Life Riding the Freight Trains

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“Maps to the Other Side” is a document of one person’s journey to transform his experiences navigating the psychiatric system by building community in the face of adversity; a set of maps for how rebels and dreamers can survive and thrive in a crazy world.
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Riding trains, there are no signs to tell you where you are. You have to seek out the clues on a license plate or billboard, a water tower or a famous monument. I like the blithe freedom, my head full of places and faces.

Part mad manifesto and part revolutionary love letter, Maps to the Other Side(Microcosm Publishing, 2013) by Sascha Altman DuBrul paints an illuminated trail through the lives of undocumented migrants, anarchist community organizers, revolutionary seeds savers and more. This punk rock travel narrative searches for authenticity and connection in the lives of strangers. Freight trains were a main form of travel–and still are–for those looking for work or searching for a better life in the United States. Learn more about their stories in this excerpt from part 1, “Golden Thread.”

Juan Carlos’ Grandfather

Juan Carlos’ grandfather had fought in the Mexican Revolution, and as our boxcar swayed back and forth, the rumbling sound of the train grinding along track like the ocean or the rain coming down hard, Juan Carlos told me stories his grandfather had told him of Emiliano Zapata’s soldiers riding from town to town on the same freight lines, gathering troops, spreading the word and supplies. He spoke of the peasant uprisings and fought against the Federales with the battle cry of land and liberty, the re-appropriation of land from the wealthy haciendas by the poor armies, the traditional indigenous ejido system of communal land ownership, and visionaries like Ricardo Flores Magón who dreamed of a future free from the tyranny of corrupt leaders and brutal authority.

It was nearly a century later, in post-NAFTA Mexico that the two of us rode on a north-bound freight train filled with desperate men fleeing the poverty of their hometowns, risking their lives to make the long journey to the border of the U.S. As the creaky old train carried us through small pueblos with thatched roof houses and corn fields, we stared into the hot sun and made a pact of eternal friendship, swearing that we’d spend the rest of our lives fighting for justice and breaking down walls put up by our governments and the societies that had raised us.

Juan Carlos was from the state of Aguascalientes and was a fiery young anarchist punk on his way north to find work in a hotel and send money to his seven brothers and sisters. I was a gringo from New York City, traveling alone and slowly making my way back after working as a human rights observer in the Lacandon Jungle in Chiapas with the Zapatistas. We’d met at the anarchist library in Mexico City and traded good stories and the T-shirts off each others’ backs. After half a year of traveling and working volunteer jobs down in rural areas, I was suddenly back in the city, the fast paced slang-filled chilango Spanish much more akin to my native urban tongue, full of swears and cuss words. There was a whole crew of punks from Guadalajara that Juan Carlos had hooked up with, and they were leaving that night to head home after a weekend of playing a big show with their band. We traveled together up north on passenger trains as Juan Carlos and his friend rode freight, and we all met up in a punk house on the outskirts of Guadalajara a couple days later.

Just like most of my anarchist friends back home, I’d ridden a few freight trains in the U.S. I knew how to dodge a bull and read a train map and use a crew-change guide. I knew how to get on and off a moving hopper car or 48 well, hoist myself onto an open boxcar, hide between strings of track and tell which trains to ride by the number of units and what cargo they carried. I’d heard a few stories about the freight trains in Mexico and how dangerous they were, how they were full of bandits and thieves ready to knife you for a dollar and leave you dying in the desert sun. When Juan Carlos offered to take me on the freight lines in Mexico, I had no idea what I was getting myself into and how the short trip would change the course of my life forever.

It was a magical ride. After a loud and beautiful farewell party from the crew of punks, the two of us caught a train of empty boxcars out of the yard in Guadalajara and rode it up the coast to Mázatlan. By the time we had passed through all the yards. The train was full of people; it took us two nights and a day. The car we rode was full of corn scraps and as the train sped along the track, Juan Carlos and I threw handfuls of the grain off the sides on to the earth around us, laughing and singing to each other about sowing the seeds of the revolution. It was the middle of spring, and when our train sided amidst acres of mango orchards, hundreds of us jumped off the train and filled our pockets with handfuls of the huge red and green fruits. At night we watched shooting stars from the door of the boxcar and during the day we watched the huge jagged mountains fly by in the distance.

