(Yeah, there’s a Part II.) aka The Old-Time Freight Hopper
When I finish driving around aimlessly and thinking about my experience with Dot, I head back through Needles in search of a café where I can post up and write some of this stuff down. As I’m passing through the town, I stop at a railroad crossing as an endless freight train rumbles slowly by. I sit in my car watching the boxcars roll past, thinking how easy it would be to hop on and let the rails carry me away into the distance.
I finally find a McDonalds, which I know at least has wi-fi. As I pull into the lot, I pass a man and a woman holding a sign that reads: “Traveling. Anything helps.” I park and walk back to them with the two bananas Sara’s mom gave me when I left Woodland Hills. “Hey,” I say as I approach. They both look pretty old and very homeless. The man must be at least 60, the woman 50. What the hell, I decide. I might as well ask. “Are you guys Rainbows?” The man perks up. “I am. I have been for years.” I give them the bananas and wish them luck. “Thanks,” he says. “Something’ll happen. Always does.”
As I eat lunch down the street, I realize something. In Santa Cruz a few weeks ago, I walked past a homeless guy who asked me for change. “I don’t know about you man,” he called after me, “but I’m a Rainbow.” I didn’t know what he meant—was that supposed to be some kind of code for gay? I don’t know why I remember it so clearly, but that exact phrasing stuck with me until just now.
I return to McDonalds to get a cup of coffee and finally sit down to write. As I sit inside researching the Rainbow Family (their website is called www.welcomehome.org), the two homeless travelers come in and sit down next to me with a curt nod. They are both searching in their bags; the woman needs to charge her phone, but they can’t find the charger.
“What kind of plug is it?” I ask. She hands me her phone, and I see that it takes the same kind of charger as my phone. “Here,” I pull mine out of my bag and hand it to her.
She has been silent up to this point, but when I give her the charger, she starts to open up. “Thank you,” she says to me. “I really need to charge this phone. Because I am expecting a call from my daughter in Oregon right now.” Something about juvenile hall and an upcoming court date.
Now that the man is sitting across from me, I finally get a good look at him. There’s a wild look in his eyes, his hair is wild and white, and he’s got a huge white beard. He looks a little bit like Sean Connery. He talks to me while the she showers in a sink in the bathroom.
“I been traveling for 32 years,” he says. “I tell you—I been everywhere. Everywhere across the U.S on the trains.”
“On the trains?” My interest peaks.
“Yeah. I’m an old time freight hopper.”
Wow. This guy is like, late beat generation Kerouac-inspired freight train hopper. In this strange unofficial community of travelers I have been coming to know, this man is one of the elders. I suddenly see him with a deep respect and almost awe.
“What’s it like traveling by train?” I ask.
“You could hop on right here and make it all the way to Chicago. These trains’ll take you anywhere. I been all the way up in Alaska, across Canada, through every single state,” he says. “Except Hawaii. That’s a bit difficult.”
“Wow. So is that how you’re gonna leave here?”
“Nah, I don’t do it no more. I retired back in ‘92.”
“Why’d you retire?”
“Well I spent 20 years on freights. But things was different back then. Now it’s too many gutter punks fuck wit you.”
“Yeah, these gangs of kids out there. No respect for no one. Just too many of them fuck wit you.”
“Damn…what about the cops?”
“What about ‘em?”
“Do they fuck with you?”
I look for more.
He shrugs. “Pigs ain’t nothin.’ Just kick you off, give you a ticket maybe, tell you don’t come back.”
“So what’s your favorite place that you’ve been?”
“I got about 5.” He holds up a grubby hand. “Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Massachusetts…Connecticut.”
“Ah, gotcha. Yeah it’s beautiful up there. I love the Northeast…but it’s cold this time of year!”
“Ain’t too bad,” he says. “And this? Everyone says this here is cold. This ain’t cold. I been in Minneapolis when it was 80 below. There was snow up to here.” He stands up and raises his hand over his head. “Once I was on a train that went to Minneapolis in the winter and I had to turn right around get to California. I sat there the whole time just like this—” he hugs his body and shivers violently, rocking back and forth.
“So what about you? How you traveling?”
“Well, I’ve got a car out there. It’s good, except that gas is expensive….”
“No it ain’t. You just stand outside a gas station with a jug over your head and people give you gas.”
“Where do you get your food?” I ask him.
“People give it to me. Or they give money. Or I get it out of dumpsters. Or hold up a sign.”
