Even when it’s bad it’s good

Because I’ve been a little exiled in small-town Iowa, I haven’t really been in touch with much of a base of trainhoppers. I did manage to find one: a retired hobo who rode trains all around Iowa for decades, making a living by selling books of poetry, before eventually settling down and doing the rest of his rambling on a motorcycle. I sent him a couple postcards, and talked to him on the phone once (but he was getting ready to leave, so only briefly), but that’s all. One of the things I was thining before coming to New York was that maybe I could get in touch with some train-riding types to talk about where they’ve gone and what it’s like, and maybe to get a copy of the Crew Change Guide. I don’t know if I’ve told you about the Crew Change (for short), but it’s basically the atlas of trainriders. It’s also the ultimate in underground publications, in that it’s a cardinal sin of trainhopping to give it away to someone who hasn’t earned the right to have it. So you can’t buy a copy on Amazon. You have to find someone who has a copy and thinks you’re worthy enough to borrow it and go to a Kinko’s and copy it.

I ended up finding a copy online, one that no one’s successfully taken down yet. But I felt like a cheater downloading it, and also it’s poorly copied and hard to read, and also it’s a little outdated, and also it’s missing pages. And also, getting it that way meant I still hadn’t talked to any real trainhoppers, which I still wanted to do. So I checked a website I found a while ago, and found out a place where I might meet some such people. It’s called Punk Island. Whoever organized it rented Governors Island for a whole day, and scattered 130 punk bands into 17 different spots on the island, in among all the island’s quaint, stately red-brick buildings, on its tidily buzz-cut lawns. Governors Island (Wikipedia tells me) used to be owned by the military until 1996, and as I gather, it was never very heavily developed, because it’s all broad lawns hemmed in by buildings that look like they were stolen some time ago from Miami University. Although I knew next to nothing about punk music, and was pretty sure I didn’t like it much, I decided to go to see if I could meet any train people. Its being free was instrumental in this decision. The concert had no cover, and the ferry that takes people from Brooklyn to the island is also free. In order to make it truly free, I bypassed the subway and walked all the way down to Pier 6, which, going the way I went, was about 4½ miles. Google says it should’ve been 2½, but I was aiming for Brooklyn Bridge Park, and either there are two Brooklyn Bridge Parks, or there’s one and it’s really, really long. At any rate, I got to Pier 6 in time to see only the last three hours or so of the festival.

The ferry filled up with lots of people, most of them wholesome-looking, many with babies, lots of them off, I guess, to see Governors Island’s old buildings. I got there and wondered which way to go to find the anarchists and the punks. I started heading vaguely left, and then a shirtless guy with a tattoo said to his cell phone, “Tell him to follow the stench.” I went his direction. Soon enough I walked by some people yelling and flailing against electric guitars and drums, while other people looked at them. I had found punk music.

When I listen to music I really like to listen to the lyrics. This was unlucky today, because of all the bands I saw, there was only one whose lyrics I could understand, and it was the very last one. The first one I found, well, they were yelling into the mic and playing as fast as they could. The next band was yelling really loud and playing as fast as they could. By the time I found the next band, I was unsurprised to find them yelling really loud and playing as fast as they could. Instead of trying to understand the music—by which I mean not understand its words but understand why people like it a lot—I decided to look at people. This was partially pragmatic, because I wanted to find a trainhopper, but I didn’t really have a clear idea of what I thought a trainhopper would look like, so, really, it turned out to be just for fun.

I’ve never seen so many mohawks in so many colors and varieties in my life. There was a double-crested one; one that was a main mohawk with two minihawks flanking it; a woman with a mohawk that made use of hair at least a foot long, spiked directly out, which made the slightest turn of her head visible from hundreds of yards away; a couple who had matching-sized mohawks, one green and one pink; and one that was brown on the left and blond on the right, so that when its owner turned his head, his hair changed colors. There were too many tattoos for me to register what they all showed, but they certainly lent the crowd a lot of color, especially the big fat man with a green and black circle of some sort on his belly. I began to feel positively tame, only having long hair, and wearing a shirt that wasn’t made entirely out of patches and had both sleeves. I wandered around the small stages, each with maybe a dozen people watching someone yell really loud, and then politely clapping after each song. Eventually I stumbled upon the Main Stage, just a few songs before the headliner band came on to finish out the night.