Unlike the trains back home, where the sight of another tramp was rare if ever, the freights in Mexico were literally covered in riders. Our boxcar was filled with people, all men, all full of stories of hardship and suffering. Some had made the journey before. For some it was their first time. All of them carried few or no possessions and all of them had dreams of life on the other side of the border. They called themselves las trampas and when they spoke of the U.S., they always called it El Otro Lado, literally, The Other Side. The men on the boxcar next to us were from Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and each of them had money saved to pay to the men who were known as coyotes to guide them across the border. There was a Salvadorian family two cars down, a thick-mustached man, his wife, and two little children who would smile at me when I passed. Everyone was friendly to me, the only gringo on the train. They asked lots of questions about the Zapatistas and my travels and treated me like a brother.

After a day and a half on the train, I started to have an intense realization–riding freight trains south of the U.S. border was like the accounts I’d read of riding during the Great Depression in the U.S. It was straight out of a John Steinbeck novel except it was Mexico in the 1990s. After a day and a half on the train, listening to people’s stories, having time to reflect on the months I’d spent in Guatemala and Chiapas, as the mountains and towns blew by the door of the boxcar, I started thinking about the inevitability of revolution. I started to think about how so many of the people who have been fucked over by the U.S. and their own nationals in league with American business, left without recourse, slowly but surely make the journey across the border solely for survival. I started to realize that the men I was traveling with were refugees fleeing the wasteland that had been created by the economic equivalent of a scorched earth policy throughout Mexico and Central America. Everyone waiting at the militarized border were desperately trying to get a tiny piece of the riches horded in the U.S. If these people couldn’t be confined to urban slums, they’d surely end up in prison or dead. A geographical divide cannot sustain the wealth disparity for long. I shivered in the warm, tropical air.

I crossed the border in Tijuana a few weeks later, scruffy and broke. My Zapatista literature and photos had been confiscated back in Mázatlan by the Federales, but all I had to do was flash my passport and I didn’t get a second look by the immigration police.

When I returned to the Bay Area, I rode freight trains with a crew of friends to Active Resistance, the anarchist gathering in Chicago. During those summer travels, waiting in the hobo jungles and on the edge of yards and in the towns along the train line, I began to notice that most people I came across on freight trains were from Mexico and Central America. I recognized Spanish graffiti under train bridges and on the trains, calling out hometowns and Central American countries with scrawled grease sticks.

I became obsessed. Back in New York, after a friend taught me to use the internet, I began to look up articles and press releases from the U.S. rail companies. I found news articles on labor websites about modern day Mexican train robbers, poor peasants who would put rocks on the tracks and rob the trains for corn and sugar as they passed through their towns. And it wasn’t an isolated incident I read about–it was happening all over Mexico, from Durango to Veracruz to Gómez Palacio.

At the same time, along with everything else in Mexico in the post-NAFTA economy, the Mexican railway was being privatized and sold to U.S. corporations. I started to see a pattern. As rail lines in Mexico were consolidated into U.S. conglomerates, and the country became evermore impoverished, the people lost respect for the system. The railroads in Mexico had been an icon of nationalism since the revolution. It interconnected the different rural areas. It was the way that low-income people got around. The freight lines were thought of as fourth-class travel, a necessary social service for the poor and destitute. The global economy was robbing them of their only means of transportation.

After living in Oakland for the winter, I spent spring and summer riding trains up and down the West Coast, working in the day-labor spots with immigrants and sleeping in missions and hobo camps, writing stories about the men I met and the life and struggle on the road. I had a plan to write exciting travel stories to educate people about the global economy and give voice to this population. My plan was to cross to the other side of the border and ride freight to Tapachula, the industrial city in Chiapas on the border of Guatemala, where the train line ends and the journey to the U.S. for so many begins. I never made it.

