“I’m not better than anyone else, but I’m better than that.”
Five years ago, Trash met his father for the first time, and three years ago for the last. He didn’t see the point in going back.
“He always says he’s going to do something with his life… but he never does.”
Addicted to crack cocaine, Trash’s father rarely kept his word. While his children were in foster care he would schedule a time to meet Trash and his brother, but rarely showed.
“I knew what he was doing,” Trash said as he picked at pieces of leather on his Timberland boots. “He would have rather gone and gotten a crack rock then see his kids he hasn’t seen in years and years.”
Now 48 years old, Trash’s father still lives at home with his mother, Trash’s grandmother.
“I just didn’t want to be like him,” Trash said. “I just wanted to be the complete opposite... That’s why I just drink and smoke weed.”
In school Trash earned a reputation as a troublemaker. He spent time in anger management classes after a number of disruptions, one of which involved him throwing a snow globe at the school principal. School taught him to read and write, he credited, but the rest he figured on his own.
“You figure sh*t out,” he said. “You don’t need school.”
Trash didn’t keep in contact with most of his family in recent years. He knows where his two aunts and two uncles live, but doesn’t have their phone numbers. He didn’t have a clue about his mom and didn’t care to see his dad.
He was proud to have gotten his younger brother “Lost,” now 19, on a train for the first time along with dozens of other kids through the years, he said. Before he jumped off in Atlanta, Trash planned to meet his brother in New Orleans, but Lost never showed.
“He travels slower than me,” Trash said with a casual shrug, adding that he has only been riding trains for about two years. “It doesn’t really matter. We’ll meet up again eventually.”
“I want to be everywhere.”
Inside the train yard everything was industrially-oversized. The sun immediately began its slow baking process magnified by towering double stacks of steel and the heat from newly arrived freight.
Large chunks of bleached gravel made walking a straight line impossible. A nauseating mix of brake dust and what could only have been described as the smell of metal stifled the avenues between tracks, broken only by an occasional breeze. Trash’s boots may have been battered, but they beat sneakers in the yard any day.
Trash climbed down in a crevice between cars, sitting on a flat sheet of metal above the wheels. Types of train cars are built differently, some more dangerous to ride than others.
Trash sat in the shade of a car for a few minutes before staggering back toward the campsite at the edge of the yard. An early afternoon concoction of marijuana and FourLoko, coupled with the heat, made him woozy and light headed. Daisy and he slept the afternoon away beneath a scrubby dogwood. A small cloud of gnats hovered overhead.
He didn’t know exactly when he’d leave Atlanta to start on his trip up the East Coast. The question didn’t carry much weight. Why did it matter? What was the difference between this day and the next?
After spending three months housed up in the Atlanta suburbs, Trees and Twig were eager to head toward the beaches of Florida. Having trekked across most of the western United States, Trash wanted to see the rest of the country, but wasn’t in much of a hurry. Trees and Twig planned to leave town the next day. Trash wasn’t sure, but figured within the week. He was growing bored with the city.
Long time train kids often cross paths. Trees and Trash had met before, but could not remember in which city. It really didn’t matter. There were thousands of kids just like them, they said, crisscrossing the country on freight trains.
“The family that you create riding the rails, it’s like no other,” Trees said, adding that in some ways it’s like being in a loose-knit gang. “We look out for each other, you know?”
Trash and Trees said they rarely asked other travelers about their lives. They were happy living in the present. By and large the whole lot of them lived off the kindness of strangers and support from each other.
“If someone offers me a little job I won’t turn it down, but that doesn’t happen very often,” Trash said. “Most of the time those go to homebums.”
Trees admitted he couldn’t hold a job very long. It wasn’t his work ethic, he said, but his restlessness. Riding on and off for years, he would work a job for a few weeks or months and then head back out. Twig, on the other hand, had plans to finish a literature degree in the near future. The big question was if Trees could stay still long enough for her to get it done.
“When I get older I’ll have to settle down,” Trash said, adding that the train yard isn’t a place for an old man.
Aside from a vague itinerary their futures were completely open… free, yet bound largely by the generous whims of others and a vague knowledge of a constantly changing train schedule. Trees, Twig and Stumps headed for Florida. Trash and Daisy set their sights on Chicago.
Maybe their paths will cross again.
“If I died tomorrow I’d be happy with my life,” Trash said. “[But for now] I’ve always got a freight train I can run off after and take me away.
Photography and reporting by Clay Duda.