Railway Bum

My favorite coffee shop is right next to the railroad tracks— freight tracks, that run past the airport and see trains passing for most of the day and into the night. I like getting close to those tracks as the train sweeps by, even though I know a loose tie strap could whip through my body and split me wide at those speeds. Even though I know that sparks and flying debris could hit me, blind me, concuss me, kill me. It doesn’t matter. I love the rumble of the earth as the train trundles by. I love the sound of the bells as the cross bars drop, and the way the train’s sound drowns out all others.

I like to pretend I was born in the wrong time. That’s easy to do: romanticize an era long gone, when thousands took to the rails to look for work, to get to greener pastures and places where there’d be food or a roof. I pretend I know what it’s like to be roofless… but couch-surfing homeless and sky-sheltered homeless are two different beasts. I pretend I want to know what it’s like to dodge bulls at the station. I pretend a lot. But that’s what happens with the past, isn’t it? Denizens of better days or uncertain futures, we gild the long-gone, and hold it up as an ideal. I know better, or at least, I should.

Still, there’s something about the trains. Something that pulls me to their graffitied box cars and shipping containers, their rust and rumble. How many miles of track still exist in the U.S.? How many miles have been torn up and away? My fingers itch, and I find myself calculating jumps, trajectories, speeds. But instead of hopping on and letting the rails take me north to stops unknown, I crouch close, camera in hand, and snap away.

It’s almost enough, sometimes.

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