This was the summer of 2001. I had now been hopping freight trains for 12 years solid. I rode out of North Little Rock, Arkansas and made great time in that it only had taken me roughly six hours to make Memphis, Tennessee riding on a junker. As I pulled into the IC&G yards south of downtown, I knew that I needed to buy more supplies before I hopped out on another train, but I was on the south side of Memphis and broke! This would be a hard area to panhandle up enough cash to get what I needed, but it’s something that I sure needed to do! It had now been right at ten hours since the last time I ate anything, so by now, I was pretty hungry!
As I bailed off my boxcar right outside the yard-limits, I noticed right away several other homeless people that were already spanging out in front of the “Quik-Mart” store on the corner, so I had to be smart if I was going to make enough money to get a the food I needed!
I walked across US Hiway 61 and up to the property of Church’s Chicken and sat myself and my backpack/bedroll down in front by the entrance/exit door where hungry people went in, and fulfilled people left out. This had been a Sunday too, so my good fortune was beefed up a bit being that church people were coming in and out of my reach both vocally and visually.
South side Memphis has always been a Hell-hole in that there were drugs, prostitution, burglaries, drug dealers, etc everywhere you seemed to look! This was going to take quite a while to talk my way into enough spare change to get my food!
I have never been any good at verbally asking people for “spare-change”, so over the years I have devised a way to get the help that I needed by putting a statement that I wanted to get across to people on cardboard. I looked inside the Church’s Chicken dumpster and found a flap of cardboard then took out my black Magic Marker felt tip pen and wrote on the front of the cardboard a simple statement that others could see, letting them know I needed a helping hand with any food.
I set my sign right in front of my sleeping bag where persons going in to eat their lunch after getting out of a church of their own could see my sign. I had not been sitting there for long when a young man walked inside, he returned back outside and asked me where I was traveling to. I told him that I was trying to get up to Michigan for work. He asked me how much cash I had on me. I told him that I had enough cash that I had to try and get food/money with my sign. He then said, “I guess that means you are broke right”? “Yes sir” I said in return. He took out his wallet, reached in and pulled out a $5.00 bill and handed it to me. I said, “Thank you so very much sir”! “No problem” was his reply as he returned back into the restaurant. Right after this had happened, I walked inside and strolled up to the counter and bought a small value-meal with a wing and a leg of chicken then went back outside, sat down and ate. After he saw that I actually did in fact use the money to buy food with, he returned once again to my aide and again took out his wallet, but this time he gave me a $10.00 bill and two one dollar bills! Wow! I now had enough money for the next leg of my trip!
Normally when I am hopping trains, I’m able to find day labor work to support myself with my own food, beer, cigarettes, etc, but occasionally I will “fly a sign” if I have to. Being that I was in a terrible neighborhood, and this was a Sunday made things hard in that I had no place to find a quick days work that far out of downtown is the reason I had to spange that day.
I walked over to this store, placed my pack outside the doorway and entered. I bought several canned goods, bread, bottled water and a six-pack of cold, delicious “Natural Ice” brand beer, walked back out and packed everything away then made my way back to the IC&G yards and sat hidden in the weeds under a couple of trees for my next train that would haul me further east and north. After I had drank down a few cold beers and my thirst/hunger had eased a bit, I said a small prayer for the gentleman that had helped me out. I guess I felt guilty about having bought the beer somewhat.
There are three large manifest switching yards in Memphis that I catch-out of, depending on what direction I am needing to travel. CSX Railroad Company, (Chessie Seaboard Railroad Company) runs northeast from Memphis and always has even through the railroad mergers, buyouts, etc. In order for me to go east, I had to use the CSX. If I was lucky, I could catch-out here!
Later that afternoon a nice long manifest, mixed freight train approached from the south out of the IC&C yards. (Illinois Central & Gulf Railroad Company) runs south out of Chicago all the way through Memphis and down to New Orleans, but occasionally there will be a CSX manifest train that gets made up in the IC&G yards and heads east on CSX right-of-way. After this trains locomotives had gotten far enough past me to where the engineers could no longer see me, I hopped up onto an empty grainer/covered hopper rail car and started my trip east.
Riding for nearly seven hours, we pulled into the CSX yards in Nashville. By now it was nearing midnight. To my surprise there was already an “auto-rack” train waiting for its clearance to head out onto the mainline and head north to Louisville, Kentucky’s “Strawberry Yards” and on further to Cincinnati, Ohio. I thought if I only had enough time to get on this train, that it sure would save me a lot of time on my trip northward!
“Auto-racks” or “car-carriers” are rail cars that are used to haul brand new vehicles from their manufacturers to the dealers that sell them on their lots. Auto-racks are sealed all around so that thieves can’t gain access and steal radios, batteries, tires, engine parts, etc. They also are protected this way in that rocks can not be thrown at them and damaging the vehicles inside, but being a professional hobo, over the years I have found a way to get inside these rail cars to ride! By taking a rail-plate and placing a rail-spike through the square hole in the plate, you have successfully made a “chuck & key”! Taking the rail-spike, poking it through the square hole in the doorway of the Auto-rack, you turn counter-clockwise opening the door on the auto-rack and hop up inside! All vehicles inside the auto-racks are unlocked and have the keys in the ignitions, so usually if the weather is hot or cold outside, I can turn on the AC or the heater and of course get to listen to music on the car radios! This auto-rack was empty though, but I still had tons of room inside this railcar to move around.
After I had gained access to the auto-rack, I lay out my bedroll to went to sleep for a long nap. I slept the entire way to Cincinnati in style! (I should have gotten off there)! After waking up in Cincinnati I just thought that we would be doing a crew-change and then we would be headed on to Cleveland then on up to Detroit, Michigan and then I could just get off here, but this was not the case! I fell back to sleep thinking I would wake up in Cleveland to where I would get off then catch another freight train on out, but what had actually happened is I was taken right into a car manufacturing plant right outside Dayton, Ohio! I had slept right through the secured area that was fenced in around the entire property without waking up! A worker had come through the train opening all the auto-rack doors behind him in order that they could be loaded full of cars/trucks of various makes and models. He seen me and started laughing. He stated that he thought that he had seen it all, but I was one for the records in that I made it into the car plant without being busted by the security teams! He told me that he would be getting off work in about an hour and for me to stay where I was then he would return in his work truck, pick me up and drive me off the property through security.
Finally after about an hour he returned to where I lay ready to get the Hell out of there! I loaded my gear up in the rear bed of his company work truck and we drove right past the security shack and to McDonald’s where he then dropped me off, then gave me a $20.00 bill to eat on!
Did I learn a thing or two during this trip? Yes, I sure did my friend! That is to never ride an empty auto-rack near country where vehicles are made! End of story, plain and simple!