Ramblings Of A Retired Tramp
rating: +19+x

abandonedtruck.jpg


We’re too quick to throw things away.

Take this Mack truck, for instance, sitting in the middle of nowhere, rural Sonoma County. From the style of the cab alone, I guess it was made in the 1970’s. Come take a look, the dust, pollen and mold won’t kill you.

The seat’s got springs coming out through the stuffing, but there’s nothing a little bit of thread and fabric couldn’t fix. Windshield’s shot, but what else? The steering column? Still could work fine, for what it is. Tires? They look a bit sad but still could turn. Engine? Heck, if I had the right tools or something to tow it with I could take it over to the elderly, Vietnamese mechanic down in Santa Rosa and pay to have it refitted with a working one from their spread of salvaged trucks out back.

See, this is what I’m talking about. I can’t imagine why someone would abandon this machine, still with parts worth saving, all the way out here, way beyond the highway and just leave it here to die. I’m sick of this world, throwing away good things that still clearly work. Anything could be fixed, even the floor pan. Yeah, my boots are going clear through to the sprigs of weeds below, but imagine if someone welded a steel plate over this. Boom. Fixed! What do you mean that it wouldn’t last long? You have to find a way to make it last long.

Hey….I found documents in the dash. This Mack used to belong to a place called Penderson & Sons Trucking out of San Francisco. Trucking…that reminds me of the first time I ever hit the road, way back in 1988.

-

Eighteen years old, just graduated from high school, and I had no clue what I was doing except that I needed to get to McMinnville, way up in Oregon to work as a counselor at a Boy Scout camp. Back then, I was straight up broke and my parents wouldn’t even cough up the money for a Greyhound ticket, so I had no choice but to hitchhike. There I stood, on the side of Interstate 51, looking like a goddamn idiot sticking out my thumb, watching semi-trucks and station wagons whip by, hard and fast. It took me one hour of just standing there, feeling my legs go weak, before I realized there was no shoulder for anyone to pull over. Turned out that didn’t matter, because a cream semi-truck with British Columbian tags slowed down just long enough for the driver to shout a message.

“Hop in, son!”

Cigarette dangling in his mouth, those aviator shades refracting the light that came in through the rolled-down cab window, you could hardly tell that he was a family man, if it wasn’t for his daughter, a girl about six, seven or so playing with a She-Ra doll in the back. He was asking me the usual questions— name, if I wanted to go further beyond McMinnville, my old high school…yeah, for the whole ride I dropped my entire life story in bits and pieces, like breadcrumbs in a fairy tale. My own father would never do that to a complete stranger; he would cut them off, and shut their soul down with a single sentence of scorn! Turns out the trucker and his daughter had just run a long-distance haul down to San Diego, and were heading home to Vancouver, back across the border. His wife, he said,…well, they were divorced.

“Why exactly?” I blurted out. He took it in stride.

“She’s addicted, son. My ex-wife, I mean,” he told me. “Addicted to pills. The nasty kind, where they force your entire system wide awake, and you flail out without any control. She would go to rehab and come out unchanged, leading to little things that added up to that night. Coming home to see her sprawled out on the carpet, frothing at the mouth, and she would swing at me when I tried to help her…dinners always going uncooked, and me having to do everything by myself….finally had to send my daughter, Evelyn, to live with my own father and mother for the weekends when I was out of town on business trips. Then that evening back in ‘87….Evelyn was attacked by her. She tried to kill her daughter, my daughter! Grabbed a kitchen knife and tried to kill my daughter before the cops showed up.”

I glanced back at Evelyn. She had stopped playing and just sat still on the sleeper bed, watching us talk. And I swear to god, that kid, she had a scar that ran the entire length of her arm. Of course it had healed just enough that if you were passing by, you wouldn’t have caught it, but…it was there. One long, jagged crimson line across skin. My stomach dropped a little when I saw that. How could it be that the mother was quick to throw away her own daughter?

“That’s why I took up part-time trucking,” he said as we drove on, around tight turns, the forests, situated on the slopes of the high snow-capped pinnacles looming ever larger, pines growing taller, more clustered, all packed in the constant layer of mist that hung under the perpetual slate gray skies of the Cascades.

“If you really think about it, son, I couldn’t let the memories of her go. I simply couldn’t. I have the burden to keep them alive, to tell my daughter rather than let her forget and grow up clueless.” I will never forget the sound of him taking a long, quiet drag as we rounded the corner. His eyes had changed behind those aviators, from the loose, casual look that he gave to me to one fixated directly on that road…as if wishing his attention to the road would get him to the destination sooner.

