In the first installment of this series of sketches in this space provided courtesy of my old 1960s yellow brick road magical mystery tour merry prankster fellow traveler, Peter Paul Markin, I mentioned, in grabbing an old Bruce Springsteen CD compilation from 1998 to download into my iPod, that I had come across a song that stopped me in my tracks, Brothers Under The Bridge. I had not listened to or thought about that song for a long time but it brought back many memories from the late 1970s when I did a series of articles for the now defunct East Bay Eye (Frisco town, California East Bay, naturally) on the fate of some troubled Vietnam veterans who, for one reason or another, could not come to grips with “going back to the real world” and took, like those a Great Depression generation or two before them, to the “jungle”-the hobo, bum, tramp camps located along the abandoned railroad sidings, the ravines and crevices, and under the bridges of California, mainly down in Los Angeles, and created their own “society.”
The editor of the East Bay Eye, Owen Anderson, gave me that long ago assignment after I had done a smaller series for the paper on the treatment, the poor treatment, of Vietnam veterans by the Veterans Administration in San Francisco and in the course of that series had found out about this band of brothers roaming the countryside trying to do the best they could, but mainly trying to keep themselves in one piece. My qualifications for the assignment other than empathy, since I had not been in the military during the Vietnam War period, were based simply on the fact that back East I had been involved, along with several other radicals, in running an anti-war GI coffeehouse near Fort Devens in Massachusetts and down near Fort Dix in New Jersey. During that period I had run into many soldiers of my 1960s generation who had clued me in on the psychic cost of the war so I had a running start.
After making connections with some Vietnam Veterans Against The War (VVAW) guys down in L.A. who knew where to point me I was on my way. I gathered many stories, published some of them in the Eye, and put the rest in my helter-skelter files. A while back, after having no success in retrieving the old Eye archives, I went up into my attic and rummaged through what was left of those early files. I could find no newsprint articles that I had written but I did find a batch of notes, specifically notes from stories that I didn’t file because the Eye went under before I could round them into shape.
The ground rules of those long ago stories was that I would basically let the guy I was talking to give his spiel, spill what he wanted the world to hear, and I would write it up without too much editing (mainly for foul language). I, like with the others in this current series, have reconstructed this story as best I can although at this far remove it is hard to get the feel of the voice and how things were said.
Not every guy I interviewed, came across, swapped lies with, or just snatched some midnight phrase out of the air from was from hunger. Most were, yes, in one way or another but some, and the one I am recalling in this sketch from 1979 fits this description, had no real desire to advertise their own hunger but just wanted to get something off their chest about some lost buddy, or some event they had witnessed. I have presented enough of these sketches both back in the day and here to not make a generalization about what a guy might be hiding in the deep recesses of his mind.
Some wanted to give a blow by blow description of every firefight (and every hut torched) they were involved in, others wanted to blank out ‘Nam completely and talk of before or after times, as is the case here with High Street Hank (real name Jason Preston), who went way out of his way to avoid talking much about ‘Nam, or about how he wound up in the hobo camps in the late 1970s after heading west in the early 1970s, but who wanted to talk about missed chances at love, and about the life on the road, and the life of his late hobo king friend, Railroad Bill. I like to finish up these introductions by placing these sketches under a particular sign; no question Jason Preston's sign was that of the hobo king.
[In the interest of full disclosure, although it does not relate directly to Jason’s story, I was probably closer to him than any of the brothers under the bridge that I ran into in those days. Partially because, after ‘Nam in 1971, he followed my own earlier, 1967 summer of love, merry prankster yellow brick road west and got catch up with the remnants of the 1960s scene as it was descending into madness as the tide ebbed. Partially also because he had tried, tried several times after that, to come off the road and move on with his life. To no avail. That “to no avail” part got to me since a quarter turn one way or another in my own experiences and I could have been telling my own Railroad Bill story around that ‘Frisco camp fire mentioned below. I lost contact with Jason about 1985 when he informed me that he was heading south to Mexico to see if he could grapple with his life better there.]
