June 5, 2008
Here’s the recent sfbg cover story on freight hopping writers and photographers…
Outside of a small Central Florida town, I hopped my first freight train in spring 1993, in a place that seemed even then to be somehow outside of time. My first train sat on a siding behind a drive-in theater along old Highway 301, among the pines of old black and white photos of turpentine camps and prison work crews. Under a southern moon, I battled mosquitos and listened to a chorus of frogs in the swamp that must have once been heard by the very men who built the railroad and I waited there so impatiently on the porch of a grainer car, as if on the threshold of adulthood itself, for the train to carry me to somewhere else.
As the 90’s ushered in a new era of gentrified, cookie-cutter, chain store cities, I continued looking for authenticity wherever I could find it, criss-crossing the country several times on hundreds of freight trains. Today, I still think about that place out of time, and when I’m sick of computers and phones and NPR news and everything else, I find myself heading to the train yard. In new works that seem eerily timed to headlines announcing impending US financial collapse, prolific writer William T. Vollmann and photographer, Mike Brodie have headed there, too, suggesting that a resurgence of popular culture interest in train hopping stories is somehow a barometer of public dissatisfaction as well.
The “somewhere else” I thought I wanted to go on that first train ride probably looked a lot like the romantic universe encapsulated in the Polaroid photos of his train-hopping friends that Mike Brodie, aka The Polaroid Kidd takes. Brodie’s photos, posted on his website Ridin’ Dirty Face.com, depict a sort-of hobo-topia where packs of grubby kids (and dogs!) play music, share food, and forage in the ruins of post-industrial America together, while traveling together from town to town on freight trains and homemade river rafts. Everyone’s young and good-looking and, conspicuously, there is no one around who appears to be over 25. As my first train left the yard that long ago day, I sang Johnny Cash songs out loud, because, at 19, I wished my life was an epic country song. Similarly, the subjects of Brodie’s pictures wear suspenders and fedoras and patched-up, oversize suit coats, as if they walked out of newsreels from the Great Depression. In Brodie’s “somewhere else”, though, the Depression is glamorous. In one of the most charming – and possibly most emblematic – photos in Brodie’s show at SF Cameraworks, a young woman stands in the doorway of a rickety shack with a yard full of chickens pecking at her feet. The image at first glance seems almost lifted straight from Walker Evans’ classic photos of 1930’s austerity in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Except in Brodie’s photo, the light is sensual, the mood somehow humid –summertime — and the woman is, incongruously, wearing a beaded ballroom gown.
Brodie’s photos, in fact, seem to depict a longing for a world uncomplicated by money or its absence – an aesthetic nostalgia for a time when no one had any money – and had, perhaps, more integrity without it. Yet Brodie’s images of romanticized destitution have, quite ironically, found their way to the Louvre and become high priced art objects themselves. Frankly, I find it creepy that art collectors will pay top dollar for highly aesthetic portraits of cute – and apparently penniless – teenage, punk waifs, staring guilelessly with wide eyes our of dirt-smudged faces into the camera. Yet, curiously, Brodie’s photos have become so valuable just as the country stands on the edge of the kind of Great Depression they romanticize. While Brodie – the winner at age 22 of the 2008 Baum Award for Emerging American Photographers – is highly talented and his photos are certainly collectable for their own sake, the buzz about Brodie’s subjects suggests that the art world is weary of itself and willing to go to as great lengths as the trainhopping kids themselves in its own search for authenticity. The Great Depression to come is, on some level, longed for.
Despite sudden popularity, Brodie’s own motives for his work seem to be a sincere effort to celebrate his community. “I just want to spend the next couple of years traveling around, following the warm weather and documenting the train-hopping youth of America,” says Brodie in a recent interview, and that joy of young friendships and the camaraderie of the road come through in his work. In one soon-to-be classic photo, three train hoppers are shot from the waist down on a moving train, three sets of rolled up trousers exposing dirty legs hanging off the train with the gravel railbed and tracks a blur below. In the center of the photo a can of beans with a spoon sticking out of it is being handed up from the left of the photo to another hand reaching down from the upper right. The motion evokes a sort-of tramp reenactment of The Creation of Adam and the meeting of the hands on the can of beans gives the photo its emotional punch. Though the young legs look straight out of Little Rascals, the image is timeless, as poignant and enduring as summer itself. When Brodie’s photos, like this one, escape from the self-consciousness of his staged portraits, they seem to effortlessly capture the exhilaration of being young and on a freight train with your whole life seemingly ahead of you. The picture in this show of the kid hanging off the back of a moving train by one tattooed arm may be bought, but the middle finger salute the kid triumphantly gives to the camera says the joke is on the collector who has to pay for it.
That the kid giving the finger will likely one day resemble William T. Vollmann in Vollmann’s new train hopping memoir, Riding Toward Everywhere, is a joke played by time on all of us. As the book begins, Vollmann finds himself nearing 50, recovering from a broken pelvis, and too hobbled to any longer catch moving freights. Without even a fedora, Vollmann’s humbly cowers around the perimeter of the train yard carrying his only fashion accessory, his trusty orange bucket (“One could sit on it, carry things in it and piss into it”), while contemplating his own life’s narrowing options. “I hope that as what I get diminishes thanks to old-age, erotic rejection, financial loss, or authority’s love taps, I will continue to receive it gratefully.” Like a veteran pitcher who has lost some zip on his fastball, though, Vollmann gets by on guts, his vitality seeming to flow from an ornery and uncompromising hatred of authority unmatched by young Brodie. “The activities described in this book are criminally American,” Vollmann states in a disclaimer. In an increasingly controlled and uptight America where “year by year the Good Germans march deeper into (your) life” Vollmann holds onto the hope that the freight train can still help him find a hole in the net.