God, what happened to those people, people like the British Columbian truck driver? Oh, sure, there’s still folks around willing to lend a hand, but nowadays the majority only seem to do it for something in return. Yeah, I guess you can say that the truck driver could have easily blown past me, and I would have walked back into Woodland with my tail in between my legs…but he didn’t.

What is it that made him stop to pick me up? To be honest, I struggle to find an answer to such a question. I’m tempted to say that it was from the bottom of his heart, as cheesy as that sounds, but that’s probably not the right answer to that. Maybe it was the love that he felt for that kid standing on the side of the highway. Maybe because I reminded him of some old friend, or maybe reminded him of himself when he was a teenager and took to the road to get places. Or maybe it’s something else completely. But one thing is for certain— he dropped me off at McMinnville with a beaming smile on his face, as if he was watching me go off to school for the first time like I was his son.

-

I didn’t hit the road after that. Not initially, at least. When the week at the scout camp concluded, the camp bought me a Greyhound ticket home. My mind was too wrapped up in all the stuff that happened there, capture the flag games, merit badges, that sorta stuff, so much that I forgot about the truck driver and his daughter. It didn’t mean that they were gone, mind you, just at the back of my mind, untouched.

Soon after I got home, still June of ‘88, I met a girl, Deborah, I believe she was. We had a bunch of things in common—she read books, was well-spoken, and had a penchant for saying how much she helped out the poor at her church. By those standards, you could say I had it set for something meaningful, if it wasn’t for our lunch date together.

Took her out to Richardson’s, an inexpensive but lovely 50’s holdout of a diner halfway across town, on the other side of the Southern Pacific2railroad tracks. It went well, all things considered for a date put on by my dummy eighteen-year-old self. Talked about all sorts of things, mostly things that happened in our old high school. I paid for both of our meals-burgers, french fries, as I recall. She didn't finish hers so she took it with her on-the-go.

We walk out the door, and on the corner, there’s a homeless guy, who’s asking folks for food. What few folks were out on that afternoon were ignoring him. He approaches us, his face stretched wide in the biggest toothless grin under that graying beard and says:

“Hey you two, I feel guilty for begging for food, but I just hopped off of a freight and I got nothing on me to buy lunch…I see there that you have a takeout bag from that restaurant.” I follow his eyes, and what do you know, they are looking at her takeout bag from Richardson’s.

“Deborah, why don’t you give it to the guy?” I said to her, “He looks like he needs it more, I’ll buy you something else later.”

“No, he’s a drug addict. He doesn’t deserve to eat,” she replied, and, before I could stop her, she tossed her to-go lunch into a nearby trash can. By toss, I mean she opened the bag and dropped the food directly in, and then mixed it into the nasty gunk and rotting juices that were in there with her bare hands until it was inedible.

For the record, the guy wasn’t on drugs. And he saw the whole thing, his eyes wide open, blazing with hurt, anguish at seeing that good food go to waste….and she was laughing! Laughing! For what, I don’t know.

I wouldn’t have wound up here, sitting in the dusty cab of a dead Mack in Sonoma if I didn’t feel what I felt and didn’t do what I did next. I saw red. There’s no other way to say it. The homeless guy was still standing there, frozen like a deer in the headlights, paralyzed…like I imagined the trucker’s daughter, Evelyn, on that fateful night when she felt her mother’s hate slash through her arm. Her laugh…cruel, full of malice like I imagined the truck driver’s ex. It wasn’t charming anymore. I felt sick. And angry. Sick and angry.

All I could say at that moment, when that dropped, was:

“I don’t like you anymore.”

I felt myself reach down into my wallet and take out a dollar bill. With shaking hands, I handed it to the guy. Next thing I know, I’m pounding the pavement, dashing home.

My Boy Scout backpack was still there, still loaded with all the goodies meant to go camping. I needed to run. Run somewhere far out of town, live out there on my own for a few days to reflect and come back as some sort of changed guy. I don’t know what I was even thinking during that time. Took my backpack, and decided to raid the pantry and kitchen for food. Grabbed Spam, vegetables, the can opener, dry noodles, and shoved it all in the pack. I heard a voice behind me. It was my father.

“What the hell are you doing, taking food out of the cupboards?!” he barked at me, “I thought you were on a date with Deborah!”

“Not anymor-”

“You’re an idiot, a goddamn idiot, for treating a woman like that—”

I busted out the back door, and my father took off after me. Past a few houses, I could hear his labored breathing grow fainter, and then fall away as I neared the end of the block, but even then, I still ran. I’m not ashamed to say it. I kept on running.

Eventually, I ran so far that I reached the railroad tracks, but when I stopped to rest, my father crashed through the brush behind me. He hadn’t given up! There was the blast of a diesel locomotive’s horn. An Espee3 freight going north was crawling through. Standing there, with my father bearing down on me, and with no time to run further to the highway and hope for someone to pick me up, I had no other choice. I had to get out on this freight train.