Here is the way High Street Hank told the story one night, one 1979 November night, as best I remember it, the story of the famous hobo king (real title, no kidding, they have their social gradations just like the rest of us), Railroad Bill, who even I had heard of previously in some mist of time way, told the story one campfire cold sludge coffee stew broth boiling in the kettle night, one miserable hell foggy raw under the bridge Frisco town night, maybe a half dozen guys (Spokane Spike, Portland Phil, Graybeard Gary, and I forgot who else) gathered close around to keep warm against the Pacific squalls, and to share the bottle night (Thunderbird so somebody had dough, had been successful panhandling that afternoon down the Embarcadero, or had cadged it, otherwise Tokay was the cheap jack beverage of choice), yah, Hank told the Railroad Bill story, the story of a prince of the American road, of the long vanishing race of master-less men.
Railroad Bill (real name Theodore Greene, from one of the branches of the Greene family that used to run, or thought they used to run, Albany, although like Hank kept saying don’t hold him to the truth of that real name of that late knight, first- class, of the road since these guys were clumsy with names, aliases, addresses, mail-drops and stuff like that, nine to five stuff that keep the rest of us going, and connected, when he did some begging around looking for Bill’s roots after he passed on, not to inform any kin of his passing but just so he would know that Bill wouldn’t wind up in some potter’s field nameless, numbered, simple county-paid pine box, unadorned and un-remembered, like a million other hoboes, tramps, bums, winos, con men, grifters, sifters, and midnight drifters he had run into in his time, and with the idea that maybe too when old High Street Hank, (his road moniker, although he used others like every guy on the road but that one stuck more often than not and after a while gained a certain privilege, a certain “sure, come on in and have some stew or a swig , brother,” when uttered after some serious time in the jungles), passed on some roadie would wonder, wonder, curious wonder, big time and think big thoughts about his roots and about what he did, or did not, bullshit about, and maybe beg around a little to find out where he came from, or where he had been, but maybe too Railroad Bill the name Hank knew him by was just good enough and the rest was what Hank called his mind, the nine-to-five mind part of it, working overtime), now the late Railroad Bill, always laughed that he had never worked, and he never will (and now won’t), never had a steady job for more than a few days at a time and not many of them either (mainly washing dishes, pearl-diving he called it, some bracero hot sun work out in the California field when he was high on some hot tamale dark-eyed mex dame, some senorita all dark and with Spanish dancing eyes and ready to take him around the world [ you figure it out] for a dollar and a quarter and couple of shots of tequila, and mex dope), never worked for a check (cash only, no deductions brother, or else and Bill was big, and tough, tough enough to enforce that against almost any guy, sometimes guys), hell, never cashed a check ( a real check, although for a while he kited a few, and did some time for that little effort, a few months, maybe a year, guys were always a little shaky on their time after they got out and sometimes built it up a little to impress the new guys, up in Shawshank in Maine) and never, never had a master over him, the kiss of death for any self-respecting ‘bo (and he was a ‘bo, hobo in the “class” structure of the railroad jungle, ahead of tramps, bums, con men, grifters, and bottom-feeding midnight sifters).
So Hank said this was to be Railroad’s story, nah, sketch, or something like that, he said, a story would make you think it was just for entertainment, and this one was about times when honest men (sorry there wasn’t much room for women except whorehouses, slave tents, houses, and getting knocked around by “what the hell” angry men, sorry too) hit the road just to hit the road, and not to write talk-talk immense books about it, literature, or get a feel for the great American night before heading back to academia and attend delicious cozy little conferences for the next fifty years about the plight of the master-less men, 20th century variety [or to write down told homey little sketches told by campfires about hobo kings after coming off the minute road either-JLB]. A time when if you didn’t have what it takes, if you weren’t strong enough to shimmy yourself on some box car to ride the rails, if you weren’t fast enough to outrun some bull railroad cop with a billy club with your name on it, if you didn’t have enough sense god gave geese to “clip” the necessities for the day at some Woolworth’s (more recently replaced by Wal-Mart and, frankly, easier to do since nobody cared whether anybody “stole” some gabacho three for a dollar stuff, not the people who work there anyway unlike the child-like fawns who worked for fifty years and a good watch for Ma Woolworth), if your talk wasn’t smooth enough to make a few bucks to tide you over pan-handling (and cadge at least a couple of packs of cigarettes so you didn’t have to constantly roll your own Bull Durham coffin nails), if you couldn’t dream enough about some phantom white dress Phoebe Snow to get you through those hard first women-less days, if you didn’t have enough sense to latch on to some queen of the rails mutt to keep you company (and make “cute dog” hitchhike rides easier on the days when there were no rails in sight), then you would wind up with old Denver Slim (Railroad Bill’s first road brother), or a thousand other guys, buried early under some railroad trestle, down some deserted ravine, or beside some hollows hillside and nameless, nameless forever:
