Box Cars

We stood on the concrete platform made for people like ourselves who climb into commuter trains the way zombies move across graveyards in B movies. On the far track, a hot shot freight train, one with priority over other traffic, made the wind windier and the cold colder. It had a long consist of cars that seemed endless. I hardly remembered how many engines made up the power at the front, it’s been so long. I know it was a hot shot freighter because the conductor told me two days ago on Tuesday that crap happens. These hot shots make our train late. Amtrak comes second, but not this time. Crap happens. Being third priority on a two priority system.

The line of rattling and squealing cars moved slow enough that any writing along the sides could be read in plenty of time. I guess because it was a hot shot, it could go as slow as it wanted since it had such a high priority. If it had all this time to go slow, why was it a priority? Even the small warnings of hazardous material could be read; things you never want to know about that is moving past your house. Liquid petroleum gas, molten sulfur, phosphoric acid, acrylamide (whatever that was), and creosol girders. I got the distinct indication we should not stick around in a derailment.

But, we were strong. We could stand against all this wind and threats from passing tanker cars. Us brethren commuters might even edge closer to the yellow caution strip, that trimmed the edge of the platform warning us of peril, in hopes it would make our commuter train come faster and get away from the danger passing us. It was cold and windy standing here out in the open. Makes a person want to have a Scottish whisky, an English stout, or a Russian vodka. Maybe even some American gin as a chaser. And, dark. Come and go in winter is always dark.

But, I could see plenty because the bright platform lights, hanging from the blue awnings or perched on tall black poles, kept back the impending dark. Instead of reading tanker car warnings, I wished the light gave off more heat. The cold wind made me squint so I couldn’t see well despite the lights, only well enough to know I wished I didn’t have to worry about tanker cars.

This man I had seen before, but not regularly, stood one man down and one woman back from me. I noticed him because I always scan the milling crowd at my trying my back. You never know about lunatics and pushers. Crowds give me the nervous impression I could be suddenly busy trying to recall life events other than sitting on a commuter train as that same train bore down on my fragile existence.

He looked anxious. Unnaturally so. More so than all of us who wanted to get out of the cold. I still wondered why it got cold when I was enjoying my summer. Some years, the humid heat lasted until I was a wilted prune. I know the cold is coming and I’m ready. Some years, I enjoy summer until I find myself standing on a train station platform coatless with a cold wind cutting through my shirt and wondering where summer went. Sometimes, it’s the same year.

How could anyone miss this guy on my right. He stood tall over everyone, but didn’t have the bulge to compensate for his height. He had a long unshaven face, possibly hooked permanently into a sad visage. He was always one of those impeccably dressed men, one of the few who starched his collar, I’m sure. Today, he wore a brown cardigan sweater too big for him, soiled jeans, and sneakers that weren’t white anymore. I got to thinking he didn’t have a good day.

Boxcars, flats, tankers, and something with a mesh of girders sprouting upward to hold something that was not there, past us in steady procession. I didn’t say anything to anybody. I didn’t want to start something. The cardigan man used to be dressed in dark business suits and white shirts. He kept his tie knotted close to his neck even on evening trains going home. Appearance was necessary all the time. But, not tonight. I wonder if they’re calling for rain tomorrow? Cold enough for snow. I’d notice it if I saw a snowflake, despite the darkness.

One boxcar rumbled by with its sliding side door slid open. It was empty. At least it’s empty now. Anything in it would have fallen out otherwise, maybe already did. It didn’t matter except to this guy. It got his eyes got wide and his face opened up with a draw down of his chin. I couldn’t help not looking behind me. He made me nervous. He puckered his lips as if kissing someone, maybe it’s called pursed. How come no one noticed him, but me? They’ll all wondered later what they missed and I wondered why I was the only one to notice.

Here comes another boxcar with an open door. A lot of these cars coming past us empty. What’s up with all these empty train cars? A downward trend in the economy? Man, I hope I don’t get laid off or moved to some other department.

As this empty, opened box car approached us, the man on my right made his move. Suddenly, he slid around the woman in front, stepped between myself and the man next to me, and jumped from the yellow warning strip. Right off the platform where it was safe. Away from us who were no threat. Onto shiny steel tracks where big heavy trains rolled past, like the one in front on the far track. Man, I hope he doesn’t do something stupid that causes our train to be late like getting hit or run over.

