‘I noticed immediately that you are a troubled man. I feel a deep compassion for you, son. You are a drinker and a carouser, are you not?’
‘You know where my monthly contribution goes? To a slush fund, so the corporate fat cats who use our operation as a write-off can get sloshed in a luxury hotel and bring in call girls.’
Working with the railroad
By Dell Franklin
I got a call from our dispatcher at five in the morning at my Shell Beach bungalow, which meant I had a Southern Pacific run.
We had a contract with the railroad to transport its employees—mostly brake-men, engineers and conductors—all over the county, from Salinas to south of Santa Barbara. Nobody knew why they were spending money to drive these guys around, but for a cabby it was usually a long easy run out of San Luis and a good fare, though we never received tips.
I showed up at the railroad station in San Luis at the appointed time—6 a.m.—and two guys were waiting with lunch pails and overnight bags. The third member was late, so we sat in the encroaching cold dawn and waited a half hour until a tall, slender guy in his 30s showed up. He took the shotgun seat beside me while I stashed his baggage in the trunk. A western type guy with mustache—he did not say hello like the other grim, quiet men—just sat there while I took off toward Santa Barbara via Guadalupe, a little produce center of a town by Santa Maria, 35 miles away, inhabited by mostly Mexicans.
The sky didn’t lighten until I was around Arroyo Grande. I kept the radio off and the heat on and nobody had thus far said a word. Fin-ally the man beside me began talking to the men in back, twisting his neck to look at them. He bitched about the inconvenience of their job, the long, erratic hours, the pay, the demands. Half asleep, the two in back went along. They mentioned the old days, when the railroad was bigger, there were more employees, and things were booming. Now they worked more and made less money, like everybody else in the country.
One guy in the back mentioned that he didn’t have enough money to build a rec room in the back for his kids, who were very active in sports. He bragged about their accomplishments. The other guy in back stayed mum.
“How’re your kids, Mel?” asked shotgun, who had sideburns, a poorman’s Clint Eastwood.
“Oldest boy got a ring in his ear, Roy. Daughter has green hair one week and pink the next. They play that music so loud I can’t think straight. I can’t do a thing with ‘em. The old lady deals with ‘em. Don’t make any difference if I punish ‘em or spoil ‘em. I’ve done both, given that kid everything my dad never gave me. Now I cut him off. It don’t matter. Nothin’ you can do with kids these days.”
“My boy gets outta line,” Roy said, “he’ll pay dearly. I’m boss. Dottie knows that, so does Roy junior. He’s captain of the football team. Gonna play high school next year.”
“Well, that’s good, Roy. Say hello to Dottie.”
Roy glanced at me. “Got any kids?” he asked.
“Nope. Only a cat.”
“I hate cats,” he said, sizing me up. “What good are they? You can’t train ‘em. They aren’t like dogs. A dog can herd sheep and cattle, go hunting, and get your paper in the morning, and learn to do tricks, if you train him right. What can a cat do?”
“My cat does what he wants,” I said. “He shits in other peoples yards. Kills birds and bugs and lizards and mice. Tells me to fuck off when I tell him to stop shitting in yards and killing things. Tells me to fuck off when I tell him to stop fighting cats and dogs. Swats me in the ankle when I don’t feed him on time, He spends all his time sleep-ing and eating and shitting and being a scavenger and a wise ass, a totally insubordinate prick, I love that cat.”
“No goddamn cat better fight my dog, Mac. He’d kill that cat of yours. He’s a pitbull.”
“Popeye don’t care if he’s half bear. He’s fearless. Walks down the middle of the street like king shit and everybody, including neighbors, kiss his ass and treat him like royalty, like he’s the heavy-weight champion of the world. Like Mohammad Ali.”
His neck corded up. “I hate fucking Ali. He’s nothin’ but a draft dodger—too chickenshit to go to Veet Nam.”
“You serve in Nam?”
“No. I was too young. But I would-a.”
“I don’t blame Ali for not going. He’s my hero. Ali and Popeye. I admire their independence and courage.”
He clammed up. He was brooding, clenched. When I pulled into the tiny depot in Guadalupe, Roy got out immediately and sat in the back seat while a new guy got in front. I took his satchel and put it in the trunk. Then I took off across flat celery, lettuce and broccoli fields on the two-lane blacktop that would eventually lead to Highway 101 and Santa Barbara. I stood to make over $100.
The new guy in the front seat was older, with a wire-brush gray mustache and a big, cracked, jovial face. Right off he smiled and asked how I was doing. I’d been picking up railroad guys for over a year and they were generally grim and taciturn. This guy wanted to talk. He was still glowing over his vacation, from which he and his family had just returned. He got a really good deal. The railroad managed to get him a cut-rate flight and hotel in Las Vegas, and Vegas comp’ed a lot of other stuff. He took his kids. They swam in the pool, saw shows. His wife hit a slot. They went to Hoover Dam. Everything was great.
