Chapter XIII: On the Bum in Dixie
No one except the station master knows for sure when the next freight train is due. You have to sit around in a spot you hope will be advantageous for catching it. Then you question everyone who passes to find out what each one knows about the schedule.
A local passenger train was due within an hour. The freight train might come by in five minutes or sometime tomorrow. No one knew. But you can't wait around for tomorrow on the road. Survival is the name of the game, and for that you have to seize the opportunity--which, like the freight train, has no schedule. I'd never caught a passenger train, so I was a bit wary of the idea. Yet, before me lay the long road to Mobile, fraught with danger. Few men who use the railroads as transportation relish the thought of riding the "blinds" on passenger trains. The blinds are the space between the coal water tender and the first car, which is usually a U. S. mail car. A man must stand up in a very small space, exposed to the rain, wind and cold. Many times, hot cinders from the smokestack blow in his face. These blinds are hard to reach because the fireman sits on one side, the engineer on the other. Generally both of them are leaning out of the engine cab, trying to get signals from the conductors. Those two are usually the first to roust you off.
As things stood, I decided that if the chance came I'd give it a try. Anything seemed better than that long hike down the highway. I found myself a partner who felt the same way I did about Pensacola. He suggested we walk back along the tracks toward the water tank and wait there in the hope that the engine would have to take on water. From a distance, we watched the train pull into the station. Five minutes later it eased slowly out and stopped at the water tank. Night had fallen, but we could still make out the fireman and engineer maneuvering the spout from the water tank. A yank on a hanging rope and water poured into the water tender. We waited, protected by growing darkness. It took the fireman and engineer a minute to push the spout back out of the way and climb back down to the engine cab. In that short period, both of us rushed out of our shadowed retreat and hopped aboard.
Late that night our local stopped before a bank of signals two miles out of Mobile. We jumped off. Working our way across innumerable tracks, we finally located a street. Riding the blinds would prove handy in the days and months ahead. But at the moment we were occupied making our way into Mobile. I knew it was a big port. Ships from all nations stopped off there to load cotton, the major product of the region. I'd heard seamen speak of Mobile. As I crossed the bridge over its bay, I could see many ships in the harbor, outlined in the dark. Their presence gave me a warm feeling.
My new friend and I parted company. He went his way while I worked my way to the city, making for the waterfront. A soft-spoken man in charge of the YMCA listened to my story of no funds and a need for a place to sleep. He gave me a room and a chit for breakfast.
One big problem on the road is staying clean--especially keeping free of lice and crabs. That takes a lot of baths and it means trying to keep your clothes clean, almost an impossibility. Many times the local sheriff's jail is your best camping place. If you hit the right one, and it's not overcrowded, the sheriff may allow you to use hot water for a bath and to wash your clothes--which you hope will be dry when he turns you loose at six in the morning.
From the Mobile "Y," with a bath, a shave, some clean clothes I had washed out the previous night and a substantial breakfast under my belt, I struck out toward the fleet of freighters I had seen the night before in the bay. I had a feeling this would be my lucky day. However, a glance around the bay at the dozen ships tied up there revealed in the glare of daylight that they were just "laid-up ships." They were ships without crews, belonging to companies that were either bankrupt or on the verge of bankruptcy. I stopped at a seamen's club. It was packed with unemployed seamen sitting around playing cards. "Things might be better in New Orleans," volunteered one of them. "It's a bigger port."
Most seamen hanging around Mobile, I discovered, were "homeguard." They were locals, natives of Mobile with homes and families in the area. Of course, if any of these ships started operating again, they'd be the first hired. And nobody appeared to be in a mad rush to put those ships back into operation.
Wearily I again set my sights westward. New Orleans was a big port, many times bigger than Mobile. Perhaps I'd strike it lucky there. It took me two days to reach New Orleans, because the railroad yard around Mobile was hot with railroad bulls. It wasn't considered healthy to let one of them catch you roaming those yards. So most of the time I was too far away to catch any of the trains as they came high-balling past. Instead of boarding the fast freight, I had to grab a slow-moving local that ran from town to town, shunting off a car here and a car there.
I'd been in New Orleans before. Its streets and quarters were familiar to me. I made for the waterfront and presented myself to a clerk in the seamen's mission. I wanted a place to sleep and something to eat. The place was crowded with unemployed seamen. Since I was from out of town, I was given two days' lodgings, four meals and the polite information that there would be no other relief. The meals were simple, and no lunch was served.