Hank woke with a start that dreary late October 1976 night when he first ran into Bill, early morning really from the look of the lightened sky, last cold night, or so he thought to himself , before drifting south then heading west to warmer climes for “winter camp.” Yes, he had the routine down pretty pat back then after a few years of scuttling around just short of getting it right, getting away from the damn winter colds that shortened more than one frozen stiff’s life. Summering in the Cambridges away from the congestion of the big towns (downtown Boston and fetid Pine Street Inns or sanctimonious Sallies [Salvation Army] flops , ditto Frisco, ditto L.A., ditto Chi town), and then wintering in the Keys (maybe Key Largo for the air but Key West if he needed hurry money, or in some Pancho Villa bandito arroyo near the border in desert California, or maybe higher up near Joshua Tree (where he had earlier, before his vagabond wandering days, holed up with a couple of mex senoritas with those sparkling eyes himself, some herb, and a couple of Phoebe Snows too, and with dough to go with the herb, when he rode the merry prankster yellow brick road bus back in the early 1970s). But just that minute that cold dreary morning minute his summer was interrupted by a loud sound of snoring and short breathe coughing from some fellow resident who had parked himself about twenty feet from his exclusive turf.
Hell, Hank laughed, explaining to everyone around that campfire [like we were school boys and couldn’t figure it out by ourselves that he was trying to be funny about it] he didn’t mean to tease us about his itinerary he said (although the gist of schedule was real enough, damn real), or about his mayfair swell digs. The fact was that back then he had been in kind of a bad streak and so sweet home Eliot Bridge right next to the Charles River, but not too next to Harvard Square had been his “home” of late then while he prepared for those sunnier climes just mentioned. Those last few previous months have been tough for him though after trying to make a go of it off the road [like a lot of road guys always try to do whether to beat up some bogus parole trap, beat some promise some family to do better trap, or just beat some road tired trap, except the serious winos who would not know where to begin, wouldn’t want to begin, or even give it a thought] first losing that swell paying job “diving for pearls” at Elsie’s, the deli where all the Harvard Johns hung out for some real food after they got tired of the frat house/Lowell house fare, then losing his apartment when the landlord decided, legally decided, that six months arrears was all that he could take, and then losing Janie over some spat, and getting so mad he “took” a couple of hundred dollars from her pocketbook as he went out the not-coming-back door that last time. So there he was at “home” waiting it out. But that was his story not Bill’s and so he moved on.
He had a pretty good set-up under the bridge, he thought. Far enough away from the Square so that the druggies and drunks wouldn’t dream of seeking shelter so far from their base. But close enough for him to try to panhandle a stake to head west with in rich folks Harvard Square (although apparently the rich those days preferred to tithe in other ways than to part with their spare change to, uh, itinerants since he was having a rough time getting the bread together). And, moreover, the bridge provided some protection against the chilly elements, and a stray nosey cop or two ready to run a stray itinerant in order to fill his or her quota on the run-in sheet.
All that precious planning had gone for naught though because some snoring be-draggled newspaper- strewn hobo had enough courage to head a few hundred yards up river and disturb his home. There and then he decided he had better see what the guy looked like, see if he was dangerous, and see if he could get the hobo the hell out of there so he could get back to sleep for a couple more hours before the damn work-a-day world traffic made that spot too noisy to sleep in. Besides, as is the nature of such things on the down and out American road (and in other less exotic locales as well), the hobo might have other companions just ready to put down stakes there before he was ready to head west.
He unfolded his own newspaper covering, folded up his extra shirt pillow and put it in his make-shift ruck-sack, and rolled (rolled for the umpteenth time) his ground covering and placed it next to his ruck-sack. No morning ablutions to brighten breath and face were necessary that early, not in that zip code, he was thus ready for guests. He ambled over to the newspaper pile where the snoring had come from and tapped the papers with a stick that he had picked up along the way (never, never use your hand or you might lose your life if the rustling newspaper causes an unseen knife-hand to cut you six ways to Sunday. Don’t laugh it almost happened to him once, and only once.).
