“We’re not us, we’re two other people,”
Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy
Ugly and Apache walk the on-ramp up to me with their pit bull Molly the Dog on the end of a rope, Molly by far the cleanest.
They carry cups filled with booze and all variety of hardcore trouble.
Looking back, just two days now, I realize how Ugly and Apache attained such a sticky, dust-of-ages filth – freight trains.
I remember that look from my own time riding freight trains in the 1980’s. It comes from boxcar floors, oil-covered track side patches, airborne freight train soot.
Walking up to me outside Butte, Montana, once again in my carnival/hitchhiking world, I am ready for violence in a blink of an eye.
It might start with a friendly greeting. Still, there is potential for holy hell walking toward me with a pit bull.
I’ve been hitchhiking from Chicago on my way to Alaska to another traveling carnival. They’ve been on a years long loop of brutal freight yards and homeless wandering.
Shortly after we introduced ourselves, a car filled with young Montana men drove by yelling epithets and throwing a fast food bag at us.
Well, the formalities aside, Ugly turns Ugly because trash bags at the head JUST PISSES UGLY OFF!
With Molly the Dog pulling hard on her Buckhead Paws retractable leash, leading the way, Ugly swears up a rainbow of profanity, running a few yards down the road after the car. This wasn’t for show, he hoped they would stop for a bloody dog vs. a**hole showdown.
Throwing items at hobos is called “rocking,” because kids often throw rocks at hobos. It’s called ‘getting rocked.’
Homeless, deadbeat dad or hobo
Returning to Apache and me, Ugly identifies himself as a hobo and when I said I was at the National Hobo Convention once, he and Apache said, “In Britt, Iowa?”
They knew the convention and hobo lore.
In a polite conversation, I would be out of line, but early in this conversation I ask them if they are like classic hobos. Do they go town to town across the country, working or not, getting high until the money runs out?
No smile. No laugh. Just a nod of recognition and a “pretty much.”
Blonde, with defined arms, Apache is drunk as three men. Ugly is tall and road strong. Both are liquid-diet thin.
Apache yells at me, as if angry at not recognizing them as the stars of the open road.
“Carnivals ain’t shit compared to what we live every day.”
Answering my gentle questions, Ugly agrees hopping freight trains is a “subculture” and they know lots of people on the rails. They see each other on the circuit and share a brotherhood of sorts.
Then Apache interrupts and yells, “Are you a cop!” Pointing at my backpack, “Is that (their follow hobo’s) backpack?”
Ugly turns to Apache and lets rip with a full-throttle tirade.
“Shut the f*ck-up Apache, you’re f*cking drunk. I’m taking your f*cking drink. I’m going to punch you in the f*cking face. We’re trying to have a conversation. He’s asking how we make money every day. That’s not (pal’s) backpack. He’s not a cop, we just walked up to him hitchhiking on the road. That’s why they call you Apache, you’re Irish but you have the tolerance of a mosquito.”
(it pays to take notes immediately after conversations)
In our short conversation, Ugly hurls invectives at Apache every second question I ask.
“You’re what we call a ‘Summer Bunny,” Apache says after hearing I once road Seattle-to-Chicago on freight trains, with a bicycle in tow.
After this one, Ugly takes Apache’s booze and pours it into his own and again says he is THIS CLOSE to PUNCHING HIM IN THE FACE.
Each time Ugly yells at Apache, it’s a verbal version of unleashing the hounds.
Apache just looks at me, with a what-else-do-you-want-to-know look. Also, a bit cross-eyed.
He says he has a ‘profession’ and doesn’t have to be homeless and wandering. He was on the film crew of the movie “The Avenger” during filming in Prague for a year and a half. He doesn’t mention what job he might have had – if he was really there and that was really the movie.
Ugly has a ‘profession’ too but it’s when he mentions his kids that he hints at a back story too complicated for our short exchange.
“We do this to see the country. I don’t need to do this, I have a profession. I’m a stage rigger, I build concert stages. I’m not a roadie. A roadie moves sh*t and screws in sh*t. A rigger anchors lighting and climbs and dangles himself on little beams.”
Family life held him back from the road, kept him home bound.
“I didn’t tour with any bands. I have kids. I was in their life. I still have kids. But … Apache, you are so f*cking drunk. We’re going now.”
Love it or leave it ‘Bo
I feel sorry for Apache and chime in with my experience hitchhiking between train rides.
“Sometimes it’s fun hitchhiking drunk,” I said.
“Not when nobody’s picking you up, only when you got a ride,” Ugly rightly said. “This ***hole will pass out (walking) half a mile down the road.”
I took pictures in a hurry, I needed more pictures to get one right. I was just scratching the surface of their stories. But I was glad they were leaving before they saw it fit to rob me.
Then, getting ready to part, their conversation turned to how their freight train riding is heroic. Seeing America on the rails. Daring to be free of family, of money, of care. Keep moving brother.
They aren’t hurting anyone.
“We aren’t stabbing anybody,” Ugly said. “That’s not right. If they f*ck with us. We’ll stab them. Oh, ya. We’ll f*cking stab you if you f*cking take our sh*t or something.”
On cue, a can of soda went flying by our heads from another passing car filled with young Montana men.
Again, Ugly and Molly the Dog went after the car.
The last words I clearly heard Ugly say were a warning and a bit poetic.
“That’s what turns us into stabbing hobos. Come here and say that to me you ***holes. You don’t know me, I could make more than you in a day. That is so f***ed, just because we choose to live the life we choose.”
I heard them later in the distance, when the wind shifted, one hobo swearing up a storm at the other.
On Center Street in Calgary, Canada yesterday, I saw old men panhandling and I wondered what they looked like when they were young.
Were they once good looking, boozy and restless. Did they have partners and a dog. Were they Stan and Ollie, funny and living on a tightrope wire.
Or were they Ugly and Apache with a pit bull, living life in the menacing parlance of the modern North American hobo.
Ugly and Apache see these same old men and know that may be where their headed.
Then it occurred to me, something they didn’t say, Ugly and Apache love this life. Bring it on. Consequences be damned.