I ended up in jail in Texas for stealing food. I ended up in love in California. I ended up living on a farm on a tiny island in British Columbia with my girlfriend. I was determined to learn how to grow my own food so I wouldn’t be reliant on the agribusiness death machine for the rest of my life. I grew weary of carrying all my stuff in a backpack and dreaming of having a room of my own somewhere.

One of my struggles, as I traveled and wrote, was that I didn’t know why I was doing it. Who was I writing to? Why was I writing at all? After writing zines for my friends and dreaming of being a writer like my father, I thought this was going to be my first big story that would launch me on my career as an up-and-coming journalist. But my days along the Texas-Mexican border convinced me that the world was too fucked up for another gabacho travel writer trying to pass through Mexican people’s lives and pitch self-indulgent stories to U.S. leftist weeklies. I was sick of being an outsider and I was sick of being so lonely.

The traditional path for someone from my economic class and culture would have been to go to college and get a job with the Peace Corps or a non-governmental organization working for justice. To use my white skin privilege and education to make the world a better place in a socially conventional way, to have a comfortable and stable life. But I just never fit into the place that I came from. Some part of me carried around the feeling of a perpetual underdog. Something about my temperament led me to the world of the anarchists, who taught me about the difference between charity and mutual aid, about finding my allegiance with people’s movements rather than the governments or big organizations that claim to represent them.

Underground Tradition

Once upon a time I had this cool girlfriend who taught me how to ride freight trains. We practiced getting on and off boxcars and grainer ladders together in a switch yard in West Philadelphia. We had met in the summer under the big Texas sky and traveled with friends to the West Coast, packed into a van full of carnival dreams of revolution. We caught a hotshot out of Roseville, California, in the middle of the summer and rode it up through the Cascade Mountain range through the thick, lush forest land of Southern Oregon. I was hooked. Something alchemical happened to me during those summer travels. I got a taste of freedom and never wanted to turn back.

The railroads were the first corporations in the U.S. who monopolized transportation and transit. Before highways and cars outnumbered people 11 to 1, trains were a way of traveling the country and moving goods. Now trains are a relic from a period of history; a reminder of how things once were, with lessons to teach us–if we listen to their stories.

We can learn so much about this country by looking at the rise and the fall of railroads, reading the stories in the names of the old rail companies painted on the sides of cars and the years on the steel bridges spanning across rivers. The trains can be read like memoirs and unbiased history texts; robber barons who ransacked the public good to make their fortunes, pillaging of Indian lands, the boom and bust of train towns, sweat and blood of thousands of immigrant workers who died laying track, migration west in search of fortune and the acquisition of new territory after the Mexican war, industrialization and growth of cities, the appearance of national rather than regional markets, and the development of the modern interdependent American economy and culture.

But like the Chinese rail laborers excluded from the photos of white men in suits celebrating the opening of the Union Pacific’s transcontinental railroad in 1869, there is a social and economic history that is not taught in school or documented in our history texts. While luxurious passenger trains brought the wealthy from one side of the country to the other there was a hidden class of passengers whose story is rarely told. While wealthy speculators and small businessmen rode on seats with room to stretch their legs, relax their arms, and were fed culinary delicacies by waiters in uniform, hordes of poor and displaced people rode freight trains. They were hobos and tramps, economic outcasts of society who lived on the social fringe in the jungle camps at the edge of train yards. These two stories transpired simultaneously, but only the first was widely narrated.

The common thread of war and work throughout history is the story of the poor doing the work of the rich. The first hobos were lost armies of Civil War veterans looking for work, traveling on the newly completed iron network of tracks built during the wartime economic boom. No one seems to know for sure, but the term hoe boy is reputed to be the name given to guys who would travel with their possessions tied up on the stick of their hoes, riding trains looking for farm work on the plantations of the wealthy.