It was the same story here as on the Mobile waterfront: ships laying up and discharging crews, no business, companies folding. As jobs for seamen dried up there was less work for longshoremen, teamsters and warehousemen--all jobs related to the transportation of goods. Some seamen claimed that oil tankers were still doing a booming business; it was cargo ships that were laying up. I wondered if I should concentrate on tankers instead of freighters. I tried visiting some of the shipping crimps who hired men for tankers. There I soon saw their favorites, the "company" men, had first crack at any job openings. That let me out, since I was neither a tankerman nor imbued with company loyalty. Moreover, I was a "foreigner" amidst these men who glared at me with hostility. I decided my best bet would be to visit the ships and try to influence the officers in charge. Maybe I'd hit it lucky that way.
When I'd been in New Orleans for five days, I knew I'd have to connect with something or get out of town. The few charitable organizations in that city could hardly feed and lodge me indefinitely. Between them all, five days was considered liberal. I picked up a railroad timetable at the depot. One of the most important items for a guy on the road is a railroad timetable. Generally a map of the route for the railroad he hopes to use is included; the schedule generally tells the number of passenger trains in service and the towns where they stop; it names divisions and subdivisions and contains plenty of other vital information.
I'd heard from a couple of knowledgeable characters that the best and safest place to catch a freight for Baton Rouge was five miles out of town. The Mississippi River zigzagged toward Baton Rouge, a fueling terminal for oil tankers. As they worked their way up river these tankers passed large piers and warehouses, adjacent to which were railroad tracks--twenty at first, narrowing down to four further out of town. Next to the tracks a wire fence separated the yard from the city street.
About a mile up that street I studied the tracks and piers. A ship was moving slowly up river. She was so heavily-laden that I could make out only her stack and part of her mast. Could this ship intend to dock close by? The vessel rounded a bend and the mast disappeared. Then a warehouse pier cut the entire ship from view. She's docking, I thought. I'll be the first man aboard, in case there's a job. I found a gate. A man was guarding it. I made as if to go through it. He stopped me. "This is railroad property, mister. Where do you think you're going?"
"A ship just came in over there. I want to get aboard and see if there's a job on her," I told him.
He followed my pointing finger. "There's no ship there, and none is expected. Now stay off railroad property," he ordered.
I walked away angry. Just what I figured: he has a job, so he doesn't give a damn about the guy who hasn't. Well, screw him! I saw that ship pull in there and I'm going to get into that pier. I went further up the street. When I thought I was a safe distance from the gate, I scaled the fence. Then I hopped on and off row after row of boxcars lying idle in the yard. With only a few more yards to the pier, I came face to face with the same guy from the gate. "Didn't I tell you to stay off railroad property?" he shouted.
"I only want to get to that ship," I insisted.
"Goddamn it! There's no ship there. I told you that. Now I have to arrest you. Next time, maybe you'll pay attention to me." He handcuffed me. I still protested that there was a ship there.
"All right. You want to see for yourself? Come on." He yanked me a few more feet toward the warehouse, then through a door. We were on the face of the pier, looking out over the flowing Mississippi. Far up the river, the stern of the ship I had imagined docking was dwindling into the distance. "You satisfied now?" he sneered.
Into the neighborhood police station we marched. "Trespassing on railroad property, a Section 109-A," he told the booking officer who sat at a desk.
"Arresting officer?" asked this person.
"Detective Delacroix, railroad security," answered my man. I was booked and led to a cell a floor above the station entrance. There were three cells, each with two hammocks which served as beds. They sported a small sink, a horrible toilet, no chairs, tables or other comforts. A weak light glimmered overhead. Well, here I was in jail again. I sat wondering what I'd done wrong to land me in this mess. It was probably my stubbornness, I decided. Well, I'd have to make the best of a bum situation.
I had thought I was alone. However, pretty soon I heard someone sobbing from a cell about 20 feet away which I couldn't see from my angle. Whoever it was had my sympathy. At best, jails are miserable places that put the best of us to the test. I sat on my bunk and counted the rivets that held the small space together. Around four o'clock a small, white-haired jailer shuffled up the stairs toting two small bottles of coffee and two sandwiches. He gave me one sandwich and coffee; the other he took to the sobber's cell. I devoured my rations in less than a minute. I crumpled the waxed paper and threw it on the floor, since there wasn't a refuse pail. then I lay back in a hammock to digest the meal.
