Chapter XIX: Going Home

With the weather turning colder by the minute, I did not feel inclined to linger in Des Moines and wait for a plushy steam car. A passenger train eased out of the station, but from where I stood it would have been impossible to grab the blinds. Besides, the engineer had his head out the window. Chances were that if he saw me trying to latch onto the coal tender's handrails he would have sent a blast of live steam at me. I let it go on by.

A lonesome whistle perked me up. A slow-moving engine approached, billowing smoke and fighting madly to gain speed. I hid until the engine went past me. Then I looked for a boxcar. A long line of cars trailed in the distance, but none of them looked like the usual freight boxcars. They seemed to be roofless gondolas; as they drew nearer, it looked like they were filled with sand. Well, to hell with it! Anything would be better than standing around blowing on my hands and stomping my feet. I pulled myself aboard by the handrails. I'd expected to be alone in the gondola, but two figures crouched at the other end. I crawled over to them. They raised their heads and welcomed me. They even moved over a few inches so I could share the hole they had dug so we could all stay out of the freezing wind.

On the road there is no such thing as hogging a cigarette. My bag of Bull Durham was received with pleasure. For some illogical reason, freezing to death seems easier when one can inhale Bull Durham smoke. As miserable as we were, we still found time to swap experiences. These two men had started the journey as strangers to each other. Now they talked as if they'd known each other all their lives. They'd caught the train about a hundred miles west of Des Moines. From bits of their conversation I gathered that one was a hardrock miner, the other a "high-climbing tree-topper" in the logging industry. "So," said the high climber, "you're heading to New York? I was there once. Too big for me. I like smaller places. Half the time I was there I was lost. Spent most of my time asking for directions."

"Ever been to Chicago?" the other guy asked me.

"No, never have. Should be an experience."

"Well," the tree topper assured me, "it's the same as New York. Maybe a little smaller, but almost the same."

"Best thing to do when you start to leave Chicago," said the hardrock miner, "is to grab the blinds on a passenger train. You'll be in New York in no time at all."

"Yeah," chimed in the tree topper, "but you better watch out for those trains that pick up water on the fly. All those hotshot passenger trains in the East do it nowadays."

I had no idea what he was talking about. Picking up water on the fly? I said nothing; I didn't want to show my ignorance. I should have spoken, though.

Chicago teemed with people, most jaywalking and ignoring traffic lights, just as in New York like my friend had predicted. I was wet, cold, hungry and sleepy. Some sort of instinct for security seems to direct your feet to the city's poor section, especially if you're not appearing well-to-do. It was ten o'clock. A cold wind blew off Lake Michigan. I shivered. Nose running, stomach growling, I wandered around the strange city slightly numb, knowing it was late. I knew something had better happen pretty damn soon. A policeman slowly walked his beat. His face seemed kind. I guessed I might approach him without his aiming his nightstick at my shins. "Officer," I appealed. "I just came into town from California on my way home to New York. Do you know of any place where I can get a bowl of hot soup and a night's lodging? I aim to leave in the morning."

"What? Another one?" was his reply. "Where the hell are all you kids coming from? You're the second in less than an hour! You kids ever stay in one place?"

I didn't answer.

"Well," he relented, "come with me. I'll see what I can do." A half block down the street we stopped at the door of a small restaurant. "See that theater across the street?" the cop asked me, pointing. "It's an all-night joint. Warm, too. Here's fifteen cents. Ten cents for the show and a nickel for a candy bar if you want one. When you leave this restaurant, go straight to the show. Find yourself a warm corner and sleep there. I don't want to see you on the streets until daylight. Clear?"

"Yes, sir."

"Okay, now let's go in here and see what this Greek will do for you." A nod from the cop to the counterman and I was given a piece of everything left over from the steam tables. I gulped it all down with pleasure.