The hobo’s ranks grew as the U.S. began industrializing on a mass scale in the middle of the 19th century. New machines displaced workers from iron, coal, printing, glass, shoe factories, and flour-mills. The economy needed a growing workforce that could follow the new industries created at greater distances. They found work at the railroad construction sites, in the mines, in the timberlands, on the sheep and cattle ranches, in the grain belt, and in the orchards. The wandering mass of homeless men traveling by railroad was an important source of labor that fueled industrial expansion. The drive of American industry westward opened these new kinds of jobs–jobs remote from family and communal life. The labor was irregular, in scattered and often isolated areas, and the men who answered the call to work had to be mobile and adaptable.

When the Great Depression hit in the 1930s, hobos swelled into the millions as the search for work sent men and women out onto the rails. A thriving subculture emerged throughout the country with its own slang and symbols written on walls. Hobo colleges were setup by visionaries who dreamt of empowering and educating homeless travelers. The Industrial Workers of the World, an anarchist labor union, sent men all over the country on the trains in an attempt to organize itinerant workers with their dream of creating the “One Big Union.”

But that was a long time ago. After World War II, massive public subsidy into the highways and airlines took a toll on the railroad industry. In the early 1970s, many lines went bankrupt and were saved by the federal government. The 1990s saw a huge consolidation in the railroad industry as corporate giants ate each other and tightened security. When I tell people that I ride freight trains, they laugh or get wide-eyed incredulous. They didn’t realize people did that anymore.

When you travel the rails it’s possible to get a different grasp of what’s going on around the country. You see forest clear cuts, factories spewing towers of chemicals, barbed-wire lots of rusted-out cars–the backyard of capitalism away from highway rest stops. When you travel on the trains, you can talk to guys at the missions, the labor pools, and the hobo camps–the ones trying to float up to the thin layer of wealth like a thin layer of oil on water. The very thing that once had the power to unite the disenfranchised masses is a purgatory, straddling dreams of the past and a grave, impenetrable present.

And then, of course, there’s me and my friends–the anarchists and the activists, the crusties and punks, riding to gatherings and radical communities and Earth First! camps. We do it because it’s a free ride on The Man. We do it because it’s pure adventure and adrenaline, sweet like sex, and as dirty and beautiful. My friends and I have this whole other map we read when we travel across the country–grainy and faded, it’s a forgotten path, blazed long before those we are familiar with today. We have our underground networks of friends that pass information about catch out spots to each other, the crumpled crew-change sheets at the bottom of all our backpacks and the rail maps drawn in each others’ journals.

Back when freight trains carried the major farming and mining products from big cities to work sites, hobos would ride the rods underneath the freight cars, in or on top of boxcars, on flatbeds and the big rectangular buckets called gondolas, or behind the cow catchers on the front of old steam engines. These days, the majority of the heavy stuff that is moved on train lines is coal, stone, gravel, sand, chemicals, corn syrup, grains, big industrial equipment, scrap metal, rebar, lumber, and new fresh cars from the factories. These days we still ride in boxcars, but have other tricks. We sneak into hopper cars, or what we call grainers, equipped with good hiding spots on either side. When it is cold out, or there are no other viable cars, we ride in the engines, or, “units,” at the front of the trains. We hide in the tiny bathrooms when the engineers come through. Then, of course, there are the piggybacks or TOFC (Trailor on Flat Car) trains which haul containers that will be transferred from the rails to the ships or trucks. Those are the 48’s and pig-trains that we call “hotshots”–fast trains with important cargo that speed their containers from port to port. They carry everything from television sets to boxes of green bananas to bottles of alcohol to computers. They also carry us in container wells or under the axles of truck wheels on flatbeds.

Other things have changed as well. Whereas the hobos of the old days would ride from town to town looking for work and begging for meals, making their way to big urban centers like Chicago to bum on the street, today we ride hotshots straight across the country–a result of the 1970 “land bridge” service that connects the east and the West Coasts to make trade easier between Europe and Asia. Those are the transcontinental trains from New Jersey to California or Seattle to Chicago, a product of the global economy. Whereas the hobos of yesteryear rode in the hundreds of thousands, today our ranks are fewer every year as stricter rules and corporate consolidation drive us onto the highways.