Scratching sounds--sounds of the waxed paper being rolled around the floor, made me look down. My heart almost stopped. A rat the size of an average cat sat wolfing down the paper. Then another about the same size walked through the cell's bars into my space. The intruder tried to cut himself in on some of the food-scented paper, but the first rat nipped him on the back and away he scurried. Having consumed all the paper, the first rat nosed around, picking up a crumb here and there, then walked outside through the bars and disappeared. Jesus Christ, I thought, now I have something else to worry about. All it would take would be two of these bastards to carry me off. The hammocks seemed well enough off the ground. From now on, I vowed, not a crumb would be allowed to fall on the deck. In fact, for self-protection, I rolled up a few small pieces of whatever I was served into the waxed paper, twisted it tightly, and tossed the little bundle from the cell. It worked.
I had scraped the last Bull Durham flakes from the sack. They made a very tiny cigarette. During the night I'd smoked half a sack of Durham. I blamed that on the rats who raced around the floor at will, screeching. Rats and I never did, and never will, get along. I've seen a few babies in my time left unattended in hallways, with soft pink skin that had been nibbled on by rats. I've seen my mother fight them off to protect bread in our breadbox. I was afraid of them. Their presence made me ill at ease. Now here it was early morning, and the last of the Bull Durham was going up in smoke.
When the jailer dragged up the wooden stairs with a small bottle of hot coffee and an egg sandwich, I was awake. This would be the last food I'd get until five in the evening. In fact, it might be the last of the jailer I'd see till then. I wanted to attract his attention to see if he'd buy me a pack of tobacco. I held a nickel in my hand as he approached my cell. I started to talk to him, but he paid no attention. As he passed me the coffee, I asked him again if he'd take my nickel and at his leisure buy me some Durham. Again he paid me no heed. He went to the other cell, out of sight. As he started back toward the stairs, I started flailing my arms through the bars to get his attention. He stopped. "If you're talking to me, don't, because I'm stone deaf." With that he padded back down the stairs.
Two hours later, long after I'd taken care of the rats and had watched them dash away with the sandwich wrappings, I smelled the faint odor of tobacco. Then I noticed the drift of smoke in the air, wafting from the other cell. I pressed against my cell door. "Hey, buddy! Any chance of getting some tobacco from you?" I shouted. No reply. Again I shouted, "Hey, friend, can you spare some tobacco?"
A soft answer came back. "Get the guard to pass these cigarettes."
Muffled discussion was going on below. I hollered for the guard several times. Silence. I reconciled myself to waiting for the evening meal to see the guard again. About half an hour later, creaking stairs betrayed approaching footsteps. It was the old white-haired guard. From the top of the stairs he came straight to my cell and extended a hand. "Here," he grunted, handing me a pack of cigarettes. "White men don't beg niggers for anything." With that he stumped back down the stairs.
For a moment I was stunned. Why, the old sonofabitch could hear all the time, especially from way down there! I lay there puffing on my gift cigarettes, pondering this concept that it was wrong for a white person to ask help from a colored one. It didn't make sense to me at all.
I had now been behind bars for three days. I asked the guard why I was not being released, or why I didn't at least appear before a judge. He mumbled something about a holiday and the courts being closed down. On the fourth day, they brought a young guy in and put him in the cell next to mine. I couldn't see him, but we could talk. He was a local and didn't feel like talking, he said. He must have been important, because every hour or two that afternoon some detectives or cops would come up, take him out of the cell, hand- and leg-cuff him and then bring him back after an hour or more. When they returned him to his cell and removed his irons, he'd always be shoved inside with something like, "Get in there, you punk bastard!"
Around midnight, I was awakened to the sounds of shuffling feet, dragging chains and a banging door. My eyes were open just in time to see three detectives grab my neighbor by the back of the neck and pull him up from the floor. He made no sound. Now, with the light directly over him, I could see him fairly well for the first time. He couldn't have been more than 20, a slim, blond youngster. A few bruises showed on his face and his lip was swollen. After they left, I went back to sleep.
At about three in the morning, they were back. This time two detectives were dragging the prisoner up the stairs. He appeared semi-conscious and could hardly stand. The detectives removed the cuffs and leg irons and pushed him back into the cell. As things settled down, I could hear a low, painful moaning from his cell. After half an hour, I got out of my hammock, leaned up against the wall and struck up a conversation. "Hey, fella," I broke the silence, keeping my voice as low as possible and my eye on the floor below.
The moaning stopped for a moment. Then a sharp cry of pain broke out. "Yeah?" the prisoner choked.
"What's going on?"