When the headliners—called Negative Approach—did come on, I saw clearly why they were the headliners: of all the punk bands I’d seen today, they played the very fastest and yelled the very loudest. The guitarwork was so fast that most of their songs lasted a minute or less. I only timed one; it came in at forty seconds. And whenever their singer talked between songs, I was at a complete loss to explain how he was able to talk. Maybe it wasn’t him—I didn’t have a clear view. At this show, I also discovered the preferred punk style of dancing: running around really fast in a big clockwise circle, or sometimes skipping, and crashing into as many people as you plausibly can. One guy, middle-aged, mostly bald, and shirtless, took a different approach, though. He stood with his arms outstretched, as if he were channeling energy from Thor. Then he slowly drew power from the music to flex, or throw lightning bolts at the ground, or—giving in—skip in a circle and crash into people. But only joking fights broke out from all the crashing, and I think this is because punks are, most of them, essentially good people, who just look funny and act funny. Even if I wasn’t so hot on the punk music, I would say I really enjoyed going to Punk Island, because I saw something that few people will ever see: thousands of punks roaming a classy island and crashing into each other and being as punky as they could manage to be. And I even found a trainhopper! I could tell because she was wearing an iron necklace with a miniature rail spike for a pendant. It was getting blackened iron all over her neck area. She told me she’s been riding trains around the country for the last year and a half, and she’s been back and forth between New York and California three times. When it gets cold, she rides trains in the South. She even told me where I could get a Crew Change, a place where lots of train kids hang out—but before I go right down to where they get together and drop in on them with my piss-poor riding credentials (on a freight train one time; got off in the same yard) and lack of any stories that would convince them I’m not a poser, I’m going to see if I can meet any trainhoppers through, like, mutual acquaintances, or happening upon them. That’d be less weird for everyone involved. Although New York isn’t a great place to meet trainhoppers, because, as I found while reading my ill-gotten copy of the Crew Change, New York is a terrible place for freight trains. I haven’t heard one freight whistling since I got here. To get out by freight, you generally have to go to New Jersey first. So, even though New York is where every other kind of group of weirdos gets together, I think I’m not likely to meet many trainhoppers here. Oh well.

Things have been going well at work. I proofread a chapter of a book that had gotten all screwed up, because I was familiar with the British style’s way of dealing with quotation marks. Then, because I did so well, Anne (I never know whether to call her my boss or my supervisor or manager or what) asked me if I could do a rush proofreading job on a whole novel, for which she could pay me some money. Which is great, because I’ve heard that being a freelance proofreader can be somewhat lucrative, and I think it would make me some good money, perhaps if I felt like taking a break from teaching people what plants are okay to eat and what ones will make you die, or perhaps by internet or fax while I’m living in Korea, or some other time when I feel like having some money and getting it by proofreading.

In a few days I’m moving to the next place where I’m living, with Darwin’s mom’s boyfriend in the East Village. This is a grittier part of New York, in Manhattan, and a smaller apartment, but I don’t mind. For one, it’ll be interesting to see a new place, just like Punk Island was interesting today, and for another, it’s only for ten days. Then I move in to Kane’s place to catsit for his mom, and then back to Darwin’s until I’m done here. I’m really getting the grand tour. Part of it is that I wanted to see lots of New York, so I’ve made a point of exploring; but also, things just seem to work out to let me see the whole place.

I think I’ll go buy a candy bar.

File under: trains, adventure, interesting people · Places: NYC


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Anonymous

History

I second what Grandpa said. You are having some fantastic experiences, all the more to give you material for writing novels or whatever you want. Go buy another candy bar on me. You deserve it. And have fun proofreading. Grandma

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Anonymous

History

The adventures of punk island. Punk music is essentially unchanged. It was the same 25 years ago while I was in college. Everytime I see the Brooklyn bridge, I always hear the "nightcourt" theme running through my head.

I think you will like the east village. It is actually one of the nicer places in Manhattan from what I've seen. You may have a brush with a star, lots live in the village.

Dave

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