This a bit from my 100% true story about a time when a friend and I took a cross country freight train tour. The book clocks in at about 40,000 words. Too long to be a short story, and too short to be a novel, or so my editor has told me. What I'm looking for here is some advise and some critiques. As far as advice goes I'll go ahead say that none of my work has been published. I want to change that but I'm not sure how to go about doing that. I think that this book has an audience and a message that speaks to people (younger folks I would say) who might feel somewhat trapped in their everyday routines.
So, fire away, I'm comfortable enough to deal with criticism so don't hold back. I am aware that there are some spelling errors.
Milwaukee and more Chicago.
We have a lot of scenes to shoot today, so we get up and make ready early. Sean's stepmom makes these huge pancakes, puts two of the massive things in front of me. A block of butter melting away, confectioners sugar sprinkled around. I slather the pancakes in maple syrup and dig in. There's too much though, I can't finish it all. I've run out of cigarettes by now, and we need some more foodstuffs and drinks so we walk up to a corner store and resupply. I switch to rolling tobbaco now, it's much cheaper, and I figure I can stretch the stuff longer this way.
When we get back to the house we load all our stuff into the back of Sean's dad's van. He takes us out a ways to this hospital. Sean and I get out say goodbyes and stuff and his dad drives off. We do some shooting out infront of the hostipal then walk over to a stadium not far off. Shoot some more here.
Near the stadium are some railroad tracks. They are sunken down below street-level, graphitti splattered all over the concrete walls. We drop down over the wall and walk along the tracks. Take some more footage down here. A train rumbles past us while we shoot. The conductor is waving at us. I wave back, smiling and stuff. Maybe the train crews out here are more friendly to train riders. It isn't unheard of for crews to sometimes help people out.
One thing I noticed while walking the tracks here is that the rail-lines tend to run through the guts of a city. Refineries, factories, warehouses, lumber yards, these are the sort of things you see. No fancy homes, or skyscaper condominiums here just dingy old houses, tired and crooked with the paint flaking off. We climb up to the street near this bridge crossing over the tracks, a river and some streets. Rusty chainlink fencing along the walk way keeps the bums from rolling off the side and tumbling down onto the streets below.
From the middle of this bridge we can look down over a trainyard. This one is about the size of a football feild, there are three of four strings of traincars. Power on the other end is building a string on the mainline. The bulls are circling the yard in two white vans. There is a lot of activity here, could be hard to sneak in.
At the other end of the bridge is a shady park. We take refuge from the sun, blazing away in this noontime hour. This guy is pushing a cart with icecream and some other frozen snacks. We each give him a dollar and sit down under a tree. I got a strawberry italian ice. It stained my fingers and lips red but the thing was so good I could have eaten another one. Unfortunately the vender had wandered off by the time I finished it. Wash up at a public pool's water fountain.
We're walking down a sidewalk that runs parallel to the rails. Come across an abandoned refinery that'll do well for another scene. There's no fence or anything here so we just set up and do our thing. Just as we're finishing up we hear a train rolling out of the yard. We get up close to the rails, backs against the wall of the refinery so that when the engin passes no one will likely see us.
"Any idea where this train is heading?" Sez me. Dumb question.
The engines steam past us.
"Not a clue, but it's grainers we can ride it."
I shrug and Sean goes up to the rocks. This one is moving a bit faster than the one we caught on the fly in Ohio. To our good fortune it hasn't rained today and the ladder will be dry at least. Sean hands me his backpack, gets along side a grainer, one hand on the ladder, he jumps up and climbs the ladder. The train is picking up some speed.
"Hurry up man, take your bag!"
Shawn snags his pack, I heave my backpack up at him. Lose my footing here on the uneven rocks. The grainer starts to slip away.
"C'mon Jake! You can make this."
I put on some speed. Lungs burning. Reach out for the ladder. Grab hold. Eyes on that bottom rung. Jump. My feet find the rung. I'm clinging to the ladder with both hands now as I look up ahead, the fucking wind peeling the sweat right off my face. Climb up, pull myself around the ladder and into the smallish nook of the grainer.
We settle in for the ride. I roll up a cigarette and watch Milwaukee scroll by. Sean reads for a while then takes a nap. Our train heads east towards Lake Michigan, then along it's shore veers south. Over my head, and the train-noise, I see a pair of aircraft flying in close formation. The two fighterplanes soar over us as they circle back toward the beach.
Milwaukee fades into the horizon. The train gathers speed. All the wind it generates is kicking dandylions up into the air. The space between the traincars creates this kind of wind vortex. It's like a tiny tornado of dandylions whirling madly about 5 feet away from me. I sit and watch it spin for a long time. It was beautiful, and fascinating.
