© 2006 Dean Newhouse. All rights reserved.
I had the offer of two jobs, one in Chicago for which I had to apply in at least two days, and one in San Francisco which was to be held open for me indefinitely. I lived in Cleveland and was broke. Therefore I “blinded” a passenger train. I climbed between the tender and the first baggage car and arrived in the New York Central passenger station at Chicago the morning after I started. Any hobo will tell you this is impossible. I did not know then that it was impossible, and, I suppose, ignorance is the better part of valor. Climbing from between the cars, I looked like a black-faced comedian and was just as nonchalant. I washed up in a tool shed. After that, I walked with the rest of the passengers past the two policemen who guarded the gates and descended the stairway into Chicago. Thus, though I did not know it, I began the rather dubious and chronic career of a gentleman job hunter in transit.
To the indiscriminate, members of this brotherhood are placed in the same class as hobos. I challenge the insinuation. A gentleman job hunter in transit is a man who dotes on work. He is generally the possessor of a highly technical skill in some field of endeavor; I have known artists and engineers and preachers who were members of the brotherhood. Besides being talented he is a most unfortunate man. He can not stay in one job for more than half a year because he invariably has “boss trouble” and gets fed up with it all. When things become unbearable, he packs his extra necktie and looks for another job and a more agreeable boss. The job he never has trouble in finding; the agreeable boss he never has success in finding. Ambition is one of the prerequisites for admittance to the brotherhood. I went to Chicago because I wanted to write, and the job I expected to get was with a Literary Agent or Author's Representative. I got the job.
Now just to illustrate how easy it is for members of the brotherhood to get jobs and how unfortunate they are in the matter of bosses, I will tell you how I got this job. First of all, I had never seen my employer. In the opening sentence of this piece I said that I had the offer of two jobs. The case was misstated. I had received advertising from the Literary Agent in Chicago. I had sent him one of my masterpieces. He had said, “Very good, but -- ” and had made a list of what was wrong with the yarn. Realizing immediately that he appreciated my genius, I started for Chicago. Within three days after I arrived, I was his chief assistant and on the road to being his partner in business. I will not say that it was either my personality or my genius which enabled me to accomplish this feat. I shall, with the utmost humility, permit you to draw your own conclusion.
At any rate I got the job. This was great. I felt I was on the road to glory, and the road was short. I was young; I am still young; this happened a little over a year ago. At that time I thought that by today I would be rich and famous. Instead I am a member of the brotherhood which is just as good, I guess! But at the time I had other ideas – I was working hard but I was doing what I wanted to do. Except for the one inevitable complication things would have been fine. My boss was a died-in-the-wool conservative and didn't know the War to Save Democracy was over: I was definitely a liberal and, in the manner of youth, classified myself as somewhat of a parlor pink. Our working week went off something like this: Breakfast at seven in the morning. Read script and pound typewriter intermittently from eight until noon. Gulp down coffee mixed with a couple of doughnuts, which fare is brought to the desk by the office boy (boss's son). Pound typewriter and read script until seven in the evening. Spend hour eating and carefully avoiding any mention of politics. Read script until ten. Pull down the white flag and debate Roosevelt and Socialism until three. Retire to fitful slumber for four hours, office being in boss's home. Repeat process daily until the count has reached ten. On the tenth day the boss gets roaring drunk, paints the town red, and is carted home by a taxi driver who, somewhere along the journey, has applied the monkey wrench cure for delirium tremens. Most of my own conduct on this tenth day is not a matter of record.
The important point is that when the boss was undergoing the tenth day deluge he sometimes did strange things. His language was, to say the least, magnificent. At times he felt so strongly the necessity of protecting the Constitution from the Bolsheviks that he challenged me to duel with sabers, or swords, or pistols, or fists, or all four together, as I preferred. Since his den was a modified arsenal, this was no inconsequential situation. It went so far that once, for example, when I fled down the middle of Costarno Avenue (name slightly disguised) with the boss in avid, sword-waving pursuit, the police had to interfere. I hasten to assure the reader that this is no indication of the quality of my courage. Anyway an 11th century English broadsword is no laughing matter even if it did slow down the boss's style.