I can just see this guy standing in the tracks to commit suicide. Then, some hero would jump down to rescue him. Next thing you have is a halt to all rail traffic and us that much more standing out in this cold. We’ll be caught explaining heroism and what were we doing in the meantime.

But, he didn’t stand still. He didn’t wait for anything, not even a hero. At least no one attempted to be one. Instead, he made an intercepting run for the open boxcar door that was about to past us. This guy ran fast in that cardigan and tennis shoes. Maybe the freight cars were going slower than I thought. In any case, he met the open door almost perfectly. Almost. Right in front of me.

His foot slipped on the steel railing. A gasp all at once. Well, most of us, anyway. At least those of us who didn’t turn away. We all thought we’d see him cut into pieces by the heavy wheels of the boxcar like the razor blades they use on the Emergency Channel to cut people open. A gory film in front of us, but real.

Desperately, he slammed both his hands into the open box car door for balance grabbing the floor and door jam to momentarily steady himself. He had one last chance. With his momentum, the train’s movement, and one good jump he landed most of his torso inside the boxcar. Clawing and crawling, he scrambled all the way inside and rolled over on his back laying there staring at who knows what.

He made it. Everyone seemed to say this at once. I didn’t. I didn’t think he’d make it. ‘Course, I always guess wrong and I’m always plotting a trend into the wrong direction. But, this guy made it, even if we didn’t think so at first. At least I didn’t.

“I took graduate classes with that guy,” said some guy on my left. I didn’t look hoping it wasn’t me he talked to. “We even presented our thesis together.”

All right, so here we are watching this guy trying to be Box Car Willie and now this guy I won’t look at is talking to me. We never talked to each other, except when the train was way too late. I hope this talking is not a trend. I didn’t predict this trend.

“He thought with a masters degree he’d get a promotion. He told me they promoted someone else who had no degree. Political reasons, I guess.”

“Maybe he screwed up,” I said. Why did I respond to someone I wouldn’t even look at?

“I used to work with that guy,” said some other man coming up on my left. I had to look this time, but all I noticed was the comb over. Despite the elongated strands, his bald scalp looked blue from the cold. He had a jowl that became his neck.

I don’t think I’d want to work with a guy who just leaped across train tracks to risk his life climbing into an empty box car that still moved. I had a good view of things standing on the edge of the platform. But, I wasn’t jumping off like that other man. I shouldn’t have questioned his work ethic.

“He never screwed up. Too dedicated. Good worker, but always a little strange,” said the train hopping guy’s co-worker who moved up to stand beside me. Why is he talking to me? I guess ‘cause I glanced at him. “I remember he had three teenage daughters and a wife all of whom had to call everyday. They wouldn’t let him alone. He told me he grew up with a mother and two sisters, but no father or brothers. I guess eventually all that estrogen just got to him. Hell, he lasted longer than me.”

I knew much more than I wanted to know about Box Car Willie, as I decided he should be called in want of his real name, which no one seemed to know. I felt for anyone dealing with all that estrogen. But, I wasn’t getting involved. People bite. I didn’t want to know anymore about Willie. All those women should have let him alone. I can understand enough not to be involved.

“Women nag and criticize and push you. Sometimes the sex just ain’t worth it.”

I think this guy next to me will be the next one to jump off the platform. At least, I wish he would and leave me alone.

“I bet he lost his job,” said the man I wouldn’t look at. I didn’t turn around. I wished people would stop talking to me.

“Probably did,” said the co-worker. “His company didn’t do well in quarterly earnings. I hear that woman who got promoted over him botched a contract bid. But, she kept her job. I’d imagine the crap he’d have to put up with in a family full of females. All that pressure and no support. That high pitch whine of women yelling at him making him feel like he was a loser. Man had a lot of courage to put up with those women that long.”

