A train-hopping trip from the Polaroid Kidd's hobotopia to William T. Vollmann's tramps -- and the truths in between
I hopped my first freight train in the spring of 1993, outside a small central Florida town. My first train sat behind a drive-in theater along old Highway 301, among the pines sometimes seen in old photos of turpentine camps and prison work crews. Under a Southern moon, I battled mosquitoes and listened to a chorus of swamp frogs that must have been heard by the very men who built the railroad. I waited impatiently on the porch of a grainer car, as if it were the threshold of adulthood, for the train to carry me somewhere else.
As the '90s ushered in a new era of gentrified, cookie-cutter, chain-store cities, I crisscrossed the country several times on freight trains. Today, I still think about that place in Florida outside of time, and when I'm sick of computers and phones and NPR news, I find myself heading to the train yard. In recent works that seem eerily timed to headlines announcing an impending US financial collapse, the writer William T. Vollmann and the photographer Mike Brodie have headed there too. This resurgence of interest in train-hopping stories might be a barometer of public dissatisfaction.
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 train-hopping friends taken by Mike Brodie, a.k.a. the Polaroid Kidd. Brodie's photos, posted on his Web site, Ridin' Dirty Face (www.ridindirtyface.com ), depict a hobotopia where packs of grubby kids (and dogs!) play music, share food, and forage in the ruins of postindustrial America, traveling from town to town on freight trains and homemade river rafts. Everyone's good looking and no one appears to be over 25.
As my first train left the yard that long-ago day, I sang some words by Johnny Cash because at 19 I wished my life were an epic country song. Similarly, the subjects of Brodie's pictures wear suspenders and fedoras and patched-up oversize suit coats, as if they've walked out of newsreels from the Great Depression. In Brodie's version of somewhere else, though, the Depression is glamorous. One of the most charming and possibly most emblematic photos in his current show at SF Camerawork depicts a young woman standing in the doorway of a rickety shack, a yard full of chickens pecking at her feet. At first glance, the image seems lifted straight from Walker Evans' classic photos of 1930s austerity in his 1941 collaboration with James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. But in Brodie's photo, the light is sensual, the mood somehow humid it's summertime and the woman is, incongruously, wearing a beaded ballroom gown.
Brodie's photos might depict a wish for a world uncomplicated by money or its absence an aesthetic nostalgia for a time when no one had any money, and everyone had, perhaps, more integrity without it. Yet these images of romanticized destitution have, quite ironically, become high-priced art objects. 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 from dirt-smudged faces into the camera. Brodie's photos have become valuable just as the country stands on the edge of the kind of Great Depression they romanticize. The winner at age 22 of the 2008 Baum Award for Emerging American Photographers, Brodie is highly talented. But the buzz about his subjects suggests that the weary art world is willing to go to as great lengths as the train-hopping kids in a search for authenticity. The Great Depression to come is on some level longed for.
Brodie seems motivated by a sincere desire 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," he said in one recent interview. 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. Though free to roam the rails under that big Western sky, they seem as herded and docile as those last few sad bison living out their days at the end of Golden Gate Park.
As in his last book, Poor People (Harper Perennial, 464 pages, $16.95), Vollmann records somewhat incoherent interviews with these subjects, an approach that stands in for sociology. While the elliptical conversations do give a somewhat impressionistic take on what life on the rails is like, Riding Toward Everywhere's subjects are hardly representative. Like Brodie, Vollmann is in thrall to a particular aesthetic. He's committed to sensationalizing the ugliest aspects of the rails, to obsessing over swastika tags and crude drawings of women's genitalia scrawled by bums on boxcar walls.
While spending much of Riding Toward Everywhere looking for the Freight Train Riders of America, a half-mythical hobo gang whose members supposedly will "kill you for $5 in food stamps," Vollmann fails to mention possibly the largest population on the West Coast train lines undocumented Latino farmworkers. In my own experience hopping trains, I've shared food, water, and a sweet sense of humanity beyond language with such laborers. (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 left to pick them.
Still, despite self-consciously labeling himself a "fauxbeau," the 2005 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 a 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. Riding Toward Everywhere is most enlivening when this old pro simply lies back and describes what he sees out of his boxcar door.
Unfortunately, it turns out Vollmann doesn't have even a relatively short book's worth of train-hopping stories. After the excitement of a handful of train rides described early in the book, he pads the 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. Mark Twain's raft on the Mississippi makes a guest appearance. Riding Toward Everywhere, it turns out, is a lot like a freight-train ride itself: in the beginning it's really exciting and feels like it could lead anywhere, but after a while 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 trying to find it. "And we flee in search of last summer or next summer," he writes, "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 the real ache 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 a speeding freight train and the incoherent drunk living by the tracks that Vollmann interviews, there are cherished bits of freedom. They're snatched from razor-wired train yards and robot train cops: a view through a boxcar door of elk at sunrise, or the taste of cold water from a trackside creek in the middle of nowhere Montana. These experiences are 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 my first train ride from that place out of time. It is a place seen in my favorite photo from Brodie's exhibition at SF Camerawork. Through a rear window, it catches seven kids in the back of a pickup truck rolling down a flat Middle American prairie road at dusk. Hair is blowing all around in the wind, but one guy on the left is bent over in cool concentration, rolling a smoke, as warm yellow sunlight the very color of nostalgia floods the image. Whether you're Mike Brodie, 22, or William Vollmann, 48, or myself, just now 35, you can't help it; you want to live in this photo forever.
MIKE BRODIE: THE 2008 BAUM AWARD FOR EMERGING AMERICAN PHOTOGRAPHERS
Through May 24
657 Mission, second floor, SF
More train hoppin' in this issue:
>>The end of the line 
Trainspotting America with James Benning's RR
>>Time travel ticket 
Excerpts from a book that is Mostly True
>>What is Who is Bozo Texino? 
"I hear you callin', baby, but you ain't gettin' me. Not today, anyhow."