Of course with my present perspective I do not blame the boss too much for these escapades. After all he couldn't be held responsible. He often mistook me for Stalin, and he was always a great one for trying his best to do his duty. With broadswords and Turkish scimitars draped all over the place any patriotic American would have done the same.
At the time, however, my youthful mind possessed no such philosophic depths as an attitude of this sort would require. I packed up my razor and soap and started for California. Though I had no idea of the fact, at the instant I walked out of the boss's house, I was a full-fledged member of the brotherhood.
I left Chicago in almost the same manner I came, except for this difference. Without a ticket, I couldn't get by the two policemen and the flock of depot attendants at the gates. The New York Central railroad station in Chicago is built up a sort of walled levee the sides of which can't be climbed. I solved the problem by walking up the stairs of an unguarded elevated street-car stop and then doing a tight-rope walk across some steel girders to the levee. Although it was at night, the street was well lighted. Several people stopped to watch me. But nothing happened. I climbed over the fence and stood by the tracks in safety. Here I donned a pair of overalls and walked toward the trains.
Before performing this feat I had provided myself with a timetable and had found out at the ticket window on what track the next train left for Omaha. I now checked this information by questioning the brakemen. The first one ignored me. The second spent five minutes telling me about the days when he used to “blind” 'em through to New York. I stood back almost out of sight beside a depot express wagon with two crates containing greyhounds. I spent half an hour stroking the head of one of these dogs; it was doe-eyed and friendly.
After a while the engine backed up to my string of Pullman cars and was coupled fast. The fireman poked about the big wheels with an oil can that had a yard-long snout. Presently he climbed into the cab. A conductor standing far back by the observation car waved an unlighted lantern. The engineer responded by causing some gadget on the engine to emit a squeaking whistle. Then the train started to move.
I came out from my hiding place and advanced. The engineer saw me and waved me off. I turned half around as if to obey, hoping he'd look ahead. But he waved at me again, frowning and shaking his head. The train was gaining speed at an amazing rate, so in spite of the engineer I made a dash and swung into the stirrup at the front end of the first baggage car. From there I crossed over to the tender and climbed a short ladder to the water tank. Here I stretched out on a big iron tool box, face up to the sky. A great dome of stars wheeled slowly around before my eyes. Off to the right were the thin, needle-point shafts of Chicago's great office buildings, one with a gleaming beacon revolving on its peak. A street ran along the side of the levee, and for a while a string of vacant-faced show windows slipped by; then dingy houses, and a street where a heavy stream of traffic passed under the bridge. The engine panted and ejected overhead a great funnel-shaped spread of smoke. Occasionally a flare of light, as the fireman stoked coal, turned the funnel from black to a bloody color against the sky. All this was somehow pathetically beautiful and filled me with a sort of exhilaration.
But after a while the exhilaration left. It got very cold. I began to shiver. I could not get out of the wind no matter where I crouched. When I was thoroughly miserable, hell cut loose. An iron trap door on top of the tank flew open, and a huge gush of water rushed like a tidal wave to the other end of the tender, and, rebounding, charged headlong at me where I sat, legs outsprawled, back to the coal bin. As near to one hundred per cent asleep as possible in my half-frozen condition, I scrambled wildly to my feet, climbed up on one rung of a ladder, and hung there in the wind. The water roared and pounded on the trap door; it boiled about the thin steel legs of the ladder. Finally when it receded, I found I was wet to the waist, and in the excitement the wind had blown off my hat.
Now I knew what the brakeys had meant when they said the trains out of Chicago took water on the fly. A scoop hangs down under the tender, and at various points there are long troughs between the tracks. The locomotive doing seventy just barely slows down when it passes over this trough. The scoop does the rest. The trap door is a sort of safety valve which allows excess water escape. Needless to say, after this brief education, I was no more comfortable then before. I spent the rest of the night crouching in a leonine attitude watching the trap door. No eskimo was ever as cold as I became before that night was over.