The woman emerges from the bathroom, talking about the effects of hand soap on her hair. She checks her phone and then joins our conversation about surviving off the things that other people throw away. “See this ring?” She holds out her hand. “This is 10 carat gold. We found it in a dumpster.”
They step outside for a cigarette, but she quickly come back in. “It’s too cold out there with wet hair!” She gestures to my notebook. “What you writing?”
“I try to write about the things I experience as I’m traveling.”
She pulls out a notebook and flips through the pages. “Yeah, but I write mostly poetry.” She begins to tell me her story. She was in elementary education for a while, and she tells me about some of the kids that she used to work with. And apparently, this woman is a published poet. She mentions some of the different anthologies in which her work has appeared. She talks about the different drugs that she used to do, but how she tries to stay away from them now. “I loooove heroin,” she explains. “But I hate to have to have it. I did a dime a day for three days and I was addicted. So I had to kick that shit.”
He walks back inside. “You know where else you might like?”
“Olympia. Washington.” Together they describe the wilderness and the geysers, the scenery, the people.
“Yeah, man…” I nod. “I would love to get up there.”
“So why dontcha?”
There is something about this guy. I get the impression that nothing can faze him; he’s seen so much, the sharp corners of his difficult life have toughened him to everything. I talk about the people I saw living in trees in Berkeley. He just nods. Yep. Yep. She says yeah, we used to climb trees and smoke pot—yep, yep. Then the cops started climbing the trees. Yep. Yep.
“Can I ask how old are you?” I say.
He thinks for a minute. “Around 60.”
“Yeah. I’m guessin’ you are…28?”
“Shiiiit. You’re young. You know what you should be doing right now? Get a full time job, make some money.”
This is not what I expected to hear from this guy. “Really? But what about traveling, seeing the entire country?”
“That’s what you do. Get money and then travel with it. Work jobs as you go.”
“Gotcha. How long have you guys been here in Needles?”
“Four or five days. But we ready to get outta here. The pigs here love to fuck wit us because we’re homeless. So we gonna get out soon.”
“Where to next?”
“Honestly, I’m gettin’ tired of this,” he says. “We are looking for a place right now, something we can rent and settle down for a while. Because I am getting tired of this. In…five days, it’s been 32 years to the day that I been traveling. And I been everywhere,” he repeats. “But I’m tired of it.”
They start to talk to each other, and I retreat to my notebook.
Later, as they’re packing up and getting ready to leave, I turn back to the guy. “Hey man. I have really appreciated talking to you.”
“I don’t know how most people treat you,” I go on, “because of the fact that you’re homeless. But for me, having this chance to meet you has been an honor.”
He nods humbly.
And I realize: it’s time to begin the Three Most Important Things in Life. On an overnight bus from New Orleans to Miami, I met a guy in his late fifties who told me about a project that he used to do. The idea was to find elderly people, preferably over 75-80 (I know the Freight Hopper is younger than that but I feel it is right anyway), and ask a simple question. “What are the three important things in life? You have lived a long life rich with experience…what advice would you give to a young person like me, as to the three most important things?” This guy told me that if I ask enough people, I’ll actually discover a consensus. People will consistently give the same answers. “Are you going to tell me what those are?” I had asked him. “Nope. You’ve gotta do this yourself.”
So I ask the Freight Hopper.
“The most important thing for you is to get a job, get off the streets—”
“Wait,” I say. “Not just for me, but in general. The three most important things in life.”
He stops. I don’t know this as I ask, but as soon as he speaks, I can already tell that this first one is probably going to be by far the most profound response that I will ever get, no matter how many people I end up asking in the coming months. His answer:
“I don’t know.”
I wait for him to go on, but he is silent. “Just anything, man. Whatever you feel in your heart.”
There is a long pause. “I been livin’ on the streets for 32 years,” he says. “And that I don’t know anything about because ain’t nobody ever asked me anything like that before.”
I nod. “Ok.”
“I tell you though, the most important thing to me though is Jesus.”
“Yeah, Jesus. Do you know Jesus?”
“I haven’t found him yet.”
“What you mean?”
“I haven’t found him.”
“You read the Bible?”
“Yeah, I have read parts of it. I’ve been looking, but I haven’t found him yet.”
“Well, he dwells within you. Did you know that? He within all of us. I’m not perfect. But I do the best I can you know but we’re all fuck ups. We all make mistakes. I’m not perfect you’re not perfect, nobody perfect, you know that? But we do the best we can. So that’s the most important thing to me.”
I nod. “Ok. Thank you.”
“But about that other question, I don’t know.”