The first boxcar I saw had an open door. I decided to take it. Ran full tilt besides the open door, and tossed my pack inside. Then it was my turn. My hands closed around the lip of the boxcar door, and, in that rush of adrenaline, I pushed up with all my might, then rolled in. I’d made the catch! Just in time too, as the train accelerated, and I watched the figure of my father grow smaller and smaller, until he fell off the world completely. Needless to say, I never returned home that day, or in the years after.

Something ignited within my soul that day. I’m not entirely sure quite what. Maybe it was the excitement of my flight from my father or maybe it’s the sting that I still have of remembering my escape. Could I have fixed the relationship with my father…with Deborah? I can’t get you a definite answer for that. Probably not. Could I shut out those memories? I could, but why would I throw away perfectly good learning moments? Like that British Columbian trucker, I’ve got a burden to keep them alive. I have to keep them alive.

They are muddied by three straight decades of spending my time in different worlds, sure. The world of paper shuffling and coughing in an office. The world of passing, emotionless faces that I watched as I stood on the side of a highway. The world of the freight cars dominoing as the Espee local gets underway rolling out of town, and the sheer exhilaration I get wrenching away from the railroad policeman’s grasp and hopping on, just in time. But, as the saying goes, the beauty of the road is that it leaves you with nothing to lose and everything to give.

-

Not too long after I left Woodland forever, I encountered my first hobo jungle4. It was located in the timbers on the border between Washington and Idaho. You see, I was run off by a bull5 earlier that day from a crew change spot on the Burlington Northern6, and dusk was coming down fast. There was no way I was gonna spend the night next to the tracks waiting for a red-eye freight to come through, so I went about trying to find a place just far enough away from the tracks to bunk down but close enough to easily pack up and get running in the morning.

Fortunately I didn’t have to look long, as soon I spotted the faint flicker of a fire and low voices talking behind a grove of trees. As I started walking like the idiot I was, snapping dead branches and crunching over leaves, the voices stopped.

Imagine the incredulous looks on their faces when I finally crashed through the brush into the campfire light, wearing a leftover scout camp shirt and looking like I just wandered off the Wilderness Survival course! They must have been expecting a bull and had pulled out their weapons in anticipation—a wooden spear, pocket knives, switchblades, hell, one of them even had a collapsible hunting rifle aimed directly at my head! In all my years since, I’ve seen folks carry piddly little pocket pistols and sawed-off shotguns, even a carbine once, but it takes true dedication to carry a full-length rifle with you for protection!

“He’s just a kid,” one of them said. He was a weathered, weary old man with a battered straw hat. “Are you a hopper?”

To which I replied yes! And that was all it took. Weapons were slipped back into pockets, and the spear and rifle leaned back against a tree. Before I could protest, they ushered me down on a log around the fire and loaded a plate up with potato and sausage hash, all the full fixins, and told me to eat up. The taste of that hash would be forever seared into my memory—strands of potatoes, crisped by the skillet and the tender, flavorful fat that coated the sausage. To this day, it’s still my favorite dish to make.

“Why are you doing this?” I asked the old man in the straw hat after another guy slipped into our camp, bringing with him a loaf of sourdough bread he swiped from Spokane, “I got my own food!”

“Save it for your further travels, kid,” he replied, “a young guy like you need more calories than us old men….say, how did you end up here anyhow?”

It spilled out of me. I must have spent a whole hour, telling a group of high rollers, junkies, mental ward dumpees, codified vagabounds and probably a murderer or two, about the truck driver, his ex- and his daughter… Deborah and the bum…and last my father, expecting that they would laugh and call me stupid for doing the things I did. But they didn’t.

“My own pa was like yours, except worse,” one of them said, and spat a wad of tobacco into the fire, wiping the juice from his beard with a ragged sack coat sleeve. “He beat my sister and me senseless when he drank too much…that’s why while my sis loped off with some fling, becoming a maiden of the road, I, dug in too deep with my pa’s anger, enlisted the army to fight the Germans. Gave them hell, they returned the favor.” He proceeded to lift his right pant leg, revealing a big chunk missing out of his thigh.

“You know, kid,” he continued, “what’s funny about the road is that it leaves you with nothing to lose, everything to give. So I’d say screw that gal Deborah. Your father too, if it comes to that. They should have realized how good they had it before you dipped out of there.” He angrily trampled a spark that strayed from the fire and slunk off into the night to nods of approval from everyone staying by the fire. If his words were any indication of the future, the flame, the wanderlust in my heart became a blazing inferno, as fierce as the brush fire I witnessed while riding topside on a grain hopper7through rural Tennessee.