This is a short ride, maybe 3 or 4 hours. We're sinking further into the suburbs of Chicago. When the train slows to a crawl we ditch our packs and hop off. We eat some more shitty burgers a few blocks up. Then we walk over to a Metra Station. There is a bike race going on here. Bunch of people in tights, twisting around parking lots and streets. I watch one of the bikers careen of into some bushes.
We buy some tickets for the train and wait around for a bit. The passenger trains seem to take priority over commercial trains in Chicago so, ideally we're saving ourselves an hour or two here. A guy in a uniform walks through the cars stamping everyone's tickets. I get a kick out of that. Paying for a ride this time around. We'll take the metra to it's final stop downtown. The sears tower looming overhead as we exit the below-streetlevel station. It's a breif walk to an "L" train. We ride the above ground commuter out to the O'hara airport. I watch the sun blazing down over and then behind the rooftops and cityscapes. As the train veers off into a turn up a head the metal sides of the cars go bright orange with setting sun's rays. I watch the various denzions of Chicago shuffle on and off the train.
We sit around at a bus station outside Chicago/O'hara for probably two hours. Most of this time is spent singing bits and pieces of songs or whistling... I sing (badly) "How how how does it feeeelll? To roam the land, like Heart and Twain did? How how how does it feel, a thousand miles closer to hellll."
The next trainyard is still a few miles away, too far for our tired selves to walk. After a while I go inside the bus station, ask a clerk if the line we are waiting on is even running. No. It isn't. Ok that solves that. Two minutes later we're on a bus that should deposit us within a reasonable distance to the yard.
There is a burger and chilidog deal on the way up. Sounds great. We have about 15 dollars left after this meal. We both agree that a small bit of marijuana would be nice to smoke right about now. I go back to the window. The sweaty guy back there comes up and slides the glass to the side.
"What can I get for you?" He sez.
"Do you know where I can find some grass?" I say, all queit so the other people around don't hear.
He freaks a little bit. "I dunno man.."
"C'mon, I know you know someone who knows someone." I could tell by his reaction. Besides that he works in a fast food restaurant, more than likely someone has a bag in their car or perhaps even in their pocket.
"Well... I know maybe down the street at this park.."
"This street here?" He nods. "Is it sketchy? Is it hot?"
"A little sketchy.."
So we walk up to the park. It's sort of dark, but not really very dangerous looking. There are a couple of kids skating some halfpipes. A few people walking dogs. No one who looks like they are trying to sell some grass. As we're walking back toward the trainyard we see a a freighttrain rolling out of town, already too fast to hop.
Back out to the mainroad. Cross eight lanes of near-city nighttime traffic. Sean's got his handbook out. I fancy it now as a sort of bible. Sean is some kind of wandering train-priest trying to conjure up a free ride to somewhere else. The handbook is really something. It guides us over a bridge, around behind a department store, through some weeds and tall grass, along the fence to the back end of the trainyard. The book sez that this is a hot yard, like most in Chicago, and to stay out of sight until the last moment. Every ten to fifteen minutes a vehicle passes along the other end of the brush we're hiding in. I'm wishing I had brought some bug spray. We wait. And wait. And wait some more.
We keep the radio scanner on low, for warning in case someone does spot us here. Aside from the train-crews chattering occasionally we hear that someone has noticed a couple people trying to sell some junk out by the street nearby. Excellent. The bull's will be busy dealing with the possible theives creating a nice diversion for us. We hear that telltale signal, the airbrakes in each car on the mainline screach. We grab our packs and run about fifty yards further up through the brush and when covered along the rocks by the tracks. This train is built of bucket cars and flatbeds with full semi-trailers bolted down on them. We want one of the doublestacked buckets. I give Sean my pack and run up to one. The train is moving at a relaxed jogging speed, so it's an easy mount. I climb up and look down into the bucket. Shit, no floor. Climb down. Take a moment to ready myself. Jump. Ease into a walk. A few flatbeds roll by. I match up with the next bucketcar. The train is starting to pick up speed. Grab hold. Jump up. Climb. Shit! Again no floor.
I jump off, Sean is carrying both packs trying to keep a jogging pace with me on the trains. I try one more bucket. Same story. We'll have to take a flatbed or wait. Let's do the flatbed. I pick one out and match speed with it. No ladders on these fuckers. I get one hand on the floor of the car, about 4 feet off the ground. I jump up and twist to face the car. The other palm on the bed, my legs dangling below. Push myself upward. Swing a leg up. Roll onto the flatbed. Sean tosses the bags up and gets on.