Riding trains isn’t for most people. As my friend Okra once said. “Hopping on freight trains is a great way to get somewhere, especially if you don’t mind getting there late or going somewhere else completely.” You need time on your hands and good company or good books. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been sitting in a train yard while 100 airplanes flew over me. But I’ll be doing it as long as my legs can run. I love sneaking around train yards and hiding from the train police or, “bulls,” piecing the situation together like a puzzle that needs solving, and with perpetually rising stakes.

Riding trains, there are no signs to tell you where you are. You have to seek out the clues on a license plate or billboard, a water tower or a famous monument. I like the blithe freedom, my head full of places and faces. I feel alive eating cans of beans by the moonlight. It keeps me sane in a world spinning out of control. The train humbles us and teaches us patience.

I share these stories with the hope that they will open your eyes and make you feel strong emotions, that they might project a moving image for you, and that they make you feel connected to my soul and the eyes I have seen through. I pass these stories along to you as a gift of friendship and in the hope that you will be sharing stories with me someday.

La Esquina

Ricardo is the first one who invites me to sit down. He’s wearing a red, white, and green cap with the name of his home state Michoacán proudly emblazoned on the front in gold letters. He motions with his hand and makes room for me on the sidewalk. “There’s work here every day. You just have to be patient. It’ll come. Wait with us.” There are five guys looking bleary eyed, staring out into the morning traffic, waiting patiently. We’re on the corner of South Van Ness and Cesar Chavez; it’s 8:30 in the morning in San Francisco. There are small groups of Latino men on every corner all down the avenue, waiting for work. The commuter traffic is speeding by, every pick-up truck that drives past loaded with construction supplies is longingly stared at by a long line of dark brown eyes.

Luis from Guanajuato says, “This is your first time? The church down the street has free coffee and bread every morning.”

Just as he tells me this, a big old guy with the white beard and dark sunglasses comes bounding down the street, cursing loudly. “La pinche iglesia! The fucking’ church! I slept there last night and now I got bugs! Look! Look at my arm! It’s all red! I’m getting out of this country, I’ve had enough already! I’m going to Cuba! Soy un socialista! I’m a socialist!”

Everyone’s staring at him, the first spectacle of the day. “You’re crazy, man.” Luis says matter of fact. “There’s no food in Cuba. You’ll starve.”

The old man straightens his posture and says to Luis, “I don’t care what you say. I’m going to Cuba. Cuba has juevones like this,” He motions to his crotch and makes a big circular motion. “Castro is the only one to say ‘Chinga a su madre’ to the U.S. Tell me–if the U.S. is so rich, then how come all these people are out here every day with nothing to do, waiting for work? If the U.S. is so rich, then how come I’ve been living out here for eight months and I’m dressed in rags and I have bugs and I’m out on the street? I’m going to Cuba! At least their government takes care of them. Every child can read and write–everyone has free medical care.”

The old man has everyone’s attention now. They’re all staring at him in disbelief, not saying a word. Finally Luis retorts, “This carbron is loco, don’t listen to him. You see those Cubanos around here, lazy bastards. None of them want to work. My friend went to Cuba and said the women stand out on the street corners and sell themselves for a pair of Levis. Stupid people. Listen to this guy talk about Cuba like it’s the promised land!”

The old man takes off his dark sunglasses. And looks Luis right in the eyes. “Hermano, at least give me the benefit of the doubt. Look at my white hair, I’m a few years older than you. Listen to me, we need to unite.” He clasps his fists together for emphasis. “The only way things will change is if we all get together and throw off the shackles of capitalismo–organize and take over the economy. You heed my words. Ya me voy. I’m going to the library.” And with that dramatic exit, he disappeared down the block.

