Who are these men who watch trains?
They stand by the tracks as the Amtrak Coast Starlight inches its way up the line of the Pacific, past rodeo grounds filled with firefighters preparing to fight the latest SoCal wildfire; as it picks up speed along the remoteness of places like Conception and Arlight—where someone owns a tiny mesa between the tracks and the sea where six airstream trailers are circled, gleaming spaceships cum glamping wagons.
The first was a handsome, square jawed Latino, his shiny black and shoulder length hair pulled into a low ponytail. He also wore a neat goatee. He had headphones in and was sitting cross-legged against a low concrete wall. Close by, there were signs of encampment—the remains of a makeshift tent, graffiti and empty food wrappers, maybe a tarp. A little farther along, an onerous, man-sized smudge of black from a fire someone had burned along the wall. Its shape and size reminded me of those Tibetan tankas with the Buddha in the center and a blue flame enveloping them. That lotus shape, wide and round at the bottom and tapered to a delicate point at the top.
I’m used to seeing desolate, desperate people near train tracks and highways. Ruined tent cities that are so worse for the wear. Tin-sided shacks with that grease of longterm human inhabitation, but utterly inhumane as accommodation.
This man looked like a man with a comfortable enough home who had decided to walk and watch the trains with a mobile soundtrack. Maybe smoke some pot or just breathe in the afternoon sun. Unlike the older, portly man who waved at the train—a full armed, enthusiastic and constant wave—the young man sat with his gaze slack. Unlike the Santa Barbarians at the playground waving to the trains with broad smiles, exciting the small children on their hips, his face was relaxed. He seemed content, perhaps, in a different relationship to the train and this voyeuristic passenger inspecting him as I slid by.
Then, pulling out of San Luis Obispo, the White blonde man-boy in tie dye. He stood, a ten minute walk from the platform, in knee-high grass with “nothing” else around. I imagine the train had punctuated a mid-afternoon walkabout, a quiet reflective hour alone on two feet. He didn’t waive, either, or smile. Didn’t look for recognition or a reciprocated greeting from us as we passed, seeing us maybe, but not looking.
And finally, the men I saw in my imagination behind the windows, walls and barbed wire of the penitentiary. As the sun set behind its drab tan walls and square sides, and we rolled on, into the dusky, golden hills.