Sometime in the dark we crossed the Mississippi River, and it was after daylight when the train slipped across the Missouri into Omaha. I got off the train and walked on along the tracks to a tool shed. I was too tired to think of caution or of respite from my journey. It seemed to me I could ride forever. Behind the tool shed I found another young fellow about my own age waiting for the train to pull out. He was Alfred Givens and had a suit case and a blanket. But, apparently, he was just an adventurer, not a member of the brotherhood. I did not recognize him as such until many weeks later when I met him again in San Francisco. Our present comradeship lasted for something like five hours. Just then we had no time to get acquainted. A fat man with a badge on his pants pocket and an apoplectic red face was hurrying along the tracks toward us. “Oh-oh,” said my companion, “A dick!”
We started to walk away. The detective made a motion as if to draw a gun. We walked faster and descended the side of the hill upon which the railroad was built. Then we skirted the depot and came back along the tracks between the trains. An engineer leaned out of his cab and said, “No use trying to ride a train out of this depot. It can't be done.”
At this moment our train began to move. We stood looking at it. Then we made a dash and swung aboard the second car back from the engine. This seemed to be an extra passenger car not in use, and there was only a steel folding gate to prevent our slipping inside out of sight. We watched from a window as we passed out of the station. There was a detective on either side of the tracks waiting to pick us off. Needless to say, we got safely by and left them behind unaware we were on the train. The baggage man, however, had seen us. He came back and told us to get off at the next stop. Later a porter told us the same thing and then a conductor. We agreed patiently and at each stop we pretended to obey. But when the train got under way, we climbed back on.
We made considerable distance this way. Then one of the conductors told us that there were officials on the train, and that they'd telephoned ahead to Grand Island. This sounded strangely like baloney, so we stayed on. At Grand Island a detective climbed aboard and caught us red-handed. He seemed to think I was the ring leader in a conspiracy to rob the mails; he jerked me along through the depot by the arm. He paid little attention to my companion who assumed a mollified air and, furthermore, had not ridden long enough to have the completely black face I possessed. In a little room above the depot he told me he was going to beat all sorts of things out of me. After having commanded, “Sit down!” he jerked me to my feet by the hair. With visions of torture and a determination to die fighting I grabbed him and tussled about the room. There was a window, and I thought briefly of tossing him through it. Then I noticed he had gone lax in my hands, so I went lax too. He called the local police. I went to the county jail for eight days. Here I met my first two members of the brotherhood.
My sentence was light considering what I had done. But then they, the police chief, judge, and so forth, ran across some masterpieces of prose composition in my bundle, and, when my face was washed, perceiving my youth, my personal merit, and my absolutely undubitable genius, decided that the minimum sentence would be sufficient to teach me a lesson. The judge lectured for a while but let me keep my treasure of ten dollars intact. The detective who played with my hair was very nice when he testified against me and didn't make my actions sound over twice as bad as they actually were. Later he even told me he was sorry, and if I'd watch my temper, I'd be all right. The object of my term in jail, I learned, was to make a better boy of me, so I spent eight days in intimate daily contact with a man who hadn't worked since 1922, an idiot oldster, a poor white in jail for drunkenness and attempted rape, a baseball player who had got behind in his monthly payments to a girl who'd borne him an illegitimate child, and two members of the brotherhood.
After I had laid out two dollars to Kangaroo Court which furnished everybody with cigarettes and chewing tobacco if these were wanted, I was admitted to friendly games of poker and black jack which we played with a greasy set of cards and match sticks. Presently I found out all about the two members of the brotherhood. One was McGregor. I doubt if this was his real name, but in 1928 he was foreign correspondent for the New York Daily World and worked in Mexico and then Peru. The other was Willy Crull, an effeminate, little man who had done two things. For three years he had preached the gospel, but he was now an itinerant artist, peddling his wares from door to door and sometimes illustrating McGregor's articles. The two did their job hunting together and were inseparable friends. Their trouble, like my own, was boss trouble. That was why McGregor had settled down pretty steadily to free lancing, at which he was not quite a success. Even yet, however, he occasionally worked two or three months at a job on a newspaper before the editor fired him for impertinence or alcoholic eccentricities. I saw the work of both these men, and it was unquestionably good. McGregor read some of my masterpieces, told me what was wrong with them, that I should try to slant them more at particular magazines, a bit of advice my boss in Chicago had already offered. McGregor told me, out of politeness, as had also the latter, that they were good.