"I'm pissing blood," he replied.
"Pissing blood? How come?"
"They've been beating me and kicking me in the kidneys. I'm black and blue."
"They want me to get up and run so they can shoot me. They take me out to the race track when no one is around, then start beating and kicking me. They keep telling me to make a run for it. But I know that they want to shoot me."
There was another sharp cry of pain. Someone shouted from below. "Shut up there! If you don't, I'll come up and hose you down!"
I slid back quickly into the hammock. Somehow I managed to sleep again. I awoke around seven. The guard was standing there with the coffee and sandwich. At noon the guard opened my cell and led in a guy about 30. He was neatly dressed. I could hear a lot of loose change jingling in his pockets. We exchanged greetings. He hooked up the other hammock and sat in it.
"What are you in for?" I asked.
"Peddling tea," he said. How the hell could a man get arrested for selling tea? It didn't sound right. However, I didn't pursue it.
"But it's all right," he continued. "I'll be out of here as soon as my wife hears about it. this happens at least once a month."
Now I was really puzzled. Cops arresting a man at least once a month for selling tea on the streets? Christ, why the hell don't they leave him alone so he can make a living?
"If you're awakened during the night," I informed my new cell mate, as if I were an old- timer, "it's because there's a guy in the next cell who the cops take out in the middle of the night and beat up. He's pissing blood, he told me this morning."
"Who is he?" my cell mate asked.
"Someone they brought in the other night. Young guy."
"I bet it's one of those bank robbers," he exclaimed. "Is he a blond fellow about six feet, skinny?"
"Yeah, that description fits him," I agreed.
"I could see into the cell as I came in here. There's no one in it. It's empty," he assured me.
"Gee, he must have gone out while I was asleep," I guessed.
"Those three guys are crazy," he declared. "They went into the bank with sawed-off shotguns. Told everybody to put their hands up, and before anyone could do it one guy fired a blast at the ceiling. The shot was so big it ripped out part of the ceiling and some of the shot ricocheted all over the place. A woman was hit. She died on the way to the hospital. The bank guard didn't have a chance to put up his hands, either. He took a full blast. A cop passing the bank heard the shooting and came charging in. They blew him back through the door, right into the street.
"Someone saw the cop bleeding on the street and called more cops. They panicked out of the bank without grabbing any money. A car was waiting for them. They took off like madmen. After only one block they ran into a police car with three cops in it on their way to the bank. Right away, the cops shot the hell out of them. One guy's dead; another's in the hospital, close to dying; this guy here was the only one they got in good enough shape to throw in jail. There are enough people out there who want to hang these guys. They're crazy; they could have cleaned out that bank without firing one shot!"
"Boy, that's all news to me!" I told him.
"Hell, man, the papers are full of it. Great big headlines. That's all people are talking about. These two guys are gonna hang." He looked toward the stairway. "Darned that woman! She should've been here long ago to bail me out of this mess."
Later in the afternoon the guard came up, carrying several small pots and pans. He handed them to my cell mate. "Here," he said. "It's from your wife. She said she was having trouble bailing you out. You may have to stay overnight." He handed me the usual bottle of coffee and a sandwich. The guy's wife had cooked him a complete hot meal: rice creole with sausages, a small steak, creamed asparagus, French-dripped coffee and some cake. Far too much for one man to eat, I thought. "Join in," he invited. I put my sandwich aside and enjoyed the feast.
The next morning, the guard came with one bottle of coffee and one sandwich--for me. "You," he poked his finger at my cell mate as he opened the door, "are free on bail. Your wife's waiting for you downstairs. Get going."
Another day in jail. The bank robber never returned to his cell. I learned that he had been removed to another, out-of-the-way station around New Orleans. Shifting prisoners was meant to make it difficult for parents or attorneys to reach them until the police were satisfied they had the proper confession and case against him.
I was alone again, thankful for the short stay of my "tea-selling" mate who had supplied me with cigarettes in addition to that great meal. Many months later I discovered that "tea" was another term for marijuana. They guy had been a marijuana pusher. Each stick (or cigarette) sold for 25 cents.
On the sixth day I was transferred to the main jail at the courthouse in downtown New Orleans. The place was swarming with prisoners, all--like me--held over the holidays. Now we were being processed in groups before the judge. "Any of you men native to New Orleans or Louisiana?" he asked. No one answered. "You have 24 hours to get out of town. If you're picked up after that, it'll be 30 days. Clear?"
Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.
The Kid from Hoboken: Book One