A light rain had wet the street when I entered the all-night movie house. Snores from some of the patrons suggested that most came here for the same reason I had. The picture on the huge screen grew fuzzy not two minutes after I sat down. I fell asleep in my wet clothes. When hunger awoke me, Harold Lloyd was jumping out of a window and into a fast-moving taxi. A patron left through a side exit and daylight lit up half the theater.

Outside it was dry but bitterly cold. A sharp wind hit my face. A pawnbroker was sweeping the sidewalk. "Is there a soup kitchen in town?" I asked him.

"Yes, straight down this street eight blocks, then turn right and go two blocks and you'll be right at the door." The cold quickened my step. I was there in no time, taking my place at the end of the line which stretched completely around the block. It moved--slowly, but it moved. "Who's running this soup kitchen? Salvation Army?" I queried the old-timer ahead of me.

"Salvation Army hell!" he exclaimed. "Those sons of bitches don't put out nothin'. This soup kitchen's set up by Al Capone. That's who runs it."

"You mean Al Capone the gangster?"

"Hey! We don't use that language about our benefactor. Don't let anyone hear you say that in the kitchen or you might wind up in the lake, face down."

"I just wanted to know if it was the Al Capone the papers are always talking about."

"That's the guy, all right. Let's just be thankful there's a guy like him around who, from the goodness of his heart, put this soup kitchen together. You won't see all the holy rollers and soul savers doing anything about us hungry guys. Besides, Capone set it up to save us from going Communist."

"Communist? How's that?"

"This city's full of them guys, just sittin' back and waitin' and bitchin' to take over the guv'ment. They figger if all the unemployed get hungry enough, the guv'ment will fall and they'll take over."

"Then what?"

"What?" he said. "Then you'll have some guv'ment like they got in Russia. That's `then what'! Is that what you want?"

He lost me somewhere. "Well," I hesitated.

"That's why Al Capone set up this soup kitchen, to save the American guv'ment from goin' Communist. Get it now?"

"Yeah. I suppose so."

"Boy, where you been? Don't you know what's happenin' in this land?"

"I think so," I ventured.

"Well, you don't sound like you do. Know how many meals that man puts out each day out of his own pocket?"

"No," I admitted, trying to size up this oldster. He must have been 60 years if he was a day; he was shabbily dressed, with a shirt and tie that did nothing for his wrinkled suit.

"He feeds thousands every week. Twice a day, seven days a week. All from the kindness of his heart. Even the chief of police said he's doing a great patriotic deed. He don't have to do it, you know. But he knows that if someone don't help us, the guv'ment will fall. Then we'd have nuthin'."

We were at the door. The scent of hot oatmeal floated in the air. Spoons and plates clattered. The place was gigantic; it must have seated over five hundred people. The first thing visible inside the door was a huge picture of "Scarface Al," with puffed-up cheeks and a grin. You got the feeling you were entering some holy place. While eating, I thought of Al Capone. It was universally accepted that he ran Chicago politics, the whorehouses, speakeasies, police department and all the rest of the graft and corruption in and out of town. He was the same Scarface whose thugs, while gunning down some opposition, had also mowed down five innocent kids in the street. I wasn't about to question why he was saving the country from Communism, gangster or not. I just ate like the rest, then got the hell out of there.

I went looking for the railroad station. It was too far to walk, as it turned out, so the nickel the cop had given me came in handy. Light snow fell. The streetcar dropped me almost at the railroad station's door. Inside I took a quick look around and saw, on Track Four, "To New York, Wolverine Limited. Departure 10:00 a.m." I knew I could never get through the passenger gate, so I went outside and walked two blocks to the end of the station. Pretending to be a railroad worker, I found a broom and put it over my shoulder. I went back along the tracks toward the terminal and train. There she was, the Wolverine Limited, taking on passengers. The engineer saw me. I waved at him, as any railroad worker would. He waved back.