The three guys in back entered the conversation, talking about the deals they got on THEIR vacations. One guy took his family to a lake and they stayed in a cabin and swam and fished and water skied and barbecued. This other guy took his wife to some resort on the Costa Rican shore, where they lived like kings, the natives waiting on them hand and foot. Roy had a cabin in the mountains. He hunted and fished with Roy Jr. Went every year. They all started comparing the deals they got on vacations. Then they talked about the deals they got on their homes. The subject of deals got them onto money in general, and how there was never enough with kids and insurance and so on eating everything up, and the wives maxing credit cards, and it was a good thing they had medical and a few benefits with the railroad, though they weren’t satisfied with that either, felt they were getting a good screwing compared to other transportation industry corporations, like the airlines, who were spoiled rotten yet bitched and went on strike all the time anyway.
“I got nothin’,” I said, as we cruised along the coast near Gaviota. “I make a pittance. Got no medical, no nothin’. They made us pay monthly dues to join this chickenshit union. A national corporation owns our outfit, a subsidy. Know what my sole benefit Is? If I get killed driving this unsafe beast they’ll give my mother $100 toward my goddamn burial. Big deal. A hundred bucks! Hell, it takes a grand to bury a guy like me who’s got nothing! And you know where my monthly contribution goes? To a slush fund, so the corporate fat cats who use our operation as a write-off can get sloshed in a luxury hotel and bring in call girls. I’m paying for some exec’s romp with paid-for pussy, cream of the crop.”
The new shotgun guy, Vic, smiled at me. “Makes yah sick, huh? Could be you rompin’ with those beautiful high-class call girls.”
“You got it, pal.”
“Back in the day,” he responded, “before I got hitched, I was chasing after everything in a skirt. Sometimes I think about those days, but I don’t for long because it would just get me in trouble. You can’t have both.”
“Sometimes you don’t have either one, and that’s not so hot.”
He smacked my shoulder with his heavy hands, which were attached to monstrous forearms, showing me his cracked grin.
We got chummy. He told me where he’d done his tramping around and sewing of wild oats, and I told him of some of my juicier exploits as a bartender in Manhattan Beach, a really degenerate area he knew all about. The guys in the backseat grew quieter and grimmer, almost morose.
When we reached Santa Barbara, their train had not come in the station yet and I had to wait to pick up two guys who were coming in from San Diego and needing a ride to Lompoc. We had an hour wait and decided to go down the street to a coffee shop and have breakfast. The five of us found a big table. We all ordered quickly, though Roy made a big deal about ordering from the busy, middle-aged waitress, whose worn demeanor made me think she was one of those unfortunate grandmothers who had to raise her children’s kids. Roy wanted his eggs scrambled so they weren’t runny, yet not dried out. His bacon was to be well done, but not burnt, and no grease. He wanted tomatoes and cottage cheese as a substitute for home fries.
When our plates came, Roy was served last. He gazed at each of our meals as they were placed before us, looking deprived and then gazing at his own meal while the waitress refilled our coffee cups and placed our toast all around. Roy got her attention and complained that he could not eat his bacon, which was greasy and underdone and told her to take it back, which she did, silently, without expression. We all dug into our food while Roy picked and diced his up and ate methodically and looked around for our waitress and muttered about the whereabouts of his bacon. When it finally came he bitched about how he never ate out because nobody could get it right, which was why he trained his wife to cook things exactly the way he desired them to be.
When the check came, Roy wanted separate tabs, but Vic and I grabbed the check and we all guessed as to what we owed and donated bills, Vic and I flipping in a few extra bucks to sweeten the old gal’s tip, Roy and the other two not wanting to leave so much. When we got up to leave and were halfway out the door I turned and saw Roy snatch a couple dollars off the pile of money we’d left on the table, and I quickly went back, Vic right behind me. I asked Roy what the fuck he thought he was doing, and he said the food sucked and the service sucked and over-tipping employees in this kind of place just made them expect too much. I yelled at him that he hadn’t left a dime and quickly snatched the two dollars from his grip and tossed them back on the pile and he started to make a move on me and I had my fists cocked when Vic with his huge forearms stepped between us and then the other two were between us and they led Roy out of the coffee shop while Vic held me back and told me to cool off, that Roy was an asshole, not to let him get my goat.