“All right. This is what we’re going to stop doing. That’s blaming everything on the women of that man’s life,” said some woman to my right with a purple scarf turned around her neck like a noose. She happened to be the one Box Car Willie walked past on his way to an adventure. How can she talk through the scarf’s fabric? She had an OK shape, not overly pudgy or wicked with the thin eyebrows and thick lipstick. “What we need to do is tell the authorities what this guy did.” She started punching numbers on her cellular. Each time it made cute little beeping sounds. Cute to her, not to me. She had long, dark red finger nails. I never figured out how women managed things like a cellular or a keyboard with long fingernails. Her nails could have had blood on them, for all I knew. Women always like things the red color of blood. She looked to be hitting that middle age section of age we were all at and she punched that helpless cellular like it was our fault.

In front of us, the train cars started to slow. Man, that woman was fast. She managed to stop a freight train with her cute, beeping cellular. Maybe the purple woman was right. No, I don’t think so. I wonder how Box Car Willie was going to stay warm.

“They call it a catch out, what he did.” A new man said from somewhere in the back of the crowd; his voice deep and gravely. Smoker?

I had to turn to look for him and he stood right behind me. So much for my hearing perception. He looked at me.

“It means someone who hops on a freight train.” He had gray. A trimmed beard, thin hair on his head swept straight back. I’ve got more head hair, but no beard. The beard would be warm.

“What’s it called when he hops off?” I had to say something. We were looking right at each other an instance apart. I hope I didn’t have bad breath, but why do I care with some stranger?

“Stupid if the train’s moving. Arrested if he gets caught. Mostly, getting off, I’d think.”

“I guess we won’t know either way,” I said. I gotta stop being curious. Talking to other commuters doesn’t work. I turned back to look for my commuter train. I needed a ride home like I needed a dry martini or a straight bourbon. Amanda liked margaritas, but she’s my ex now.

“Well, the emergency dispatcher was going to try and call someone. But, I don’t know if he’ll do anything.” Purple Woman had a pitch of voice like nails across chalk board. Well, maybe not that bad; anyway my attraction diminished.

As the Miss Tell-Everyone-Everything started telling us something we weren’t listening to, the consist of cars jumped. Each coupler, where the knuckle joints joined the cars to make the train a train, let out a sequence of bangs. They were headed to a faster beat. The line started picking up speed and I think all of us were grateful. We feared an investigation and standing out in the cold that much more. I’m glad the guy got away clean. My cheeks were growing too rosy.

“Excuse me,” said the gravel voice man behind me. I stepped to the right; he moved to my left.

Still looking in his direction, I saw another empty box car coming down the line with the sliding door open. The consist of cars had not reached the previous speed and I didn’t think things should be happening like this again. I suddenly remembered a decade ago with a Church of God preacher. He called people with a need for prayer to come forward in front of his congregation. Some went. I didn’t even, if I did need some kind of group prayer.

This guy, who formerly stood behind me, didn’t hesitate to get in front of this crowd. He placed himself on the yellow warning strip, that meant don’t go no further, and took off across the steel tracks. Like a sprinter, but much slower and older. Faster, the train picked up speed. Was it going faster than before to get away from this man? He took a longer looping route to intercept the door of the open box car. Before the box car was coming at me. Now, he and it were in front of me. He had long legs and I had an open mouth that didn’t say anything, like before. De javu.

Well, get on or quit, I wanted to say. Someone yelled for him to stop. I wished I didn’t have such a good view. I never recovered from the near miss of the previous fellow. The pick up speed of my heart beat let me know I didn’t want to maintain memories of amputated and crushed body parts. I needed the memory space to remind me not to wear the same tie everyday.

He latched one hand on the edge of the doorway and took a leap. It had to be a leap of faith, at least we all thought so, even if it was a cliché. But, he was smoother than the previous guy and taller. His legs swung in fluid motion up into the door way and into a standing position. Pretty agile for an old guy. At least he showed more experience at climbing into open box cars than the other fellow.

Box Cars, Page 9

“What did you say to him?” Miss Nosy asked me. How can she breath through that purple scarf?

“Nothing.” I’m not the preacher telling everyone to run for the nearest open box car. Hey, didn’t these people see the tanker cars labeled with molten sulfur and phosphoric acid?

“What’d he say to you?” Here comes another man accusing me of being a renegade leader. This one on my right with a wide brim, green felt hat and along drooping nose. In cahoots with Purple Woman?