Through the last of the ‘80’s till about mid-2010, I traveled all over, on all modes of transportation. Mostly train hopping and hitchhiking-the interstates and mainlines ran deep into my blood. And to make money to keep doing it, I’ve taken up so many jobs, from spending months working on a fishing crew in Alaska to a half-day gig as a soup cook in New York City. During that time, I keep learning a universal truth, and it’s this:

Just like the people that abandoned this truck, folks are too quick to throw good things away. Instead of just a truck or food, like Deborah did, it’s the experiences, memories, people that we waste.

I once got a job, a good, well-paying temporary job, in a popular ice cream shop located in Downtown San Francisco. Name of the place slips me now. My co-workers, college kids, they despised the owner, Rob, I believe that is his name. They wrote him off as some cranky old geezer and put up morbid jokes on their MySpace pages about him, saying that they wished he could die sooner so they’d inherit his shop. They made those same remarks behind his back almost loud enough for him to hear. Rob was grumpy, sure, but he didn’t really deserve it, at least compared to the more horrible bosses I’ve worked with. The Nanuet liquidation warehouse manager comes to mind.

The real reason why Rob was so bitter to the world was because his wife had passed away a year before, leaving him alone to deal with it all. He knew about the shenanigans that went on, but was powerless to stop it. He actually asked me once to help him stop them in exchange for a raise, but since I was trying to line up another job working part-time for a seafood restaurant, I turned him down. I wish I took him up on his request.

One particular evening, he never showed up to the shop to check on us like he always did. Turned out that he had passed away from a heart attack in front of his apartment that night. It seemed like everyone had a change of heart—they were posting pathetic, blatant lies about how much they loved him as a person, the sacrifices that he made to start the business, all that stuff.

Just like what happened as I listened to the British Columbian truck driver’s story and saw Evelyn’s scar…like when I helplessly watched as Deborah taunted and wasted a good bag of food in front of a starving man, I felt sick to my stomach. Sick and angry. Sick at my coworkers for talking crap, wasting their chance to help someone out, angry at myself for blowing my own opportunity to help.

Needless to say, I did the only thing I could do—and that was run. Soon, I found myself stowing away on a ferry across The Bay to Alameda, and then watching out the boxcar door, the moonlight playing across the waters of the Carniquez Strait as I caught the Union Pacific freight bound for Sacramento. It’s those little things, the things we do and then say, that ticked me off, set my soul ablaze, ripped me from what little roots I had and swung me about to see the world all over again.

-

Now to the young folks reading this, is this what made you hit the road?

Figured it as such. It’s the same cycle that leads us to break out. Vanity and selfishness, magnified these days by your Instagram, Facebook, or something. People wasting their lives, getting their constant fix of euphoria, injected by a few pieces of code, making things such as money, looks and status seem like an excuse to hurt and cast others aside: the defenseless, the outsiders, even old friends. People are unable to see how just a little work would keep things all together. Like the clerk at Penderson and Sons who struck off this truck in 2003 because of ….a bad carburetor and expired tags? It doesn’t surprise me anymore. Maybe it’s a little different than I thought. Maybe to be given something, we have to lose something.

Ah, what else is there to say? Oh. Right.

I woke up this morning to find my throat locked up in gunk produced by the Doxorubicin that the doctor gave me for the mass in my thyroid. While I was hunched over the sink, hacking it out, I had an epiphany.

Look. I ain’t gonna lie to you, the life of a tramp is hard, way harder than what books and movies make it out to be. It takes guts, it really does, to hitch rides with total strangers and catch freight trains on the fly, and god forbid if it’s in bad weather!

Times have definitely changed since the day I left the road. Folks simply aren’t doing it much anymore, everyone’s driving now, and rarely stopping to pick us up at that.

The old timers? They’re dwindling, if not gone completely. Most of them caught the train westbound years ago or are slowly rocking in a chair in front of a hospice window, shedding a tear, remembering their old buddies go by.

Those hobo jungles, bustling with folks going every which way and that? Gone the way they came, just a patch of grass by the tracks now.

People have moved on.

I’ve moved on.

But that’s not to say I’m not proud of you, kid. You broke out to run free like I did, all those years ago with Deborah and my father. Much like a lot of the world nowadays, the truck’s a testament to what could have been, a long list of “if only.”

If only we put in the work to make it last.

If only we held it close to our hearts and appreciated the importance of the men that drove it, the people that they carried, the families that they kept afloat.

If only we could find the right person who would keep it running for us until the end of its days.

If only we knew to fix things before they fell forever into disrepair.

If only we could tell and keep the story, even if it were only to share with the stars.

If only we kept it on the road.


-

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License