“That guy’s been out on the street too long–he’s gone mad.” Says Hector from Mexico City. “Castro’ll throw you in jail just as quick as here. It’s no different over in Cuba.” I just nod, trying to take this whole crazy scene in. I’m only two blocks away from my girlfriend’s apartment in the Mission district but I already feel like I’ve stepped into another world. My excuse to myself and my friends is that I’m working on an article about the “underground economy” of Latino laborers in the U.S., but really I’m just curious and don’t have a job. I see these guys out on the street every day and I always wonder what they’re thinking about. What their take is on life from the bottom of the economy, waiting to get picked up in the labor pool. It’s the middle of the summer and I’ve been doing this all over the West Coast for a couple months now–hanging out on the street corners with the guys and getting picked up for work, making $7 or $8 dollars an hour doing demolition or roofing, sometimes garden work up in the hills, or moving furniture. It’s always a gamble where I’m going to end up but we always get paid in cash off the books and I’ve been having pretty good luck. Considering my white skin and slick English and citizenship papers, I could probably be working some well paying job in an office somewhere, but I can’t stomach the idea. Besides, I don’t mind being broke half the time and I always meet the most incredible people while I’m waiting on la esquina.

The guys I meet are from all over Mexico: Jalisco, Sinaloa, Oaxaca, Durango, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Zacatecas, sometimes even Central American countries like Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. They’re from places that aren’t so far geographically but feel like they’re on the other side of the planet. Places where the average daily wage usually comes out to about $5 a day. They’re here in the pioneering tradition of people coming from poorer countries searching for a better life in our land of resources and prosperity. Unfortunately, while corporations from our country have free reign to exploit the cheap labor on the other side of the border, these men without papers don’t have any rights at all–they’re constantly risking deportation and exploitation everywhere they turn. Every one of these guys is carrying around a story about risking his life by sneaking over the border and making his way up the coast to find work, evading the immigration police, and trying to stay out of trouble–learning to survive in a country with a whole new language and culture. While we can travel freely in their land, spending our dollars, when they come here they’re “illegal aliens.” If I was on the other side of the border I have a feeling I’d be doing the same thing these guys are doing. You might too.

“Where’s your family from anyway?” Hector asks me after I’ve been asking a bunch of questions and scribbling down notes in my journal. “My folks? New York City. But their families were from Greece and Ireland and Canadians from France.” I’m a bunch of different stuff.” I tell him. He laughs, “See, you’re not really from here either. We’re all immigrants around these parts. We’re all mestizos. We’re all mixed up. You’re a mestizo, también. The only ones who are really from here are the indios. Los Yaquis del desierto.” He motions a mohawk with his hands. “We’re all foreigners around here. But we’re all equal, in God’s eyes at least.” I agree. “Some guys, they don’t like the Blacks. But what they don’t remember is that their families were brought here as slaves from Africa. Now we’re the slaves, us guys out here on the streets–la Raza. We do all the work no one else wants to do. We’re the ones building the houses and working in the gardens. The Blacks all get welfare, but look at us; out on the streets. Pero todo somos iguales en los ojos del Dios.”

Marcod from Tijuana was checking out the tattoo of a barcode on my arm. “What’s that for?” he wanted to know.

It’s kind of a broma, a joke.” I said. “It’s dark humor, like we’re all products. Like in the supermarket.”

He smiled but looked serious. “Oh, I see. They say all you Gringos are gonna have your social security numbers tattooed on your hands sometime in the future. I believe it. I’m not stupid. I know what’s going on.”

Hijo de la chingada!” They want us all to carry papers or they’ll take us to jail.” Ricardo piped in. “I was walking down the street one day and this cop asked me, “You got papers?” And you know what I told him? “Yeah, I got papers. Tengo un chingo.” And I pulled a bunch of napkins out of my back pocket. Everyone cracked up laughing.

“We don’t go up to Oakland to work because they say la migra busts guys out on the street there.” Mario from Zacatecas told me. “Here in the Mission they leave us alone. This is my seventh time staying here–my barrio– El Mission. People take care of each other out here.”

Ricardo leaned in next to me and confided, “Yeah, it’s alright here, but I’ve been here four months already. I’m gonna catch a train up to Seattle soon and find my friends. I gotta lotta friends in Seattle. I head up to Washington to work in the fields every year. I pick apples. It’s hard work but you can work all day–not like here where we’re waiting around for some guy in a truck. You can work seven days if you want, 15-16 hour days, maybe make six hundred bucks. It’s alright out there in the fields. There’s women there too, working right next to you.” I looked up and down the street and realized there were no women anywhere.