“I don’t know. Nothing.” Short term memory was always my problem. “The guy’s nuts like the other man.”

Great, I thought. Now, I’m the one giving conversation. People are talking to me. I’m going to end up frozen here like a sausage in a freezer. All I wanted was to stand here quietly until my train arrived, but now I’m the leader of the nut squad. The freight train cars picked up speed. Where in the hell was my commuter train? The second Box Car Willie stood in the open box car door fading into the distance staring at everyone. Now, he was gone.

“It didn’t do any good calling the first time,” the woman said. “Someone should know about all this.” Her long brown hair danced in her face from the train’s gust of wind. She was not quite my height. She did not pull her hair away and I wanted to cut it off.

“No one got hurt. No harm done.” I wonder if anyone else is going for another box car. I felt no temptation to follow the two strange men and risk missing my stop later down the line. It looked pretty cold riding in an open box car. It’ll be dark further down the line. I wonder if either of the men thought about that.

“I wonder who else is going for it,” said the green hatted man. The left side of me decided to remain silent.

“One of you men should have done something. I’m gonna tell our conductor,” said Purple Woman.

“I’ll hold my breath,” said the green hatted man. Purple Woman was in the minority. This is where I thought my leadership of the nut squad should end before I became reluctant leader of the confrontation squad.

I could be that strong to save people from doing the wrong thing and impress women. I proved it when my high school friend Donald and I walked across a railroad bridge because neither of us could get girls. Girls were always looking for boys of adventure. Donald and I didn’t meet anymore after our bridge walk, but some girl let me touch her nipples and the inside of her bare thighs. Maybe Donald went back to the bridge alone. Anyway, he disappeared. Just like the men on the box cars. I hope they don’t get caught because some people deserve freedom and adventure, even if that does make them a little nuts.

I’m not a hero and I don’t do adventure. I can’t get girls anymore. Hell, the wife I had left for an adventure with some other man because I “was boring“. But, I’m not crazy enough to jump on a box car when it’s moving. I’ll just stay here waiting for my ordinary commuter train. I’ll stand here with these other people. We’ll wait together like every evening and morning standing in silence.

The hot shot freight train picked up speed, never meaning to slow down again while passing a pile of cold commuters. With the train, went my opportunity to leave on it. Just like the Box Car Willies left me.

One more empty box car flew by. No chance anyone would jump on it, at least no one sane. No one could run that fast on the blue gravel stone feeding the railroad bed with firmness. At least, I hoped no one tries. Surely, there’d be a mishap and we’d be stuck out here in the cold.

I remember my grandfather’s stories. The one who died when his heart exploded in his chest. He died with dignity, at least my grandmother said so after the funeral. I guess because he died quick. Maybe dying with dignity is why I remember what he told me that year he died, whatever year that was. I hope I die with dignity, but probably won’t like most people.

As a kid, Grandpa lived in a clapboard house with a roofless back porch facing the railroad tracks. He told me that on hot summer days, he’d sit on the edge of the porch and chew on a piece of watermelon rind. Few scraps made it into their trash. When a freight train went by, he’d see the white and black faces of men flash past staring out of open boxcar doors. Their eyes followed him, beckoning to trade places, maybe wishing for a piece of his watermelon rind. None got off near his house because of the downhill grade. But, his grade school friend Clayborne knew them, the hoboes. He lived on the other side on the uphill grade where the trains went slower.

“Despite our mothers’ warnings that we could get hurt from homeless, traveling men,” Grandfather told me, “no one ever got hurt.” My grandfather talked about the distance between the town community and train hoboes. “The town stayed put forever and the tracks never stayed put longer than the next train out,” he said.

“I could have gone with them, if I wanted,” he told me more often as his memory failed. “I could have had an adventure. Instead, I never visited Clayborne where hoboes got off. He came to my place and told me about them. He told me the traveling stories they’d tell and how their sour, burning taste of liquor made him feel good. Hearing things second hand never works. But, I never went there. I stayed put. Clayborne didn’t. He left before high school ended. He went on a westbound passenger train. I knew he died in the War because his mother threw the flag from his coffin onto the railroad tracks where it got cut up by train wheels. People who ride the rails have more purpose and drive than those of us who stay put forever in the same place. But, sometimes it gets them killed. I’m not afraid to die.” He died a week later.