That was last I saw of Roy. The train came in from San Diego and two new railroad men jumped into my cab as I placed their baggage in the trunk. I couldn’t calm down. My heart was surging with adrenaline and my hands were trembling and the more I thought about Roy the more frustrated I became. The prick represented everything I hate and I’m sure he felt the same about me and the best thing for both of us would have been to duke it out in the parking lot of the coffee shop. As I drove onto the freeway and headed south, I entertained vicious fantasies of beating Roy to a pulp.
Meanwhile, one of the two men I picked up sat in the front seat while a younger guy stretched out in the back, yawning. The guy in the front seat was around fifty, with glasses, and he was staring at me, turned toward me, as if studying me.
“You OK?” he said, finally.
“Yeah. I’m fine.”
“You seem disturbed, son. Are you disturbed?”
“Aren’t we all?”
He nodded somberly, a glint in his eyes. “But we don’t have to be.” Then I noticed the Bible in his lap. “You’re not a Christian, are you?”
He nodded, very knowingly. “I noticed immediately that you are a troubled man. I feel a deep compassion for you, son. You are a drinker and a carouser, are you not?”
“I am. A cocaine user as well, though I can’t afford it driving a cab. When I tended bar I was a first-class sinner—succumbed to all the vices—drinking, whoring, gambling, among other sins.”
He nodded. “I was once like you. I cheated on my best friend’s wife. I tried to screw everybody’s wife. I was selfish, a user, a taker, and a bad man. I abused my wife and family. I was terrible to every-body—a liar, a cheat. Then I found Jesus. Five years ago. I have re-frained since that time from all evil vices and thoughts. I am a happy man, at peace with myself for the first time ever. I do not live for myself. I live for my savior Jesus Christ and for my family and fellow man. I have dedicated my life to helping others.”
I nodded, my breathing evening out. “To make up for all the bad, destructive things you did to others and yourself?”
He nodded. “I’m a whole person now. One of Jesus’ children. And so are you.” He handed me his card. He was a preacher at a church in San Luis. He urged me to come to his church on Sunday and pray with him and meet his congregation, where he would introduce me to everybody. He would save my soul and turn me around as a human being. I would be surrounded by good, and Jesus, and I would be good. He would get me on a drug and alcohol rehab program. He kept rattling on. I nodded, glancing into my rearview, where my other passenger continued to yawn and squirm around. Then my new friend, the preacher, an engineer named Lloyd Addison, began quoting scripture. I can’t bear to hear scripture. It grates at me like Country Western music and makes me a little crazy if I cannot turn it off, but there was no stopping this noble-minded fanatic as he rattled on, until I finally tapped his wrist lightly, so that he paused, and I said: “Lloyd, do you think if Jesus was around today, and he had to walk around San Luis Obispo and see all those sexy college girls in their skin-tight spandex shorties, that he could resist fantasizing eating their pussies?”
Roaring laughter burst from the back seat as the young guy came unglued, thrashing around, kicking up his heels. “Oh yes!” he gushed.
“If he didn’t, he’s a damn fool,” I told the guy.
The smile disappeared from Lloyd’s face and his eyes looked men-acing and inflamed behind his glasses. He pounded his Bible. “You!” he growled. “YOU! You will suffer eternal damnation! You will burn in hell….”
“Well,” I interrupted. “Like the man said, I think it was Mark Twain, ‘at least I’ll run into some interesting friends in hell, and not a bunch of gospel-quoting bores in heaven’.”
His eyes gleamed. He continued to face me, Bible clenched in his hands, while the brakeman in back continued to chortle, winking at me as I spotted him in the mirror. I waited for Lloyd to continue his tirade, but he was mysteriously quiet.
“Lloyd,” I said, trying to be reasonable and compassionate. “Man is mortal. Genuine lust cannot be complicated by guilt and sin. A man can’t be blamed for drooling over gorgeous, fully developed, prime young women teasing us all life long. For God’s sake, have mercy!”
He remained quiet and still, staring at me, starting to give me the creeps. I decided to shut up. We were about ten miles from Lompoc. During the next ten miles, Lloyd continued to study me. Then he said, “Jesus loves you. He forgives your sins.”
I nodded. “I know you’re right, Lloyd. Thank you.”
We pulled into the motel where they were staying. It was easy to see that both men had been working without sleep for at least 24 hours. The railroad was no easy path. I got out and took their baggage from the trunk and placed it on the ground. Lloyd stood before me.
“You’ve got my card,” he said. “I’d like you to be at my church on Sunday. I’m counting on you.”
“Well, Sunday mornings are rough, Lloyd. I’m usually hungover.”
I winked, and we shook hands, like good friends, and he hugged me good bye. And I hugged him back, meaning it. §
Dell Franklin is publisher of The Rogue Voice. He can be reached at email@example.com.