When you are a competent old man who lives alone, you can eat what you want for breakfast. This morning I had noodles, or rather noodle soup, a favorite of mine for colder weather. Broth with ... [+]
"There's a likely spot," Chris said. He nodded in the direction of the highway bridge. The bridge carried traffic over a culvert and a utility road that led from a shabby warehouse district into the railyard, where we were happily trespassing. Dry hills rose into the smog beyond it. Nothing separated us from the railyard but a chainlink fence, and most of that was lying in the dust. "If there's no hobos there, you can kiss my ass."
"There'd better be some, then," I said. Chris grunted. That was as close as he ever got to a laugh. It was Chris who had once told me that happiness was overrated. He pushed his sunglasses up his broken nose and hefted his camera bag onto his shoulder. I did the same with mine.
We made a good team for this gig. I was tall and quick, and Chris was broad and hard. We both had shaggy hair, bristly beards, and eyes that said we'd seen too much of life. The hobos understood and respected that, because they were much the same. If anything, they were more cheerful than Chris and me. In the hierarchy of the unsheltered in America, hobos were top of the heap. They alone had chosen the life they led.
We looked left and right and saw no trains moving. It was time to get to work.
Our path to the bridge took us across eight or ten sets of tracks. We had to lift our feet over the rails, and then we usually slipped a bit in the gravel roadbeds, so our progress involved somewhat more lurching than was dignified. This mattered, since if there were any hobos under the bridge, they would already be watching our progress. Then again, the rules of that world required them to pretend they weren't on the lookout, since they had nothing to fear. It also required us to walk in as though we were part of the neighborhood. No one would be surprised that we showed up, and we wouldn't be surprised that we found them. They already knew we weren't yard bulls: the railroad cops would have driven up on the unpaved service road in their shiny truck, swollen with bad news. Our vulnerability gave us strength.
We approached slowly, on a beeline, but never hurrying, never holding back. The sun was behind us and felt hot on our necks. The rumble of traffic grew louder as we neared the bridge. A small bird flew erratically across our path. I could make out a few squatting silhouettes in the shade of the overpass. One was still wearing a hat. The boys were there.
Stepping into the shade of the overpass changed the world. Instead of sun glare, hot rusty rails, and desolate flatness, there was a strange sense of home. Six lean men slouched in their dusty clothes around a burned-out firepit. Most of them sat on wooden crates. More crates scattered around held old tin plates smeared with remnants of food. The man in the hat looked up. His eyes were bright in the grime of his lined face. He didn't smile.
"Afternoon," I said. Chris nodded.
"Afternoon," the hobo said. "Sit down. You just missed lunch."
"That's all right," I said. "We caught some on the road."
An old man with a wispy beard the color of dishwater spoke up: "You boys out takin' pitchers?"
"Yeah," I said. Chris nodded again. We swung our camera bags off our shoulders and sat down. "Figured folks out there might be interested in the brotherhood of the road and all that stuff."
Hat Man laughed quietly. I saw a gap in his teeth. "They're always interested. Long as it's just pictures, huh?" One of the other hobos got up and shambled away, no hurry in his step. Hat Man pulled out a bottle. "Care for a drink?"
"Nah," I said. "Not when we're working." Chris shook his head.
"Suit yourself,'" said Hat Man. He took a long swig. The ritual over, he said, "You can take my picture. Just don't use my real name."
"You won't tell it to me anyway, right?"
He smiled, and ran his fingers through his beard. His bright eyes would make a striking punktum against the trash-strewn shadows under the bridge.
Then Gramps went through the futile ritual of dusting off his jacket, and stood up. "Me too," he said. The two remaining hobos nodded and smiled. Another one had wandered off while Hat Man talked. We opened the bags and got to work.
We must have spent an hour and a half with the hobos, taking pictures and listening to their life stories, some of which might even have been true. I concentrated on the portraits, and Chris took pictures of the gentlemen in context. I kept a little tape recorder running, which I had told them about, to hand to the eventual writer. I think we burned six rolls each.
As we put our gear back into the bags, Hat Man opened a worn and grimy knapsack and pulled out an equally worn and grimy Nikon. He took a lens cloth out of a plastic bag and carefully wiped the lens. "Your turn now," he said. Looking at me first, he went on: "Stand in front of that big burn mark on the concrete wall there. I got me a scrapbook I keep in my daughter's trailer in Missouri, you know."
I looked at Chris, and we both nodded. I stood at the wall. Hat Man focused slowly, squinting through the eyepiece, and clicked the shutter twice. He did the same with Chris. "Thank you, boys," he said. We shouldered our bags and left the shade of the overpass.
Once we were well away, Chris said, "Think he really had film in there?"
"Yeah. Saw the rewind knob turn when he cocked it."
"Well, I'll be damned. You never know about folks, do you?"
I shook my head. "That's right. You never know."