There are two kinds of people who ride the rails. Hobos and Snobos. I’m a Snobo. Hobos got that name because they always carried a hoe with them, “hoe-boy.” They would stop, and work for food, or a little money. Snobos don’t work, we just follow the seasons, north in the summer, south when winter comes.
My Recollection – Railroad Buddy (1985)[i]
One block North of Lake Street, there was a corridor of rail.
We called it the 29th Street Depression, because it runs below street level, from Hennepin Avenue, to 4th.
In a city full of parks, and forests, and gardens, full of clear pools, and bubblinf fountains, and clean lakes, I have always gravitated toward the wild places, like the railroad tracks, drawn to them for the extra dimension of adventure, the added degree of danger that they promised.
I have never lived more than a few blocks from one rail corridor or another. I always viewed the railroad tracks as if they were just another city park, only unsupervised, and as such, a place of freedom, of uninhibited play.
There were always strangers lingering in the shadows beneath the bridges. They were not bums, as many people called them, in my child’s imagination they might have been trolls, hungering for human flesh in the dark.
The 29th Street depression, was a valley of trash, collecting garbage, and people with no place to go. People sleeping under bridges that crossed it block by block. It was where the Snow-Bos’ lived in spring and summer, they were not trolls after all, but they were always on the run from winter, always chasing trains, riding in box cars, and platforms on wheels, racing toward the sun.
I was seven years old, I went with my brother Eric to the game store on Bryant. We cut across the railroad tracks on our way back home.
There was a long train standing motionless on the tracks. He did not want to walk around it, and so we crawled under even as it began to move. We crawled beneath the rolling train, between the spinning wheels, all steel and heavy enough to crush a boy in two.
I was afraid.
I was a harrowing experience, but when it was over, the fear was gone, and I would never be afraid of a moving train again.
I loved to wander in the cavernous places along the railroad lines, the grain elevators, long abandoned, might have been home to some blind Polyphemus raising his voice to the wind and stars, shouting out that Nemo, no-man, had blinded him. When it was really he himself, and his penchant for kerosene.
I was a street kid, but there were kids more “street” than me dwelling under the bridges on the tracks.
I met a couple of them one day when I was wandering home from the comic store.
I was nine maybe ten years old, that summer. I met up with them, kicking things around the tracks, lighting things on fire.
We began to explore the areas around the grain elevator off Lyndale.
They introduced me to an older kid who was huffing paint. I did not know what huffing was, but they explained it to me, and asked me if I wanted to try it.
I did not want to try it.
The boy who was huffing had a silver ring around his nose and mouth, from the residue left by the silver paint he had poured into a plastic bag.
It smelled terrible, and I had to imagine how I would have explained it to my mom if I came home marked liked that.
Those boys were way beyond me, and I knew it.
I knew it even as I climbed the rusted broken stairs with them, and went to the top of the grain elevator, with the stairs case swinging slightly on a rusted iron pin.
We walked around the upper floors, on the level that was pock marked with man-holes, each opening to a vacuous space below, a one hundred and fifty foot drop to the floor of the grain elevator.
A boy from the neighborhood fell through one of the holes a couple of years later, he lived, but he never walked again. Some other kids had fallen through and met a different end.
It was a death trap for abandoned and neglected children.
The city finally tore that deadly playground down sometime in the ‘80’s, having I had stood vacant, and derelict for years too long.
The railroad on 29th street is gone. That long corridor has been gentrified, given way to town houses, and condominiums whose patios open onto what was once a wild space, now clean, cultivated and safe.
The 29th Street Depression is where my friends and I gathered under railroad bridges, to light fires and drink beer. It is now a greenway, for walkers, and joggers, and cyclists. Young families, upwardly mobile, pushing strollers to the lakes.
W.O.C. on Lake Street and Colfax, was adjacent to the railroad, there was a path to the tracks from the parking lot of the school through a hole in some chain link, and past an enclave below the 29th Street, which we called the cage.
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 imagination, even as small children do, and like the child I was, even though I was still a teen, I looked past the refuse, did not see the broken glass, the jagged metal, the ruined lives, neither did I turn them into monsters in my mind.
Crawl beneath a train, playing hide and seek with my friends.
The trains always moved slow in the middle of the day. Slow enough to just grab hold of a rung on a ladder and pull yourself up. Once off the ground you were on the move, rolling in the breeze.
We used to jump the slow train on Nicollet Island, on the Mississippi, and ride it South and West to the East of Cedar Lake, where we would jump off and wait a few minutes before grabbing a hold of another headed Uptown, or farther, to Saint Paul, and back to the river, to the West Bank, the University, to Dinky Town, circling round the city, weaving between the lakes, weaving on the rails, weaving among the streams and rivers.
We kept our eyes peeled for the engineers. They were the bad-guys, so we thought, they might shoot you, with shotgun shells full of rock salt. I never knew anybody who had been shot, but the urban legend said that it happened all the time.
