The yard sticks - Page 2

A train-hopping trip from the Polaroid Kidd's hobotopia to William T. Vollmann's tramps -- and the truths in between
Photo by William T. Vollman

The joy of young friendship and the camaraderie of the road come through in his work. One soon-to-be-classic photo captures three train-hoppers from the waist down on a moving train: three sets of rolled-up trousers exposing dirty legs hang off the train, with the gravel rail bed and tracks below a blur. Near the center of the image, a can of beans with a spoon sticking out of it is being passed to someone whose hand reaches down from the upper right. It's sort of a tramp reenactment of Michelangelo's The Creation of Adam, and the meeting of the hands on the can gives the photo an emotional punch. Though the young legs look straight out of The Little Rascals, the image is timeless, as poignant and enduring as summer itself.

When Brodie photos like this one escape from the self-consciousness of staged portraiture, they 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 he triumphantly gives to the camera says the joke is on the collector who pays for it.

That the kid giving the finger will likely one day resemble William T. Vollmann in the new train-hopping memoir Riding Toward Everywhere (Ecco Press, 288 pages, $26.95) 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 catch moving freights. Without even a fedora, he humbly cowers around the perimeter of a train yard carrying his only fashion accessory, a trusty orange bucket ("One could sit on it, carry things in it, and piss into it"), while contemputf8g his 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, Vollmann gets by on guts, his vitality flowing from an ornery and uncompromising hatred of authority that isn't matched by young Brodie. "The activities described in this book are criminally American," he 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 a freight train can still help him find a hole in the net.

Riding Toward Everywhere includes 20 or so pages of photos by Vollmann. In sharp contrast to Brodie's, none feature anything you could really call pretty — except perhaps a snapshot of a friendly waitress in Wyoming, whose inclusion here only underscores the loneliness and desperation he finds on the rails. Vollmann's camera finds cardboard camps in the weeds, toothless tramps, stern rail cops, and racist graffiti under rail bridges. For him, the train yard represents a collection of failed possibilities. In a boxcar heading from Salinas to Oakland, he finds an old hobo moniker from La Grande, Ore., written on the wall and spends the long boxcar night contemputf8g a woman from there whom he'd loved — 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," he 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 such places as Spokane, Wash., and Laramie, Wyo., 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, he finds a police lineup of blown-out drunks and SSI recipients.

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