California Trains

Short Story

I had first met Taai on a freight train, on the way to San Francisco – he had shuffled in whilst I was sleeping, my head sore against the miserable pack that I carried with me. He had claimed his corner of the container and just sat there. The bells blew loudly as we settled into a little siding, and I woke, with some shock, with a man sitting opposite. The night was cold, and the wind whipped my face whilst the steel chilled my ribcage thoroughly.

I thought he was staring at me, so I stared at him, but he didn’t flinch or anything. He was just staring. Not at anything in particular though. His skin dark but not quite black, he had wooden eyes that were shrewd yet welcoming, on high cheekbones which ended with a neatly kept goatee, matching his closely trimmed hair – he could get his kicks if he wanted to, that was for sure. That was what everyone was about in those days, just getting kicks from bennies and tea, girls and music, trying to be ‘in’ whilst never actually just being. To be fair, that described me pretty well at the time.

I had heard it was meant to be warmer on the West Coast, but the ‘warm’ valleys were covered with a frozen mist which could douse most fires. I’d planned on getting up and moving about, to avoid my face from getting any bluer, and I did so slowly, just to gauge what he would do. He didn’t move or anything, and I started to run up and down my side of the container, swinging my arms about, running on the spot, you name it. It probably looked like I’d suddenly been dosed and was feeling the urge to move, but I didn’t really care. Neither did Taai it seemed. He just sat in his tattered shawl, wasn’t even shivering. That would surprise me later on, as in when I’d meet him years later back in New York, where I’d learn that he was from where he’s from.

The train had picked up speed, and we’d just passed Monterey, so I knew we’d be arriving sooner or later. We stopped in another siding, and the bells blew loudly once more, and another train came rolling down the mainline. I decided to hop out to try and lift some wine from this little shop I saw across a ways before we got into the city (the bastards would reach and steal from your pockets if you didn’t know where to look for juice). In hindsight, I was stupid for just leaving my pack there, with some guy who I hadn’t uttered a word to – that isn’t to say I had much of value in there, just some books, an extra pair of clothes and a pack of smokes. But as I grazed my knees jumping back onto the train, he hadn’t moved – still staring, not doing a thing. I sussed him to be one of those hobo travelers who had failed in life, just searching for the end of the road, but I quickly withdrew my conclusion. I’d been taught not to judge too quickly, but, hell, I still do today.

I’d decided that I liked Taai, and I offered him some of my wine –  he was still doing nothing and saying nothing. I thought he hadn’t heard me, what with the wind shouting at us and every bone in our bodies being rattled as we rode over every tie.

“Hey, you want some wine? It ain’t the best but it’ll warm you right up.”

“No, thank you”. His reply was simple enough, and he didn’t say a word more for the rest of the trip. His accent intrigued me – like I said, I hadn’t learnt of his background back then, and so I had the greatest of difficulty trying to place him. I gave up and moved on to wondering why he wouldn’t take the offer. Not many people turn down free wine. I imagined him to be a religious drag who tried to ‘maintain connection with God’ and ‘had not the time to revel in the delights of temporary man’, but I caught myself again. I’d met plenty of these types during my travels. America, and indeed Europe, had no shortage of them. I’d come to learn that I wasn’t too far off the mark with this judgment of Taai. The religious part, I mean, not the drag.

Monterey was interesting to me, home of many influential people, home of the people who were rich enough to buy a lot by the sea – I’d heard Steinbeck had grown up in the larger city area, and then decided to move right on the coast later on. I shan’t pretend I’ve read his works, but a lot of my pals back east dug him. The music that would stem from here would be beautiful, though it only really got rolling in the 60s after James Lyons did his thing. That stuff interested me much more than pages in a book. It was a good distance off for me to make good of what was going on in the city, but it looked nice enough, nice enough to make me visit in years to come, to wade through the sea and kick sand about and just sit there.

I’d nodded goodbye to Taai when we arrived in San Fran. He returned the nod as I hopped out of the container. There weren’t any cops on duty, none that I could see I mean, so I just slipped past the barriers and in no time I was on the streets. The buildings shone like jewels in the night, and in the distance I could hear the faint notes of people going mad for some colored fellow, yelling and screaming. I wasn’t feeling up for that at that particular time, so I paid no mind to it and found the nearest bar – the only sound that snuck through the air there was the sound of this bearded hipster tapping his fingers in no discernible pattern; not discernible to me anyhow.