The hobo stirred, stirred again, and then opened his eyes saying “Howdy, my name is Boulder Shorty, what’s yours?” (A rule of the road in strange country was never to give your real moniker straight out but maybe some old time one and for Bill Boulder Shorty was just such a thing from when he first headed out with Denver Slim his first road companion. Bill later told Hank that he had never been to Boulder, nor Denver Slim to Denver, could not have picked it out on a map if he was given ten chances, and was six feet two inches tall so go figure on monikers. The way they got hanged on a guy was always good for a story in some desolate railroad fireside camp before Hank got wise enough to stay away from those sites, far away.) He told Bill his, his road moniker, his real road moniker at the time not having been out on the road long enough to get wise to the protective switch-up then, “Be-Bop Benny.” Bill laughed, muttering about beatniks and faux kid hobos in thrall of some Jack London call of wild down and out story or some on the road Jack Kerouac or something vision between short, violent coughs. Funny Bill’s bringing up that last name because Hank, having had a couple of years of junior college on the G.I Bill after ‘Nam, 1968-70, had gone to the library when he first headed out on the road back in the early 1970s after things first fell apart to read Kerouac’s On The Road and a couple of other books whose names he had forgotten to see if he could pick up any hobo tips, no sale, not for real hoboing, just book hoboing.
Funny too about different tramps, hobos, and bums (and there are differences, recognized differences just like in regular society). He, Boulder Shorty turned Railroad Bill once he knew Hank was no danger to him after sizing up Hank as a raw kid, and after showing that raw kid a little later when they visited a railroad jungle set up near the abandoned Revere railroad tracks what happens when a six-two wiry guy who had been through it all chain-whipped a guy who was trying to steal his bottle of Muscatel, or whom he thought was trying to steal it, same thing, one campfire night, and Hank, were hobos, the kings of the river, ravine, and railroad trestle. Some start out gruff, tough and mean, street hard mean. Others like Bill, kings, just go with the flow. And that go with the flow for a little while anyway (a little while being very long in hobo company) kept Bill and Hank together for a while, several weeks while before that short violent cough caught up with old Railroad (you didn’t have to know medicine, or much else, to know that was the small echo of the death-rattle coming up).
In those few weeks Railroad Bill taught Hank more about ‘bo-ing, more about natural things, more about how to take life one day at a time than anybody else, his long gone father included. About staying away from bums and tramps, the guys who talked all day about this and that scan they pulled off in about 1958 and hadn’t gotten over it yet. About how they slipped a couple of shirts under their sweaters or something and walked right out of Goodwill and nobody stopped them. Or about how some padre bought their story about being far from home and a little tough on the luck side and gave them a fiver. Or about how they ponzi’d some scheme and netted about sixteen dollars and change one time. All about 1958, like he said, and a river of dreams, sorrows and booze ago. [And as if to show the “class” distinction more clearly Hank went into an aside about how Railroad showed him how to hustle for serious dough from the padres (private social service agencies like the Sallys, U-Us, Universalist-Unitarians joined together under one god, and the Catholic Worker-type outfits), fifty buck dough, just by being not too dressed up but clean, and maybe having showered recently, and having a line of patter. Not too strong, not like you overplay you are scamming them (winos need not apply just keep that empty coffee cup out in front of you), and they know it too, but with a plausible plan to present to get you “back on your feet” with their little help. Hank said he would tell us about the details sometime, he never did, but he got fifty easy dollars, cash money, thanks to Railroad’s advice. A couple of times]
Bill told him about guys who took your money, your clothes, hell, and your newspaper covering in the dead of night just to do it, especially to young hobo kings. And about staying alone, staying away from the railroad, river, ravine camps that everybody talked about being the last refuge for the wayward but were just full of disease, drunks and dips. (He let Railroad talk on about that although that was one thing he was already hip to, a river camp was where he almost got his throat handed back to him by some quick- knife tramp that he had mentioned before when he talked about disturbing guys while they were newspaper roll sleeping ).