“Where I’m from in Tijuana there’s a lot of factories where they make electronics. All the women work there, but they only make 40 bucks a week.” Marcos said. “You can’t do that factory work for more than a couple years without your eyes going bad. Those companies don’t care at all. They’re all from here and Japan. My sister worked in one of those factories. That’s shitty work, man. You make more in one day here than they make in a week. They work like esclavos, like fucking slaves.

After not seeing a woman for what seemed like hours, finally a middle-aged woman wearing hoop earrings and an old flower patterned dress appeared from down the street and approached us on the corner. She handed us all little scraps of torn paper with a number and an address on each one. “$350 a month for a room in our house, it’s just up the street.” She said, hands on her hips. “If any of you fellows are interested.”

Mario looked at her and said, “Gracias Señora, but that’s way too expensive.”

She frowned. “Oh, but it’s a nice room, large enough for a couple. We give you a key. You can use the bathroom and the kitchen. It’s a good price… these days.” We all took the notes graciously and stuffed them in our pockets. She continued walking towards the next group of guys on the next corner.

“Man, times have changed in El Mission” said Ricardo shaking his head. “It never cost so much to live around here.” He spit out into the street. “Lemme see the tattoo on your arm, man. The black cat? Nice. Check out mine.” Ricardo rolled up his sleeve. “The Haché. It’s a street in Los Angeles where I used to hang with my friends. And this here on my other arm, the three dots.”

“What’s that mean?” I asked

“That’s the three dots, man. It stands for mi vida loca.”

Mi vida loca? What’s that all about?” “Mi vida loca? That’s life man. That’s everything. That’s all those trains you ride and your girl that lives down the street.” He motioned to the oncoming traffic and the buildings. “That’s all this shit out here, man. It’s all the times I’ve been caught crossing the border and all the times I’ve been to jail. It’s all my dead friends everywhere. It means I don’t give a fuck and I’m crazy. That’s mi vida loca.”

Luis shook his head. “Don’t listen to this guy. It just means he smokes too much of la mota and drinks too much of la cerveza. Ricardo grinned widely.

Sergio from Sinaloa came across the street and introduced himself to me. He was older than the rest of us, taller and stocky with a light brown goatee sticking out of his chin. “Yeah, I used to work up in el campo in Oregon. You know, picking cherries and apples. You used to be able to make good money up there. Sometimes I’d put in $900 a week, usually more like $700. But not anymore. Shit, that was a long time ago. Times have changed. It seems like since Cesar Chavez died things have gotten bad. The big companies run the show now even more and you have to bust your ass for half of what you made before. Now I have to come to the city and work construction to make any kind of money.”

It seemed like a pretty bad day for work. I only saw two men get picked up for jobs the whole time, the rest of us just sat there talking shit and staring into traffic. I stuck around till the church bells started ringing at noon and then I said goodbye to everyone and started making my way back home. So many guys waiting for work all over the streets, old baseball caps shielding their eyes from the mid-day sun.

What’s going to happen to these guys, I wondered? Everyone knows their cheap labor makes up a huge part of the economy and the government needs them to keep the system running smoothly. But if wealth is getting more consolidated and the border is getting tighter, they’re building more prisons and making it harder to live in the city, what is this street going to look like in five years? Where will all these guys be?

Back on Folsom St., a huge CAT machine is knocking down the old Army Street housing projects, the sound of snapping plywood reverberating throughout the neighborhood. Out of the corner of my eye I glimpse a sink and a wall of cupboards up on the third floor, the exterior wall pulled clean off the foundation, the old kitchen uncovered like the room of a doll house, revealed just for a second before it’s bathed in a sea of rubble and disappears from sight.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Maps to the Other Side: The Adventures of a Bipolar Cartographerby Sascha Altman DuBrul and published by Microcosm Publishing, 2013.

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