After buying some cheap beer that tasted like piss, I slid into a booth near the door and sunk my head into my arms. I still rattled to the beat of the train, to the beat of the fingers. It felt rather therapeutic. Better than the screaming wind, that was for sure. I caught this girl making eyes at me from across the room, but I was too tired to get up and talk to her – I didn’t bother asking how much a bed was, I knew it would be too much, so I just took my chances. The keep didn’t seem to mind – it was a slow business day anyhow.

I considered wiring my brother the next morning for some bread, to get back home after this visit, but I decided against it – patronizing bastard would have sent a lecture instead. I’d hitchhiked plenty of times before. Stuff like that you don’t plan, it just happens. This time wasn’t much different.

***

A prequel of sorts to my ‘New York Scenes’ 

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New York Home

Short Story

As I got closer to home, people were distinctly less ‘American New York’, and more ‘Irish New York’, or ‘Russian New York’, or even ‘German New York’. The Lower East Side had more and more immigrants every day – not that I cared much, I mean, if it hadn’t been for the Pole who offered me a discounted apartment on the condition I taught his kid to write English, I probably wouldn’t be living anywhere at all.

The apartment was pretty crummy anyhow, the definition of Lower East Side; I’d jammed a torn up sofa into a corner, across from a shelf with a couple of records and a busted player that I’d copped from a junkyard whilst I was working there. The kitchen began immediately after, the white tiles now yellowed from smoking, or perhaps just age, the sink taps dripping hypnotic drops of water. There was a small table and two chairs that my father had made for me when I first moved to New York – he actually made four chairs, but the apartment wasn’t big enough for it. Two doors went off from the kitchen, one to my bedroom, furnished with only an aching double bed with sack-quilts which itched and a dresser with clothes and books strewn across it, and one to the bathroom, the tub jammed so close to the toilet that I could clean it whilst taking bath if I so pleased.

I’d promised Roland that I’d go out with him tonight, so I didn’t collapse on the sofa and listen to some music like I usually do – I headed straight for the bathroom and drew a quick bath so I wouldn’t smell like a john when walking round the city. The water was actually surprisingly warm, considering most of the time it would either be freezing cold or a blah-lukewarm that didn’t really feel very comfortable, and I was tempted to draw out my wash, but I quickly drained and dried off with some old towel left hanging off the door.

I took a look outside to see what time of day it was getting to, and to my dismay it was indeed dark, so I changed quickly and headed out the door, back into the city.

***

Continuation on my last ‘New York Scene’

New York Scene

Short Story

 

It’d just stopped raining outside, and the streets had that depressingly wet feel about them, and had there not been cigar-booths, hot dog and hamburger stands with Spanish folk trying to peddle their mystery meat, and plenty of other diners all competing for business, I’m sure it would have smelled equally depressing. I started my short walk home, swimming through the sea of New Yorkers hustling and bustling to get to their homes and move onto the next day.

‘New Yorkers’ was a strange phrase for me. There was no defining feature that you could point to and say “yes, that’s a New Yorker” –

Bratty kids tear up arcades, pockets jingling with loose change, screaming and yelling and pushing and shoving to get a peek inside the stand-up cabinets, only to find they’d ‘struck out’, the ball sliding past the bats and into the machines, and just outside these arcades there are at least two or three bums hoping to catch a few cents from them as they leave. And then opposite the street, teenagers waiting to go into whatever Bogart movie was in at the time, this time the bums being shooed away by movie-goers and employees alike. And then further down the street, Bowery and Third Avenue bars filled with suits, glasses clinked and cigars smoked, the businessmen of our day swigging away after a hard day’s work, jukeboxes roaring away with Fitzgerald, Sinatra, Armstrong, or whoever, the bartenders who’ve heard it all a thousand times before – and then just outside, in the alleyways out of plain-sight, paranoid teenagers with bottles, cowering in corners out of fear of being caught. And then the finest America has to offer, men and women in at least five or six coats and jackets, purses filled to the brim with all kinds of wealthy secrets, walking past phone booths filled with lively conversations with friends and families. And just down streets, trees peak round corners, park birds making residence for the night, shouting from tree to tree about the adventures of the dwindling day. More alleyways filled with the smell of tea, two men round a corner laughing away at jokes which trail off into the slowly-darkening skies of New York City.

***

This was an excerpt from a short story I started writing a while ago but just kind of left in the dust – not sure if I’ll pick it up again, but we’ll see