Vollmann includes 20 or so pages of his own photos, but, in sharp contrast to Brodie’s photos, none of them feature anything you could really call pretty – except perhaps the snapshot of a friendly waitress in Wyoming, whose inclusion here only underscores the loneliness and desperation Vollmann finds on the rails. Vollmann’s camera finds cardboard camps in the weeds and toothless tramps, stern rail cops and racist graffiti under rail bridges. For Vollmann, the train yard represents a collection of failed possibilities. In a boxcar heading from Salinas to Oakland, Vollmann finds an old hobo moniker from La Grande, OR written on the wall and he spends the long boxcar night, contemplating a woman he once loved who lived in La Grande and what might have been if they’d stayed together. In the morning light through the boxcar doors, looking out over “cornfields and the half-constructed houses of our ever-swarming California,” Vollmann mourns “not merely my past but the vanished American West itself where I would have homesteaded with my pioneer bride.”
Well-versed in the lore of rail hopping, Vollmann goes to places like Spokane, WA and Laramie, Wyoming in search of the hobo jungles of today’s American West. However, where proud Wobblies and tramps once cooked up a mulligan stew and waited to catch out, Vollmann today finds only a police lineup of blown out drunks and SSI recipients. Free to roam the rails under that big Western sky, they still seem as herded and docile as those last few sad buffalo now living out their days at the end of Golden Gate Park.
As in his last book, Poor People, the somewhat incoherent interviews Vollmann records with these subjects seem meant to stand in for real sociology. While the elliptical conversations do give a somewhat impressionistic take on what life on the rails is like, Vollmann’s subjects are hardly representative. Like Brodie, Vollmann is in thrall to a particular aesthetic, but Vollmann seems committed to sensationalizing the ugliest aspects of the rails, obsessing over swastika tags and crude drawings of women’s genitalia scrawled by bums on boxcar walls. While spending much of the book looking for the FTRA, a half-mythical hobo gang whose members supposedly will “kill you for $5 in foodstamps”, Vollmann conspicuously fails to mention possibly the largest population on the West Coast train lines — undocumented Latino farm workers. In my own experience hopping trains, I’ve shared food, water, and a sweet sense of humanity beyond language with such laborers many times. (Just last October, when I got off a train that stopped at the bridge over the American River in Vollmann’s hometown, Sacramento, I looked back to see five Latino guys carrying their belongings in Safeway plastic bags, scurrying up the embankment to get on the train before it started moving again toward Stockton.) Their presence on the rails is so great that I’d venture to say that if train cops actually tried to stop them from riding, an apple would cost five bucks, because there’d be no one to pick them.
Still, despite self-consciously labeling himself a “fauxbeaux”, the National Book Award winner gets most details of train hopping right. Insider safety tips – don’t forget to put a rail spike in the boxcar door so it can’t slam shut on you! – are well-represented and Vollmann is especially good on the sights, sounds, and feelings of actually being on the train. He captures perfectly that indescribably victorious moment when your train is finally leaving the yard and it starts to accelerate just as you pass the cursed patch of weeds and litter where you’ve been hiding from the yard bull for 24 hours. The book is exhilarating when Vollmann, the old pro, simply lays back and describes what he sees out of his boxcar door.
Unfortunately, Vollmann, it turns out, doesn’t really have even a relatively short book’s worth of train hopping stories. After the excitement of the handful of train rides described early in the book, Vollmann starts to pad the book’s page count by dusting off other writers from the past and their takes on The Road. Jack Kerouac, Jack London, and Ernest Hemingway are, predictably, quoted at length here and Mark Twain’s raft on the Mississippi, of course, makes a guest appearance. Vollmann’s book, it turns out, is a lot like a freight train ride itself: in the beginning its really exciting and seems like it could be going anywhere, but after awhile it starts moving so slowly that you can’t wait to get off!
Yet, Vollmann’s book still has something to say about the search for real freedom — about its elusiveness and the price of searching for it. “And we flee in search of last summer or next summer, but there’s no harm in it if we know all the time it’s only a shadow show.” Somewhere between the eternal search for next summer and the eternal search for last summer is found the ache that Vollmann feels in his bones as he struggles to climb aboard a boxcar. In the years between the kid that Brodie photographs hanging off the back of speeding freight train and the incoherent drunk living by the tracks that Vollmann interviews there are the cherished bits of freedom snatched from razor-wired trainyards and robot train cops — the view through the boxcar door of elk at sunrise or the cold water in the trackside creek in the middle of nowhere Montana; the experiences so rare and true that mere images of them are worth thousands in galleries. The holes in the net are rare these days. I think often of that long ago first train ride and I think about that place out of time. It is a place seen in my favorite photo in Brodie’s exhibition at SF Cameraworks. In the picture, there are seven kids photographed out of the rear window in the back of a pickup truck, rolling down a flat, prairie, Middle-American road at dusk. Hair is blowing all around in the wind, but one guy on the left of the photo is bent over in cool concentration, rolling a smoke, as a warm yellow sunlight, the very color of nostalgia floods everything in the photo. Whether you’re Mike Brodie, 22, or William Vollmann, 48, or myself, just now at 35, you can’t help it; you want to live in this photo forever.