I was in luck. The engine and tender sat on a bend of the track, invisible on one side from the passenger cars. Only the fireman could have seen me, but he was preoccupied with keeping up a full head of steam. A quick hop and I was aboard between tender and mail car. I wondered if anyone had seen me. I waited five minutes, ten, then fifteen. Would this goddamn train ever pull out. Or were they waiting for the cops to come and take me off? I felt the brakes being released, then heard a blast of steam. Then came the careful, ever-so-soft motion of the train starting. I was on my way! Too late now for anyone to spot me and throw me off. I squeezed back far into the mail car's alcove. Just enough room for one person to stand. This was a hotshot, one of the fastest trains on the line. The Twentieth Century got all the headlines, but the Wolverine was right up there with the best.

Town after town flashed by, recognized only by a wail of the locomotive whistle. When you ride the blinds, it's difficult to escape the engine exhaust smoke or the spatter of hot cinders. Those who do their traveling this way habitually carry goggles to protect their eyes from cinders. I had to maintain a firm grip. There was no place to go should the train stop suddenly, except maybe against the tender, or perhaps down between the tender and mail car onto the tracks. We were far out in the countryside now; farmhouses, cows and horses passed on the horizon. Then I heard it: a dull clunk, then a rasping sound, like metal scraping. Before I could figure out what was going on, a wave of ice-cold water hit me full in the face. The tender was filling with water from a long trough that ran smack down the middle of the track for a half mile. Using a scoop extending downward from the tender, the speed of the engine would force water up into the tender. Since the top lid on the tender was partially ajar to let out air, a lot of water was forced out and the wind and the train's momentum flung it against the mail car--to exactly where I stood.

After I recovered from the initial shock, I recalled what the tree topper had told me in that gondola about "taking water on the fly." An hour later, another wave of water hit me. If there had been a dry spot on me before, I was soaked now. Wet, cold, dirty from coal dust and cinders, all I could think of was getting off that train. We had crossed into Ohio. A road sign on the highway close to the tracks read, "Bryan, 25 miles." We were going too fast for me to jump off without killing myself, but I had to get off somehow. A herd of cows came to my rescue. They had broken through a wire fence and drifted onto the tracks, slowing the train to a crawl. Tooting his whistle, spewing live steam from both sides of the engine at the frightened cattle, the engineer made it possible for me to disembark. Once clear of the tracks I looked back at the moving train just long enough to see passengers peering out from their warm, comfortable parlor cars.

Around me was farm country. A climb over a wire fence put me on the edge of a plowed field. In each direction, about a block away, there were farms, but no roads. I decided on the house to my right. I stumbled over upturned soil soaked with several days' rain. It stuck to my already wet shoes, making them heavier with every step. What sort of reception would I get? Still shivering with cold, I knocked on the back door. A boy in his early teens opened the door. He took one look at me, and before he heard a word I said he shouted to his mother.

"My god! You poor boy!" she exclaimed when she saw me soaked and shaking. "Wait here." The woman returned with an undershirt, a blue denim workshirt and a pair of overalls. "I don't know what to do about that jacket you're wearing," she said. The jacket, soaked through, lay in a heap with the rest of my clothing. By the time she came in again I was dressed. "Here," she ordered, handing me a coat lined with sheepskin. "This should keep you from catching pneumonia."

"Mom!" shouted the youngster. "Not my coat! Not that one! Please!"

"Oh, hush, Jimmy. You have lots of coats. This one never did fit you well, anyway. Besides, this boy needs it more than you do right now."

"But, Mom," he pleaded.

She paid no attention. I felt uneasy, slipping my arm into the coat sleeve. I knew how difficult it was to part with cherished things. I could see the young fellow was close to tears, and I sympathized. Yet I could not refuse it; his mother wouldn't understand. The woman brought me a paper bag. "Here. Some sandwiches and cookies."

