an hour of walking and cursing and hiding under small ledges when the rain got too volumnous to walk through it, we came upon a gas station that had some sort of fast food chain attached to it. We sauntered in, picked a table, set our sopping wet gear on the benches and walked up to the line to ponder what sort of greasy comfort food we could indulge in to replenish our spirits. Our main goal was to have a dry place to sit to wait out the ongoing monsoon so we loitered past all reasonable limits, leaving our wrappers and trays clearly visible as a flag to the owners : “WE ARE PAYING CUSTOMERS.”
Apparently the ploy wan’t convincing, as we continued to use the bathrooms and smoke cigarettes outside. The lady at the desk had sent the security guard over to talk to us. He first asked us if we were truck drivers, failing to observe or acknowledge that no, we were clearly tramps doing exactly what his boss throught we were, loitering inconsiderately. We told him that we had eaten at their restaraunt, that we were just waiting for the rain to stop and then we would be on our way. He seemed satisfied with the answer and went on his way. Bob even went into the mini-mart section and bought a newspaper from the clerk as a show of goodwill. The boss had given the bouncer the oder to kick us out immediately – and I looked up from the newspaper to see the thick set man ushering Bob in the door from his smoke break. He had his hand on Bob’s elbow and Bob didn’t get the chance to fully extinguish his smoke before being placed back inside, which brought an angry riposte from the guard that smoking was not allowed inside. Bob shook himself free, tossed the cigarette out the door, and we agreed to leave the premises without further incident. By that time the rain had nearly stopped again and soon we were walking back toward the trailer we had slept in previously. At this point we had agreed to try hitch hiking from a truck stop near to the place we first arrived at. We slept a few hours until daylight under the bridge that ran over the tracks and noticed some old-timer hobo tags on the supporting strutts.
In the morning we packed up, ate some snacks, brushed our teeth and headed back toward the road. We started walking west, looking for an onramp to the interstate or a truck stop. Nonchalantly, we stuck our thumbs out while we walked on the busy road, hoping someone would spare us a walk. Not more than five minutes passed before a small tan sedan pulled over and stopped for us. There were two petite black women in the front, we shuffled in the back sitting with our bags on our laps. We told them we were just looking for a lift to the interstate, no problem they said.
“Where ya’ll from?”
“You know, right above California.”
“Ya’ll sleepin’ outside!?”
“Ya’ll are SURVIVORS!”
At this point in the conversation the two are yelling excitedly about us being survivors, the woman in the passenger seat is struggling to light the butt of a cigarette that has maybe a half of a drag left to smoke. The realization creeps into our minds like a piano falling from ten stories; we’ve just gotten in a car with crazy crack whores. They see a friend of theirs walknig on the sidewalk so they stop in the middle of the street and wave him over. Their friend “Chicken” chats with them for a moment, then lights up a Black n Mild, which the driver of the car skillfully requests a drag of then keeps in her hands. Chiken has to explicitly ask for it back a number of times before it is returned. Waving goodbye to their friend, we continue down the road, Bob and I are hoping that the onramp will come up soon.
“Ya’ll smoke cigarettes?”
“Nope” we lie.
“Ya’ll smoke weed?!”
“Nope” we lie again.
“Ya’ll smoke crack!?”
“Nope..” finally we are able to answer truthfully.
The car pulls into a run down motel parking lot long enough for our drivers to yell somethnig at an overweight scruffy woman on the balcony, throw a lighter up to her, and back out of the parking lot again. As we get close to the onramp for the highway one last round of questioning ensues.
“Ya’ll wanna have some fun?”
“We’re having fun.” I say.
“Naw, you ain’t having the REAL fun!”
Not wanting to pursue the subject any longer I give some stock negative response. Ending on that note, we were soon stopped. We got ourselves and our bags out of the car said our thanks for the help. A true east Memphis experience under our belt, we desire more strongly than ever to be back on the road toward Oklahoma.
There was a truck stop close to the onramp which we walked to. I pilfered a piece of cardboard from their dumpster out back while Bob got some food for us inside. We made a sign for Oklahoma and stood at the parking lot exit for a few hours, then switched to the onramp where the crack whores had dropped us off earlier. I had reached my limit at this point – we had been in Memphis for nearly a week, actively trying to leave nearly the whole time. It was time for me to step down from hard-edged tramp mindframe and use a good portion of what remained in my bank account to buy a Greyhound bus ticket to Oklahoma where we had a friend to stay with. I told Bob that if he preferred not to go with me I didn’t mind, but it was time for me to get the hell out of Memphis and I would wait for him in Oklahoma if he wanted to hitch hike there on his own and save the money. Bob and I have been good friends for most of our lives and had spent the entire last month and a half together, it was no small thing to part ways Those who know Bob know how stubborn and tough he can be, furthermore he wasn’t yet at the point of desparation. I was. In the end, Bob bit the bullet with me and decided to front the cash for the bus ticket as well. We set our sights back on downtown Memphis.
A bus ride later we were stepping out of the terminal in downtown Memphis and walking to the Greyhound bus station. After considering our options and the prices we setlled on buying a week-long pass which we could use to go anywhere on the Greyhound system within that time. It wasn’t prohibitively more expensive than the ticket from Memphis to Oklahoma City was in the first place. And this way, we could spend four or five days in Tulsa before getting back on the bus and crossing the states of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona on into California without hassle. It was a little bit of a cop-out but neither one of us had a huge desire to visit the forementioned states in the first place. The Greyhound station was what all Greyhound stations are; dirty, inhospitable, depressing. We were plum tuckered out so we decided to leave the crowded station in order to find a place that we could sleep for a few hours. We returned to the park by the river, where we had met with the group of tramps sleeping by the river a few days before. It started to rain agani – we pulled Bob’s large tarp over our sleeping bags, set an alarm and dozed off for a few hours. Hoping to wake up, walk to the bus and be rid of the city.
We both woke to the tarp being pulled off of us in an alarming crecendo of krinkling plastic. Immediately awake and full of adrenaline, I sat up and got my arms free of my sleeping bag in order to defend myself, my hand thumping the ground around me for where I had set my knife. Fortunately for us the person who had disturbed our sleep did not mean to do us any harm – it was the Japanese kid who had befriended the other group of crusty travelers from earlier in the week. He apologized for frightening us and explained that he just wanted to see if his friends were still around. We shared a smoke and a chat with the guy, then he was on his way and we fell back to sleep for another few hours until it was time to go catch our Greyhound bus to Oklahoma City. It was a long week in Memphis, sleeping in the bushes, walking nearly everywhere, our many attempts to leave the hulking beast of a city crumpling again and again. Sitting on the bus uncomfortably close to a whole horde of smelly vagabonds like ourselves, listening to some stoner metalhead kid rant about Nazi Germany at full volume, anticipating the aches and pains from sleeping in the seats all night, I was overjoyed to be moving again – out of the dark pit of Memphis and on to some new adventure.