The Tracks, the Shadow Side
One block North of Lake Street, there was a corridor of rail.
It is a bicycle path now, The Mid Town Greenway, neat, groomed and gentrified.
It is called the 29th Street Depression, running below street level.
It was a valley of trash, collecting garbage, and people with no place to go;
sleeping under bridges that crossed it every block, from Hennepin to Stevens Avenue. The Snow-Bos’, always on the run from winter, always chasing after trains, the endless summer, riding in box cars, and platforms on wheels.
We use to solicit those boys to buy us beer. We gave them dollars, vodka, food.
I went to High School on Lake and Colfax at a program called W.O.C., the school I dropped out of when I was sixteen.
The lunch lady would give us the extras, hot lunches in tin foil trays. We took them out to the boys for trade.
The lunch ladies did not know how we bartered them for liquor runs, turning her gifts of food into booze, stoking their charity with our lies.
We drank with the bums, getting soaked on stories, and black berry brandy, with Railroad Buddy and his pals.
Do you know the difference between a Snow Bo and a Ho Bo?
Because many people think of a Ho Bo as a bum but he is not.
A Ho Bo carries a hoe with him and is always willing to do a little work for a meal or a bottle.
A Snow Bo is just a man on the run from winter, just riding, and rolling, and moving with the seasons of the sun.
I am a Snow Bo, he said.
I don’t like to work.
In 1986 I saw a group of Snow Bos get run down by a train by the Dupont bridge.
We were two blocks down from them when we saw the train approaching, and we were too far away to help, though we tried to reach them, running
toward the three old men sleeping on the railroad tracks, resting on the rails as if it were nothing at all.
The train came, whistle blowing, wheels on steel screeching to a halt stopping too late to save them, one scrambling out of the way in time, one trying but too late to save his legs, the other out cold…he never felt a thing, as the train crushed him into pieces.
We used to jump the slow train on Nicollet Island, on the Mississippi, and ride it to the East of Cedar Lake, where we grabbed another headed Uptown;
to Saint Paul, or back to the river, to the West Bank, to Dinky Town, circling round the city, weaving between the lakes, along the streams and rivers.
The trains always moved slow in the middle of the day.
Slow enough to just grab a hold, pull yourself up, and be on the move.
I would climb over a train if it was stopped on the tracks, run along the top of it like the hero in a movie, remaking the world around me in my mind, like children do, like the child I was, looking past the refuse, not seeing the broken glass, the jagged metal, the ruined lives.
I would crawl beneath a train, playing hide and seek from my friends.
The tracks were just another playground in a city full of parks.
We kept our eyes peeled for the engineers, bad-guys we thought, they might shoot you, with shells full of salt.
Cindy Woo leapt off the bridge on Aldrich when I was seven years old; four blocks from where we lived. She was twelve, when leapt in front of the rolling train. It was the end of the line. She lived next door to me, and she was my sister’s friend, no-one ever told us why.
She had had enough of life; enough of whatever pain she had endured, enough to jump the train straight out of the world.
Dennis Bundi stole a train in the ninth grade. He stole it, and drove it to St. Paul, and back. He stole it in the reckless night, in the dark, blind night of youth.
The 29th Street depression was a shadow place, a lawless place, a no man’s land.
It was a world between world’s, where we tested the boundaries, and came of age.
I read this Essay from my Collection, at the June gathering of Poets n’ Pints, June 15th, 2016