Bryan was only a mile down the track. En route, warm and dry again, I ate the sandwiches and cookies. Bryan was a water-and-coal stop for local trains. Before I reached it, a 30-car freight overtook me at a fast pace, too fast for me to climb on. But two blocks further on it slowed to a stop at the water tower. Running a bit but moving cautiously past the caboose for fear of being seen by some crabby, company-minded conductor, I found an empty car and crawled in. Then I eased the door shut. When the train started up I had no idea where it was going. All I knew was that it pointed east, and that's where I was going. A short nap refreshed me. The train rambled on at a fair speed. I pushed open the door to see more of the countryside. A billboard caught my attention: "Welcome to Michigan. When in Detroit, vacation at Lake St. Clair."

I spread out my weather-beaten map that I had rescued from my wet clothes. In the light from the open door I saw clearly--hell! This train was not moving east! Sometime during my nap it had veered northward. I was only a few miles from Detroit. Messed up again! Too much sleeping and not enough paying attention to where I was going. I would have to catch another train, backtrack toward Toledo, and from there travel across state to Pennsylvania. As the train slowed before entering the yards, I hopped off and started toward Detroit. On my left were many lines of railroad track. To my right was the river. Across the river I could see Ontario, Canada.

I passed a few dozen gondolas loaded with machinery. On the route board attached to each car was a destination card reading, "Ottawa." My map showed the route of the Canadian Pacific Railroad and Canadian National, both running along Lake Erie's coastline toward the New York coastline. I also discovered that a switch engine was lining up cars and pushing them toward a ferry nearby. I watched this routine for about an hour, then waited till the switch engine went into the yard for more cars. I picked out a gondola. Once aboard I crawled under a huge girder resting on blocks of wood. Another hour went by. At last my car was pushed aboard the ferry. Some yelling, the toot of a whistle, and we were on our way across the Detroit River to Windsor. Once on the Canadian side I took my time to scout out a clean boxcar. The car I chose had been lined around walls and floor with heavy paper, making it warm and comfortable. There was nothing else to do but lie down and relax. Several times I awoke and peered out the door. Darkness had descended. It was cold outside. I closed the door till the opening was no more than a foot wide.

At two in the morning I was awakened by an uncommon stillness: the car was not moving. A wet, cold spray was lashing my face. I heard water gushing in the distance. Opening the door, I made out a series of waterfalls. I waited a while for the train to start up again. The cold spray was everywhere. Another ten minutes passed. The cold drove me the hell out of the car. A walk down the track in the dark led me to a power plant. A light at one of the side doors suggested escape from the damp cold. Inside, several dozen boilers displayed roaring oil-burning fires. The heat beckoned. I saw no one. I sat down near one of the boilers and quickly fell asleep. The next morning growls from my stomach told me to find food. En route to the bridge, the luck of the Irish was with me. A small wooden house sported a sign: "Soup Kitchen for Canadian Veterans of the War. Niagara Falls, Ontario, Branch." New York was across the Falls.

Some men came out of the building. "Could a hungry guy get a cup of coffee?" I pleaded.

"You bet your blooming life he can. And some oats and bread, too," one of them assured me, taking me by the arm and leading me inside. "Even people who didn't fight in the war get hungry," he added with a smile. I was given a feast that put me back in good spirits. These men, I learned, were veterans of World War I. They were broke and unemployed, but through their own endeavors they were managing to produce two meals a day for some fifty men in town. They did it by collecting food from farmers and merchants.

Toward the other side on the bridge, I noticed a small booth. I was not aware that there was anyone in the booth until I reached a similar booth on the Canadian side. Someone yelled at me as I started to pass. "Hey, you! Where do you think you're going?" The questioner was a young immigration inspector.

"Home," I told him.

"So you're going home, now? And where would that be?"

"New York City."

"And how long have you been in Ontario?"

"I think about two days."

"Recite the alphabet," he demanded.

I couldn't imagine the reason for this; in fact, I thought he was crazy to ask me to do such a thing. All the same, I ran through the alphabet.