Yes, Railroad Bill had some street smart wisdom for a guy who couldn’t have been past forty, at least that’s what figured from the times he gave in his stories. (Don’t try to judge a guy on the road’s age because between the drugs or booze, the bad food, the weather-beaten road, and about six other miseries most guys looked, and acted, like they were about twenty years older. Even Hank, before a shower to take a few days dirt off and maybe hadn’t eaten for a while, looked older than his thirty-something years then.) But most of all it was the little tricks of the road that Railroad taught and showed him that held him to the man.
Like right off how Hank’s approach, his poor boy hat in hand approach, was all wrong in working the Harvard Square panhandle. You had to get in their faces, shout stuff at them, and block their passage so that the couple of bucks they practically threw at you were far easier to give than have you in their faces. Christ, Railroad, complete with unfeigned cough, collected about twenty bucks in an hour one day, one day when he was coughing pretty badly. And a ton of cigarettes, good cigarettes too, that he asked for when some guys (and a few gals) pled no dough. It was art, true art that day. Railroad said one girl wanted to take him home, said she wanted to feed him and help him out, implying some big sex wet dream thing out of some mex senorita sparkling eyes past. But Hank just let it go as so much hobo hot air and bravado. Still next time out pan-handling he made about twelve bucks, a ton of smokes, a joint and some girl went into Cardillo’s and brought him out a sandwich and coffee. Beautiful.
Or Railroad told him about how a hobo king need never go hungry in any city once he had the Sallies, U/U good and kindly neighbor feeding schedule down. No so much those places, any bum or tramp could figure that out, and wait in line, but to “volunteer” and get to know the people running the thing and get invited to their houses as sturdy yeoman “reclamation” projects. A vacation, see. Best of all let he said before was him showing how to work the social service agencies for ten here, and twenty there, as long as you could hold the line of patter straight and not oversell your misery. Tramps and bums need not apply for this kind of hustle, go back and jiggle your coffee cup in front of some subway station, and good luck.
[Railroad also taught him the ins and outs of jack-rolling, what you would call mugging, if things got really bad. Jack-rolling guys, bigger and smaller than you but Hank said he ‘d rather keep that knowledge to himself especially when the guys around the campfire started looking mean-eyed at him.]
Funny they never talked about women, although he tried once to talk to Railroad about Janie. Railroad cut him short, not out of disrespect he didn’t think, but he said they were all Janie in the end. He said talking about women was too tough for guys on the road with nothing but drifter, grifter, midnight sifter guys to stare at. Or looking too close at women when on the bum was bad for those longings for home things when you couldn’t do anything about it anyway. Although he did let on once that he was partial to truck stop road side diner waitresses serving them off the arm when he was in the clover (had dough) and was washed up enough to present himself at some stop along the road. Especially the ones who piled the potatoes extra high or double scooped the bread pudding as acts of kindred kindness. One night near the end, maybe a week before, time is hard to remember on the meshed together bum, Railroad started muttering about some Phoebe Snow, some gal all dressed in white, and he kind of smiled, and then the coughing started again.
Hank tried to get Railroad moving south with him (and had delayed his own departure to stick with him for as long as he figured he could get south before the snows hit) but Bill knew, knew deep in his bones, that his time was short, that he wanted to finish up in Boston (not for any special reason, he was from Albany, but just because he was tired of moving) and was glad of young hobo company.
It was funny about how he found out about Railroad’s Albany roots. One night, a couple of nights before the end, coughing like crazy, he seemingly had to prove to Hank that he was from Albany. Bill had mentioned that he was mad for William Kennedy’s novels, Ironweedand the like, that had just come out a couple of years before. He went on and on about the Phelans this and that. Jesus he knew the books better than Hank did. He say that is what made hobos the intelligentsia of the road. Some old Wobblie folksinger told him that once when they heading west riding the rails on the Denver & Rio Grande. When holed up in some godforsaken library to get out of the weather hobos read rather than just get curled up on some stuffed chair. Yes, Railroad was a piece of work. He was always saying stuff like that.
Then one morning, one too cold Eliot Bridge morning, he tried to shake his newspaper kingdom and got no response. Old Bill had taken his last ride, his last train smoke and dreams ride he called it. He left him there like Bill wanted him to and like was necessary on the hobo road. He made a forlorn anonymous call to the Cambridge cops on his way out of town. But after that on those few occasion when High Street Hank passed some potter’s field he tipped his fingers to his head in Railroad Bill’s memory, his one less hobo king memory.
Labels: brothers under the bridge