"I crouched quietly in the patch of tall weeds. Around me fell the shadow of the viaduct that carried a highway over the railroad yards. From the edge of the yards, I squinted as I watched the railroad cars being switched from track to track. Cars and trucks were rolling over the viaduct, but what occupied my attention was the dark, cool corridor underneath it, where I hoped to intercept my train."
Riding the rails, Ted Conover tasted the life of a tramp with companions like Pistol Pete, BB, and Sheba Sheila Sheils. From them he learned survival skills - how to "read" a freight train, scavenge for food and clothing, avoid the railroad "bulls." He was initiated into the customs of their unique, shadowy society - men and women bound together by a mutual bond of failure, camaraderie, and distrust.
Sixty-five freight trains, 12,000 miles, and fifteen states later, Conover chronicles his impressions of their lives in this fascinating piece of first-hand reporting that becomes a thoughtful story of self-discovery.
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"What is most interesting about this book about riding freight trains with the tramps and hobos is that this is from the early 80s, not present day. I know lots of folks who ride freights and many of them have written zines about it. If this book was more present day, I might view it a bit different. Essentially Conover was an east coast college student who decided to experience tramp life riding the rails. He went about it as a bit of an anthropological study and gave himself to it 100%. His experiences are interesting and insightful and while ultimately his young white male middle class privledge gives him an "out" anytime he needs it, he tries not to and consequently learns quite a bit not only about getting around on the rails, but also on surviving in yard jungles amongst those who (mostly) have little or no choice in their circumstances. What is quite depressing is how hard it is to get up and out of the life for most and the drinking that ultimately consumes so many. While some drink their days away, others go for day labor, or welfare, or relief offered at the missions. Conover learns a lot and survives quite well to tell an interesting story. Many things have changed in 18+ years and many have not, just as though much has changed on the rails in 60 years and much has not. I'm curious to check out his other books about Coyotes on the border and working as a guard at Sing Sing."
Chris (4 out of 5 stars)