At the end of the eight days I went on to San Francisco. The winning and losing of the job there is an unimportant story and may be omitted. It was a truck driving job for the Railway Express Company. At the end of two months I retired to a hotel room and began to write. I wrote insanely and voluminously and futilely. I left San Francisco and beat my way south to San Diego. For a month and a half I worked as an office boy, reader, and all around handy man in the staff of the San Diego News. I crossed Arizona, New Mexico, smoked Marijuana cigarettes in Juarez and did other things. I learned of the hundred species of sox madness to be found only on the road. And I met others of the brotherhood. I met a second preacher in New Orleans. I met a mechanic who knew Diesel Engines from the tiniest to the largest bolt. I met an engineer from my own home town, graduate of Case University. I met a lawyer who'd graduated from Yale and had spent two years in a law school besides. Beating my way north and west again, I met the most audacious of them all going into Reno in an empty reefer in one end of a refrigeration car. He was a blond, good-looking man and had his wife and six-month-old daughter along. You see many women on the road, but it is best to keep away from them for the white slavery laws are severe, and any old hobo will tell you about the treachery of women. But this man, whose name I found out was Gillick, was so plaintive in his pleas for me to stay that I couldn't refuse.
A reefer (short for refrigerator) is a compartment about four feet wide, running crosswise at either end of the box car. When the car is loaded these are generally filled with ice. In empties hobos use the reefers for traveling quarters. They may be reached by either of two heavy trap doors on the roof of the box car. Gillick was afraid that he would not be able to open these trap doors to get out, and he wanted me to help. He told me all about himself. He had been an assistant wild animal trainer for a major circus only a month or so ago. He had worked for three circuses in as many years. He was trying now to catch a show that he thought was due to be in Reno this week. He'd been clawed by a big cat on his last job, and his shoulder was still in bandages. He sat on top of the car with his feet dangling through the hole of the trap door, yelling a broken conversation to his wife below in the reefer. He held his six-month-old daughter in his arms for half an hour and let the cold desert sunset wind beat at her. She began to cough, but she squinted into the wind fiercely. At Reno I helped them out of the car, and they walked off into the night, he and his wife lugging a suitcase and the sleeping child between the two of them. As they disappeared, they were quarreling about where they'd spend the night.
As for myself I went on to San Francisco where in a cheap cafe on the Embarcadero I met Alfred Givens again. He was playing a piano. When we got to talking I discovered that he was quite a musician. He played Beethoven and Chopin with a finish even my untrained ear could appreciate. He was going to make a try for Hollywood soon; he didn't like the boss and was going to leave this week… But I don't think Al is a permanent member of the brotherhood. There was something in the grace of his long fingers and vitality to the music he played… Of course we're all talented, but Al…
As for myself just now I'm trying to like my boss. Three months ago, I came back to Cleveland because I remembered a columnist and critic on a local paper who had said to me, “You've got what it takes. You can be a short story writer if you want to be.” I had cherished the memory of these words for a long time. It had occurred to me that perhaps I could get a job through him. On arrival I washed and shaved in the men's washroom of the old 9th street depot. Talking with a workman, I happened to remark I hadn't eaten since I left Des Moines. I told him optimistically that there was job waiting for me… I thought. He asked me if I lived here, or had folks living here. I said they used to. He left 35 cents on the washstand and half his pack of cigarettes. I hesitated before I took all this. I was in my home town. A fellow didn't do that sort of thing in his home town, but later on I spent the 35 cents for a good square meal.