Magazine article The New Yorker

TRAIN IN VAIN; HOLIDAYS Series: 4/5

Magazine article The New Yorker

TRAIN IN VAIN; HOLIDAYS Series: 4/5

Article excerpt

My father's agoraphobia made leaving the house a spooky and ritualistic process, ruled by mysterious tempers, but with enough drugs it sometimes happened, and we were off, the whole family, on vacation! The very drugs that loosened his nerves and made the big bad outside world navigable also made him a sloppy driver, weaving lackadaisically around the highway, and wherever we were going--California, Vancouver--would seem very far away. Invariably, our crappy car would catch fire on steep grades (my sister's job was to douse the transmission hump with water when she saw the carpet fibres smoldering), plus with the seven of us kids all piled on top of one another somebody was always carsick and ralphing in the back seat. We kept an old dented saucepan called the "spit-up" pan back there, so my dad wouldn't have to pull over every time a child needed to vomit. Subsequently, I haven't been much of a vacationer. As a young man, I tried Europe, but the woman I was meeting, on our second day in Paris, said she needed time alone, and then went off to Barcelona with somebody else. For three days I walked to the Hotel de Ville for reasons too stupid to admit and read an omnibus edition of Dashiell Hammett. I'd never been lied to like that, and I took my pain to mean I lacked Continental sophistication, and Paris sort of died inside me.

But! I loved hopping freight trains. It was cheap, dirty, loud, picturesque, illegal, athletic, dangerous, and, best of all, it didn't seem like a vacation. In fact, as far as I could tell, there was nothing in riding trains that even remotely resembled pleasure. It was hard work. You walked for miles on a crippling ballast of gravel, looking for an open boxcar, and slept on a cushion of cardboard, your feet forward, in the direction of travel, so that you wouldn't break your neck in a derailment. You drank water from old Clorox bottles. You pissed out the door. The schedule was indifferent to your needs and the destinations were pointless. There might have been some romance to it--there might have been some road signs and red neon, some dead ends and diners, some hash browns--but really I was just skylarking. All the skills necessary for hopping trains were the sort you master by the time you get out of grade school--jungle-gym stuff, monkey bars and rings and ladders. …

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