the other night i revisited the site of the first train i ever jumped; i'd jumped it right outside of hartsfield international airport in atlanta, and it was going north, or northwest really; i had to judge how far downtown was from the airport, but i knew that it was about eight miles; i also had to judge how far eight miles was, because i had to jump off, maybe a couple miles north of downtown, and walk back east to where i was staying. the place where we were, east point, just north of the airport, was pretty, and i recognized pretty buildings, which were there forty years ago as well.
now you might be taken with the romance of just hopping on a train, using it to get across town, save a few bucks, or at least, save a ride that would today be about three or four bucks. it was that or hitchhike, which was usually safe in those days, much less so today; safe in two senses, one, how likely are you to cause a traffic hazard that kills people besides you and the guy who pulled over recklessly still blocking traffic even though there was plenty of room, and, safe in the sense that if 95% of innocent people are afraid to pick up hitchhikers, how long do you have to wait for that other 5%, and what percent of those are "innocent people" by which i mean they don't have nefarious motives, or, they are willing to take "no" for an answer.
throwing yourself at the mercy of the world takes a certain amount of faith, and i hate to say i've lost that faith, though i can assure you that jumping a train or hitchhiking would be different at 60 than it was at 19. no, i tell all my boys & girls, don't do it, if there are people who love you, you want to avoid the romance of being out on the streets at a young age, or any age, at the mercy of the world. if you have no home, you can't get a job, and then you can't get money, and then you have to find a place where you can be fed. this will end up being your parents' house, unless you are foresighted and predatory, and there are a lot of predators out there already, some have homes and some don't, but all have that kind of hunger where they're looking for someone to take advantage of, someone who's out there, nowhere to go, in need themselves. sometimes they're sexual predators, hoping that someone needs a place to stay bad enough that they'll fall asleep on a couch, at a time when they can't keep track of what happens to them, because they're too tired. sometimes they're financial predators, hoping for the same thing, hoping that maybe your wallet will fall out of your pants at a time like that. but the worst kind is the system itself: there are private prisons, that are hungry for state funding, that need bodies to fill up spaces, need people to lock up & take rights from, need rationalization for bars & systems & prison yards and brutality and horrible food. it's their word against yours, so you don't even want to be in that battle.
in my day it was too much trouble for them to lock you up for petty crimes like hitchhiking, train-jumping, or even panhandling which i tried once or twice. it cost the state money to lock up people who were capable of taking care of themselves, myself included, so they avoided it if they could, and basically taught police to avoid it. now, it's not like that. these days, you wear your hair in matted down braids, you drive around with a brake light out, you sit on a curb or do something that makes you 'visibly poor,' that's like challenging them, saying 'i don't care for your system,' and they'll respond by accepting the challenge, throwing you in the clinker, and seeing if you care after a few people beat the crap out of you including them or whoever else gets the chance. thousands of dollars of bail and bond and family visits later you are released or whatever. the state boys, maybe, never really wanted to ruin your life, they'd rather have you support yourself just as we would. but there are a lot of predators out there, and some live in very small towns with nothing to do but get dressed up in uniform, go out & beat people up, and then use the uniforms to justify whatever happened.
beneath the fear, it's a huge and beautiful country. it has mountains, forests, rivers, hills, wildlife, character. aspects of its culture are worth passing on: the music, the generosity, the love of freedom, the tendency toward equality and justice. it is difficult to reach, sustain or maintain high ideals when a place gets crowded, so, it's not always a perfect place. i love the country deeply, and so want to nurture the good things about it and fight those who would use its resources for their own ends: to occupy middle-eastern countries, to justify locking up and brutalizing the innocent, to reach down into the earth to grab every last drop of burnable fuel. people see it, sometimes, with moneybags in their eyes, and that's the colonists' legacy, all you can see in a land is what you can take out of it for yourself. as a settler, one who has called this nation home, and raised my children here, i want to use what's left of my influence to right some of these wrongs and change the place for the better. but to do that, i need a job, a home, a place to put on my drivers' license, a slice of authority to use so that people listen. you've worked for a while, people know you can, and you do, work, and that makes you more valuable, to the state anyway, outside prison than in. there may be all manner of conspiracies out there, but if you think ruining your life is one of them, you're wrong, they aren't so much trying to ruin yours, as to enrich theirs, thus leaving you with the wreckage, the six trillion dollar debt, the ravaged hillsides, whatever. you want to organize, save those hillsides, get involved, i'm all in favor. don't do it from prison. there's nothing romantic about prison whatsoever.
i of course have no authority to tell anyone not to do this stuff, because i did all of it, hitchhike, jump trains, lead the raffish life that gets you in trouble. i was lucky in that i am here to tell the tale. the train was bigger than me, and could have taken my leg, or arm, or in one case, my head which almost hit a tunnel. cars stopped dangerously and illegally and i jumped in and off we went; drivers were drunk, or criminal, or desperate for one thing or another. i used highly sensitive paranoia to fend off some of these obvious risks, and, because i was willing to pay an enormous price, i saw a lot of the countryside. i got to ask people what it was like to live in, say, oregon, or maine. not that they knew. most of them were working for a living, barely enjoying the beautiful scenery around them. and, and this is another difference, back then the main way to see scenery like for example zion national park, one of the most stunning natural formations in the world, was by going there. they had books, and some of these were photo books, but i could hardly believe them. i wonder if young people have the same trouble believing the internet. i remember, at one point, just saying, i've got to get out there and see some of this stuff. and i did. i never saw hawaii, but, hey, you can't do everything.
i don't feel hypocritical saying this. times were different, the price was different. luck also might have been different, different people have different luck. these days i get nervous, just driving out into the wide plain that has no cars. my car engine light goes on at about 8000 feet and i'm nervous. kids rely on me to stay alive and take care of them, and i no longer want to put at risk my delicate ability to carry on, keep on writing and playing music, enjoy living day to day, experience the fresh air and sunshine.
the thing about jumping trains is, you have no control over when it stops, where it stops, whether it even slows down, you can't even ask anyone because you're in some boxcar. 30 mph seems like 10, so it looks safe to jump but isn't; you can't fall asleep in a car with one door open, because someone might come along and shut it without looking, and the yard dicks have every right to beat you up unless you've done the research to know where that never happens. when i was out there, i heard that the old burlington northern, running across the dakotas from minnesota to seattle, was safe as it was owned by an ex-hobo, who went so far as to tell his people not to beat up the hobos or do any worse than run them off the yards. but that was forty years ago; times have changed. i'm sure one can do it; i'm sure one can see the mountains, the forest, the waterfalls in the far valleys. i'm sure it's not easy. i know i was lucky: i lived, i saw some mountains, i still have all my limbs. that night, in atlanta, i jumped off, landed in a weed patch, and was just a couple of miles from where i was staying, which i walked, but, i was staying with a kid, and he seemed to be about my age, nineteen, but was more like seventeen, and was a runaway, and when we were accosted on the street one day they took him off and told me to get on the northbound highway out of there as fast as i could, which i did, hitchhiking still being my primary mode of transportation. they were weighing the price of 'harboring a minor' or some such violation but i was just walking down the street with him, and, i was respectful, and, at that time, there was nothing in it for them, to lock up some guy like me, just for that. atlanta was just a bit better than other places in that regard. and the nineteen seventies were a bit easier than the twenty-tens.
is that hypocritical? to me, it's just the way it is.