In my fifties, I have finally decided to disagree. Maybe because I won’t change at this point. There’s something to be said about sameness. You know what’s going to happen. It’s like people with AIDS or cancer. However, bad, you know what you’ll die of, about when, and definitely how. In its finality, I think you become calm. It may be long and painful, but it’s inevitable and purposeful.

Sometimes it’s better to relax than always being on the go. Like the two men who leaped onto the boxcars. They’re in hobo land. Nothing will be the same again for any of us. Maybe they’ll jump off when the train slows down again. It doesn’t matter. I hope I don’t see them again. People’ll think of me as some kind of leader if I associate with them while standing on a cold train station platform made of concrete so the cold seeps up through the ankles as I wait for a commuter train that’s late.

It’s best to stay away from too many adventures. It’s bad enough having grown children who don’t respect you because your job is not exciting or a wife who complains that you don’t make enough money and who left you for someone who does. It’s bad enough not having the courage to jump on an empty box car and get away for good or even stand in front of a group of people who want to give you a good prayer. Worry can drive a person to an early grave.

I don’t need adventure if I got a job. It’s the cold I need. It lets me know I’m still alive and not some dead wood zombie shuffling back and forth to work. I feel the cold. The cold is here enveloping me like a wet blanket that siphons off my body heat. It keeps me awake and prepares me for sleep when I get on my warm train. That’s the best sleep. Slipping from cold to warm.

The cold brings sensation that I could be a good nut squad leader, if I wanted. One who tells his men to go for the adventure and grab the women’s attention. I’d be a good leader and tell everyone this joke I know.

From across a busy street, this man called Harry saw a commuter train stopped at his station. Figuring it was his, he ran through the traffic almost getting hit and causing at least one fender bender. But, he made it. It was fortunate for him because the drivers would have made sure he missed at least the next train.

As the commuter train picked up speed from the station, Harry realized he was on the express and it wouldn’t stop at his station.

“I need to get off at Rippon,” he complained to the conductor.

“We don’t stop there.”

“I know.”

“Well, if you knew, then why did you get on?”

“I was in a hurry. Besides, why don’t you stop at Rippon? It’s a perfectly good station.”

“It’s not on our schedule. Our schedule is very explicit about where we stop. We don’t stop until four stations past Rippon.”

“You make exceptions, I’m sure.”

“I’m sure we don’t. It’s not on our schedule to make exceptions. But, I’ll tell you what.”

A moment of silence left the two men staring at each other.

“What, already?” Harry had no patience.

“Amtrak has a new policy to give the customers what they want.”

“Then, you’ll stop at Rippon.”

“No, it’s not on our schedule. The schedule and customers have nothing to do with each other. However, I will get the engineer to slow the train and you can jump off.”

Harry thought about this for a moment. I can pay a taxi $30 or risk doing a face fault into the concrete station platform if I lose my footing. “OK, I’ll jump off at Rippon.”

As Rippon approached, Harry hung out the open train door. The wind whipped through his clothes and hair pretty strong. “How much slower will this train go?”

“This is about it.”

“I don’t think this is a good idea.”

The conductor pushed Harry off calling out, “Have a nice day.”

Harry’s feet hit the pavement and the momentum kept him running. Gradually, he started to slow down. Suddenly, a strong arm picked him up and brought him back onto the train.

“You’re lucky,” said another conductor. “We have this new customer policy. We usually don’t pick up at this station.”

It’s best to stay away from what makes me feel nervous, lest someone else is lured away on steel tracks like those men now in hobo land. It’s best I stop thinking about things. I’m here and they’re where I’m not. I could be adventurous if I wanted. I could make the girls like me and get respect. But, I know, I know, I got to do something. Not just thinking about things. Not keep hitting my head with regrets. I’ll have dinner with my kids at their house. That’s an adventure. Looking at immortality and enjoying it. Like Puff the Magic Dragon, in a puff of diesel snort my commuter train is here and not too late.

Published October 31, 2001, by Circle Magazine