"Okay, you say you're from New York City," he said. "What does IRT stand for in the subway?"

"Interborough Rapid Transit."

"How much does a ride on the subway cost?"

"A nickel."

"All right. Head across the bridge. And good luck."

As I approached the booth on the U.S. side, two men eyed me. I tried to walk past without stopping. "Hey, boy!" one of them sang out. "Where you heading in such a hurry? Come back here. We want to talk to you." The questions began: Where were you born? When? What's your name? Where are you going? Where have you been? Then, "Identification. Show me some identification. Have you a passport?"

"No. But I do have seamen's papers."

They looked over the papers carefully. Most of the ink had been washed away. That meant more questions. "Who is the present mayor of New York City? The Governor of the state? Where is the Statue of Liberty? Where's the Bowery? Where's the `gashouse' section?"

I think now that these immigration officials were using me as a form of amusement. Throughout the interrogation they smiled broadly as they waited for each of my answers. Their last questions convinced me they were having fun with me: "Who's buried in Grant's Tomb?" After that, they let me pass.

Niagara Falls, New York, was not a big town. It was clean and neat. I had only gone 50 feet off the bridge toward town when a policeman approached me. "Where you from, boy?" he asked.

I started the whole routine again.

"You have a job, boy?"

"No, sir."

"You have any money, boy?"

"No, sir."

"Then you are a vagrant, boy."

"Well, I know that, but"

"But nothing," retorted the cop. "You better come along with me."

I'll say one thing about the jail in Niagara Falls, New York: it was the only one I encountered that had a shower bath. My cells had four bunks. An hour after entering, I had taken a shower, washed all my clothes and hung them over a steam radiator. It was a time to rejoice; I had lots of hot water, soap, peace and quiet in the cell. I wondered how the judge would size me up the next morning. Hell, how is someone penniless and without means of transportation to go from one place to another without being arrested and charged with vagrancy? I would have to do as I had done in similar situations: make the best of a bum situation.

Decked out in clean clothes, with a good night's sleep and a substantial breakfast behind me, I was led before the judge in a courtroom where 15 people sat facing the judge. "A case of vagrancy, your honor," declared the prosecutor.

"Where are you from?" asked the judge.

"New York City, sir."

"You have any money?"

"No, sir."

"How did you get here if you have no money?"

"By freight trains, sir."

"Freight trains? Don't you know it's unlawful to use freight trains for transportation?"

"Yes, sir."

The judge adjusted his glasses. "Fifteen days in the city prison," he said. Before the shock could take effect, however, he added, "unless the defendant can assure me he can get out of town within one hour. Think you can do that?"

"Oh, yes, sir! I sure can!"

After three days of getting on and off slow-moving locals, I reached Ossining, New York, on the Hudson River, home of the infamous Sing Sing. I wanted to get the hell out of there in a hurry. A passenger train entered the station. When it came to a stop I managed to get on the side opposite where the passengers disembarked. Next to the engine and coal tender was the mail car. I climbed aboard and stood in its alcove hoping I hadn't been seen. Just then the door opened. A heavyset man told me quietly, "You have to get off. This is a mail car."

"Okay," I told him. I watched as he closed the door, but did nothing. I heard the conductor's "All aboard!" Steam hissed as the engineer moved the throttle forward. We were moving. Perhaps I was safe. No--the door opened quickly. The same man placed a pistol at my head. His voice was no longer quiet, but rough. "I told you this is a U.S. mail car. Now get off or I'll have to blow your head off." It was a big pistol. I made a big leap.

Luckily for me, the train was doing only about ten miles an hour. After a few minutes, a dependable old freight came by. I had no further problems. Mile by mile, the freight worked its way down the banks of the Hudson River toward the big city. At ten o'clock that night I knocked on the door of my mother's flat in New York.

Home! Home at last!


Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.

The Kid from Hoboken: Book One