Chris was my road-dog. We’d hitched to New York and back earlier in the year. The warm weather was running out. A harsh Minnesota winter was lurking near-by; time for a road-trip.
We made our plans, and shared our weed, with a couple of other guys from our circle of survivors. We were going to The Big Easy. The other two guys, Tooth and Mike, wanted to come with us.
Tooth had just done a two year bit in some joint back-east somewhere, and was road material. The other guy, Mike, was a large, pasty faced queen who just jiggled at the thought of going to Nawlins- Land of the Drag Queens. Me and Chris shared a ” Oh, HELL NO!” look at the thought of the four of us on the side of the road.
Trains. It was the only way. And Mike was Tooth’s friend, and Tooth’s problem. We weren’t going to baby-sit.
Chris was a black guy from Astoria, Queens-an Italian neighborhood. He didn’t speak ebonics, never learned the language. We clicked when we met, and had been running together, like a well oiled machine, ever since. He’d never done the trains, so this was my dance.
I laid out how, and where and when. That night the four of us met by the yard. I had a fire going when they got there. Mike brought only what I told him, designer of course. Whatever. He hadn’t started bitching yet, even though we were sitting on large rocks around a fire. There was hope yet.
I had picked a spot along the rails where the trains stopped to switch tracks. No way was I going to deal with “dough-boy” trying to catch a moving train. Nothing to do but wait.
My street name was Soldier. Tooth wanted to know why, so I told him.
Chris’s nic was….Chris. His middle name.
Tooth, he with one gold tooth, needed no explaination.
Mike wanted a handle. We didn’t have the heart. Maybe down the road.
Tramps. The age of the hobo is gone. People who travel by freight train are called tramps. Mike said he’d been one all his life. Not the same kind of train. A new handle was born: Mike was now Tramp.
We had Thunderbird for the thirst, and Marlboros for the habit. No rolling tobacco on this trip, we were livin’ large. Until the train hit the truck.
Coming into some farming community in southern Minnesota where the dirt-road railroad crossing met the highway. A line of vehicles at the intersection waiting their turn to merge into the highway stream. Chris was looking out the door of the box when it happened. A semi hauling a flatbed of eaves was last in line, and closest to the tracks.
Chris turned back to me and said,
“Soldier. Check it out. Doesn’t that flatbed look like it’s on the tracks?”
As I started for the door, the engineer hit the air-brakes and all four of us where thrown, stumbling, to the back of the box. As one, we dashed to the door in time to see the collision.
On impact, the flatbed shot up at a ninety-degree angle. Suspended in the air, eaves flying cleanly over the cab and landing on the car in front of it. Two train cars passed under it before gravity won out, and the trailer slammed down into the gap between the second and third box-car.
Brakes smoking, wheels screeching on metal, air- horn blasting, the 30mph train started to slow. The rig, trailer and cab, were scraping down the railroad right-of-way, wedged in for the ride The trucker opened the passenger-side door, lept to the ground, and performed an impressive sky-diver’s roll, ending up on his feet.
Two hours passed. Emergency vehicles from every department on the scene. The trucker walked away without a scratch. The driver of the car wearing the eaves refused to go with the E.M.T. s. He was treated on-scene for a sore neck. His roof caved in, but not his skull.
Four tramps on a train going no-where soon.
By the time we rolled into Kansas City Tramp and Tooth had had enough of life on the rails. They decided to hitch-hike and we agreed on a meeting place in the French Quarter.
Salt and Pepper. Me and Chris. Road dogs. We rolled better that way.
We chugged into Nawlins two days later. The other two hadn’t made it yet.
This writing isn’t about New Orleans. Been there, done that.
We stayed for a week. Never saw the other two…ever again.
We found out why when we blew back into Minneapolis and dealt with the death threats.
News traveled on the whisper-stream faster than we could get back to our streets. Tramp and Tooth were picked-up by a trucker in Arkansas. Tramp made a pass at him. The driver reached down next to his seat, drew a large caliber revolver, and shot him in the head. He was already dead when Tooth grabbed him by the collar, threw the door open, and they both flew, crashed and rolled out of the moving rig. The driver didn’t even slow down as his tail-lights disappeared into the night. No traffic, no witnesss. Tooth became as much of a ghost as if he’d died there with Mike. He sent word north and was never seen again.
Mike. Not Tramp,ever again. He died as Mike.
The gay community blamed Chris and I for his death. Death threats came from the “street gays”: the hustlers and drag-queens who made thier living on the avenue.
We stepped up, stood up, never backed down. Made our peace with that tribe of survivors. Life went back to it’s normal shade of pain.