[Editor's Note: What follows is an excerpt from the wholly excellent Loitering: New and Collected Essays (published by Tin House) by semi-local literary darling Charles D'Ambrosio. He's currently teaching at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and in our interview (which you can read here) we caught up with D'Ambrosio, who told us more about this collection, what he's been up to, and how much he misses us.]
MY FATHER'S AGORAPHOBIA made leaving the house a spooky and ritualistic process, ruled by mysterious tempers, but with enough drugs it sometimes happened, and we were off, the whole family, on vacation! The drugs that loosened his nerves and made the big bad outside world navigable also made him a sloppy driver, weaving lackadaisically around the highway, and wherever we were going—California, Vancouver—would seem very far away. Invariably, our crappy car would catch fire on steep grades (my sister's job was to douse the transmission hump with water when she saw the carpet fibers smoldering), plus with seven kids, all piled on top of each other, somebody was always carsick and ralphing in the backseat. We kept an old dented saucepan in the car, called the Spit-Up Pan, which we passed around so my dad wouldn't have to pull over every time a child needed to vomit.
Subsequently, I've never been much of a vacationer, and even now, when somebody starts talking about Hawaii or Cancun or St. Barts, I pray they won't mention the color of the water and tell me about snorkeling. As a young man, I tried Europe, but the woman I was meeting, on our second day in Paris, said she needed time alone, and went off to Barcelona with somebody else. For three days I walked to the Hôtel de Ville for reasons that are too stupid to admit and read an omnibus edition of Dashiell Hammett. I'd never been lied to like that, and I took my pain to mean I lacked continental sophistication, and Paris sort of died inside me.
I loved hopping freight trains. It was cheap, dirty, loud, picturesque, illegal, athletic, dangerous, and, best of all, it didn't seem like a vacation. In fact, as far as I could tell, judging from personal experience, as well as things I'd heard, there was nothing in riding trains that even remotely resembled pleasure. It was hard work. You walked for miles on a crippling ballast of gravel, looking for an open boxcar, and slept on a cushion of cardboard, your feet forward, in the direction of travel, so that you wouldn't break your neck in a derailment. You drank water from old Clorox bottles. You pissed out the door. You ate canned sardines. The schedule was indifferent to your needs and the destinations were all pointless. The only souvenir I have from that time is a rusted railroad spike. There might have been some romance to it—there might have been some road signs and red neon, some dead ends and diners, some hash browns—but really I was just skylarking. All the skills necessary for hopping trains were the sort you master by the time you get out of grade school. It was all jungle-gym stuff, it was monkey bars and rings and ladders, and if you could climb and run, if you had reasonable balance, if you liked jumping and bouncing and falling, then you could ride freight trains.
The minute you entered a yard the bigness of the trains translated right into your bones. I know it sounds corny, but you got proxy thrills of power, wandering around in those corridors made from some of the world's big machines. It was jarring to be in their midst, they were so gargantuan. Boxcars wide as whales, locomotives roaming up and down the yard with the single white eye of a Cyclops, grain hoppers overflowing with corn and wheat, gondolas piled with scrap metal and flatbeds loaded with raw logs or finished lumber, triple-deckers packed with import cars, empty deadheads and old rusting crummies shunted onto sidings. The dreamy size of the trains made your sense of trespass keen—it felt fatal—and the noise of the yard was enough to knock you over. And yet for all the vagrant time I spent, I never had any real hassles. The guys who work the trains are among that peculiar class of impassioned men in America, men who love their work and, loving it, want to share, as though they were holding their job in trust and some fabled and crucial part of America were stored inside their days in office. They're like firemen in that respect, without the tiresome noble sentiments. I'd wave collegially to the brakemen high up in the cupola of a caboose and talk easily to the men making up trains, men who in turn would pull a manifest from their pockets and point out a decent ride, an empty box or gon on the next train out.
Boxcars were the best rides, offering a room with a view and some protection from the rain or sun or snow, a leeward wall out of the wind, a dark corner to hide in when the snakes who walked the line came by, checking hydraulics. I'd jam a stick or discarded brake shoe in the door so it wouldn't rattle shut and make a sepulchre of the box while I slept. Most nights, though, I stayed up late, sleepless, because of all the bouncing, and besides, I liked the clangor of crossing guards, candy-striped and flashing with warning lights, an idled car or two waiting in the dim red glow.
After a few days you were filthy, carrying a funeral around on your face. The dirt wasn't unpleasant and mostly I remember feeling it was honorable—I translated it directly into miles, into small towns and states. I would pack along a pair of gloves, which kept my hands somewhat clean as I climbed over couplings and boosted myself into boxcars, but in the main I liked being dirty and feeling, on some level, strange and unwelcome. It sharpened my longing and called upon reserves of faith I didn't know I possessed. The dirt was like an account, a measure of wealth, and so, as the days and miles went by, I felt as though I were becoming someone.