Dennis Bundy stole a train when I was in the ninth grade.
It was a legendary move.
He stole it, drove it to St. Paul, reversed direction and drove it back.
He stole it in the middle of the night, in the reckless dark, in the blind night of youth.
His FBI file got opened on that date.
We would race each other along the two-inch-wide rail, balancing as we walked and ran, skipped and leapt as fast and far as we could. I recall flying alongside Pete, like an angel at his side, arms stretched out like wings. Racing from the bridge under Hennepin Avenue, to the bridge that crossed over the Lagoon, flying over the tar slathered ties undergirding the iron beams, above the cool waters in the channel between the lakes.
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 our boundaries, and came of age, or punched a ticket out of the world and died.
Cindy lived next door to my family on Aldrich. She leapt off the bridge four long blocks from house. I was seven years old, she was twelve.
She leapt in front of the rolling train. That was the end of the line for her.
She was my sister’s friend, no-one ever told us why she jumped.
It was inexplicable, a tragedy.
She had had enough of life, enough of whatever pain she had endured, enough to jump the train straight out of the world.
We would solicit the Snobos to buy us beer. We gave them dollars, vodka, food.
We would find them down on the tracks, sleeping under the bridges.
Beth was the lunch lady at W.O.C., she was a nice lady with red hair. She worked at Sun Sight Books, the New Age bookstore a few blocks down Lake Street. She would give us the extras meals, hot lunches in tin foil trays at the end of the lunch hour.
We took those hot meals out to the Snobos as a part of our trade.
Beth did not know what we did, she did not know how we bartered her gifts away for liquor store runs, and beer, turning her charity into booze.
We drank with the Snobos, getting soaked on stories, and drunk on black berry brandy, sipping the mornings away with Railroad Buddy and his pals.
“There are two kinds of people who ride the rails. Hobos and Snobos. I’m a Snobo,” Railroad Buddy said.
“Do you know the difference between a Snowbo and a Hobo?
“Because many people think of a Hobo as a bum but he is not.
“Hobos got that name because they always carry a hoe with them…you know, a garden stick.
“‘Hoe-boy,’ people called to them.
“They would stop, and work for food, or a little money, or a bottle.
“Snobos don’t work, we just follow the seasons, North in summer, South when winter comes.
“A Snobo is just a man on the run from the cold, just riding, and rolling, and moving with the seasons of the sun.
“I am a Snobo,” he said.
“I don’t like to work.”
In 1986 I saw a group of Snobos get run down by a train between the Dupont and Emerson bridges.
We were two blocks down from them, drinking beer in the late afternoon at Freemont, when we saw the train approaching, and we were too far away to help the Snobos, though we ran to them and tried to reach them. First shouting, then running towards them, we ran towards 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, steel wheels on steel rails screeching to a halt, stopping too late to save them.
One man scrambled out of the way in time. One tried, but he was too slow and too late to save his legs, the other was out cold…he never felt a thing, as the train crushed him into pieces.
He died in his sleep.
There was a blood stain on the tracks, spread over the railroad ties, that lingered for most of the summer. It was what remained after the train rolled over those Snobos, those tired old men caught sleeping on the tracks.
The story spread that the blood stain had come from the dead man’s heart, heart blood pumped and pouring out over the rails and ties.
I knew that story to be a myth, a legend, a lie.
I knew because I witnessed the moment when he died.
I saw the wheels cut the man in half. The grievous wound that killed him was nowhere near his heart, it crushed him to pieces, at the knees and at his neck, feet dangling over on of the rails, head propped up on the other.
The false narrative was out there, and it spread, and it was haunting to those who believed it.
I would listen to the other kids say that the blood from the heart was imbued with magic and power. That because of this the man’s spirit was fixed to the blood stain in that place, only to be freed over time, fading in the sun, and the soaking rains.
It was a couple of short blocks from where we all hung out on Hennepin, between Lake and Lagoon.
In those summer nights, in the ‘80’s I would meet a girl and take her for a walk, holding hands down the Mall and crossing over to the tracks.
We would walk back up to the bridge, and under it to smoke, and drink, and steal a few minutes of privacy, away from the crowds and prying eyes.
We would talk, touch our fingers together, press our lips, feel the heat of our bodies warming each other as we made-out in the trash strewn corridor.
The trains don’t roll down 29th street anymore. They circle around the city, to the West and North.
I have not hopped a train in decades.
The tracks were basically an extension of my backyard. Just as Lake Street is, just one block off, and sunk down into the well of the 29th Street.
The tracks were in the shadow of Lake Street, the cast offs gathered there, the remnants of its wild side. It was the place where the poor and vanquished came to curl up and die.
The dirt and the trash and the danger are gone.
It is a bicycle path now, The Mid Town Greenway, neat and groomed, and gentrified.
Now it is a park for everyone