We put our stuff between the wheel wells under the semi and crouch down to hide as best we can. Sean's gripping the radio scanner, turned up to hear over the train noise. We steam out of the yard and under that eight-lane highway.
On the scanner " Ya, I think I saw some feet poking out from under a trailer-garblegarblegarble"
Oh shit. Massive amounts of paranoia sinking in.
The scanner again. "Oh yeah, looks like someone broke into this container here. Must be the pair on the streetcorner."
Are we in the clear?
No. We pass a street crossing. Search light tagging up the length of our train. Fuck. Shit. Hell. Fuck!
"Quick! Hide as best you can!"
Our train barrels past the street crossing.
"Shit dude! They saw us! They definately fuckin' saw us!"
Sean is freaking in a very serious way. I'm panicking too. For sure. But I'm trying to maintain some compossure, don't do anything stupid.
He shouts back towards me "Were they squad cars or pickups? Did you see squad cars?"
"It was an SUV! No Squad car!"
Scanner "Looks like we've got some trainriders here... I'm going up on the interstate."
"Fuck, man! We are royally fucked, dude! We have to get off!"
"No way dude! We're going way too fast!"
"Do you want to go to jail in the south side of Chicago? I sure fucking don't!"
Sean had a good point there. I take a moment to consider my options. Neither of them are looking very good.
Up ahead there is another streetcrossing. More lights pointed at us this time. As the train roars past I hear -PANG!- something bouncing off steel. Fucking pigs are throwing shit at us!
"WHAT THE FUCK? What was that?" I yell.
BAM - another rock slams into the train. A split second later I feel something ricochette off the switchblade in my pocket. Twist my head to the side to watch as it bounces off the side of the train.
"THAT MOTHERFUCKER! FUCKING SHIT JUST HIT MY LEG!"
"Are you ok? What was it?"
"A rock! Those assholes are throwing rocks at us!"
"DUDE! WE. ARE. FUCKED! We have to jump!"
"Shit dude. Just be cool! Fucking relax!"
"Bro if you jump you'll fucking break your arm!"
Just then the train squeals terrifingly and lurches. I grab hold of the underside of the trailer to keep my goddamn balance.
"They're emergency stopping! GO!"
Sean's already flung his shit over the side. He crouches at the edge of the flatbed and drops off the side of the train.
I toss my bag off. Get ready. Jump. Dash across the rocks. Stop. There are headlights pointed down the the tracks way up by the front of the train. I look back. Can't see my pack anywhere. I run back to where I think I might have dropped it. Nothing. Behind me the headlights glare. No flashlights though, not yet at least.
Fuck the pack. I dart into the woods and brush. Deep in there. We seem to be a good ways out of the city. Behind me is a tall chain fence, barbed wire on the top. There is no way I can get around in the scrubs without making noise. Don't make any fucking noise! I am still as possible. Heart is beating frantically. I have only once been more afraid in my life than at this moment. The other time I was sure I was going to die.
The train sits there for an eternity. I’m focusing on keeping my breathing as soft as possible. Not making any movement at all. I can hear the crunch of footsteps on the rocks. Oh fuck. A light scans over the the wooded area ahead of me. The footfalls slowly fade the other way.
Slowly time moves on while I remain as still as can be. I could be seriously fucked. Say they nabbed Sean. All I know about where I am is that I'm somewhere south enough of chicago to not see any skyscrapers. I have no railmaps, or handy books to tell me how to sneak into trainyards. I have no phone. Hardly any money. And the pigs might have grabbed my pack too so there goes all my food and water. A train screams past going back into Chicago.
Finally the train powers up and rolls away. I wait a little bit more. Crawl up to the tracks. No headlights. I peak back the other way. Nothing. I'm still not taking chances. I slowly make my way back towards Sean, quiet as can be, still vigilant for footsteps or vehicles along the tracks. Eventaully I think I hear a short whistle. I stop. Queit. Than another short whistle. It must be Sean. Thank fucking god. We meet up by the rocks, spend a half hour looking for my pack and rejoicing the fact that we're not injured or arrested.
We finally do find the pack. It rolled down into some brush when I tossed it. Sean's radio scanner is busted. Seems he had it clipped to the outside of a pocket.it fell when he he the ground running. Snapped the battery cover off. We'll still be able to use it, but he'll have to be careful not to drop the batteries now.
Sometimes if you can't get any cherries or peaches. You settle for peanuts and eat them because it's better than not eating.