“Well, you dress like you are a hobo, so you’ll fit in!”

Freight Train © 2010 Stephen Bruno

In a reflective state of mind, I was thinking about my childhood in East Los Angeles, California, all too many years ago. Our single-parent family lived in the home owned by her mother, and it was adjacent to an alley. My bedroom had a private exit.

For several years, beginning when I was around six or seven years old, I would sneak out the door and walk around the city streets after everyone went to sleep. I developed somewhat of a routine walking into cafés that remained open 24 hours, hanging out around the bars, and going to the railroad tracks. It was nearly 35 years before I mentioned these explorations to an older family member who was completely surprised and shocked.

I became known by the kind waitresses who worked at the diners and bars, who would make me hot chocolate during the frigid evenings and early mornings. I could also count on a ham and mushroom omelet for breakfast. A few of the waitresses prepared a grilled cheese sandwich, which is still my favorite today. I did not give much thought to why they did this for me, and I never took it for granted.

Thinking back on it now, they must have thought I was a street urchin without a family and wanted to provide me with some nurturing and a meal. I was a scrawny, skinny unkempt kid with a mishmash of old worn clothes and sometimes slippers. During the several years of roaming the streets, I looked forward to my connection with these kind hearted women.

Other notable people in my life during these formative years were the train-hopping people with the hopes of finding better prospects on the road. They shared stories about some in their community who lost limbs trying to catch a boxcar. And how in freezing weather, they often would nearly freeze to death.

I learned how they would hide along the tracks. They’d run along the train as it gained speed, grab hold and jump into open boxcars. Sometimes, they missed. Many lost their legs or their lives.

They developed a system of signs — scrawled on fence posts and train crossings — to communicate vital information to fellow travelers. I think that they all had nicknames within their extended community, including an honorary one for me.

Becoming friends with them over time, I shared many early mornings and late evenings with this community, eating meals cooked on a campfire or over a metal barrel. I found them very generous especially given the little that they had. I was fascinated with their stories and the songs.

I met numerous families who found themselves lost in less than desirable areas and needed directions back to the nearest safe hotel or freeway. During my walks along the city streets, there were many times that my path crossed with men or women. It was friendly if we connected before. With an initial caution for a first time meeting, we nodded and continued on our way.

Sometime in the future, I may share more of my experiences on East Los Angeles’s streets. Perhaps, in my memoir.

I never felt afraid as it was a grand adventure for me. I rarely felt endangered by anyone I met late at night or early in the morning. I most likely exhibited a mixture of naïveté, curiousness, and cockiness. I imagine that’s where I developed my “street  smarts.”

Years later, while dating a high school girl, I shared my experiences on the streets and with the people she derided as hobos. I said how I missed the people living near the tracks and the lifestyle.

She looked me up and down at my typical lack of fashion and said, “Well, you dress like you are a hobo, so you’ll fit in!” I must admit that encouraging her to move on to someone else was satisfying and made me miss my train-hopping friends all the more.



Cross Between a Saber-Tooth Tiger and a Fire-breathing Dragon

Stephen Bruno

When I was in the first grade in elementary school in East Los Angeles, I had a serious accident outside the classroom. My symptoms included a nosebleed, swelling, bruising, crooked nose, black eyes, trouble breathing and a “cracking” sound when touching my nose.

I was rushed to the hospital by the school nurse who had me hold an ice pack on my nose. In the ER the doctors examined me and diagnosed severe facial fractures that included a broken nose, a septal perforation, and a deviated septum. They decided that I required immediate surgery.

I was prepped for surgery, given a local anesthetic and quickly brought to the operating room. The surgical nurses positioned me on my back, and I remained awake for hours watching several otolaryngologists working on my nose. Whenever the local anesthetic wore off, I let them know, and they provided more help that I appreciated. The operation was all a surreal experience especially since I was only six years old.

After the lengthy and intensive operation, a surgical nurse and several orderlies brought me to a post-surgery recovery room for monitoring. A splint was made to hold the nasal tissues in place until it stabilized and to protect the nose from accidental bumps when I slept and help it heal normally.

The next day, the nurses brought me to a children’s ward for recovery. The ward was a large rectangular open room with many children my age and a little older lying in their beds. Thirteen years later I was reminded of this setting after being drafted and sharing a similar large room with wall-to-wall beds during Basic Training at Fort Ord, California. The doctors told me that I would remain in the ward until I began to heal for several days, weeks or longer.

The kids could tell by the bandages on my nose and the sterile strips of gauze hanging out of each nostril that I recently experienced nose surgery. Of course, after the anesthesia wore off, I was in a lot of pain and continued to receive pain medication and antibiotics during my stay on the ward.

I began to get to know each of the kids in the ward out of curiosity and the means of distraction from the ever-present pain. Eventually, I found out that each of the children in the ward had a terminal illness and most of them had lived on the ward for months and some longer. It didn’t take long for me to feel humbled by their tragic medical circumstances while I only had a broken nose that required healing. I didn’t know what my nose would look like after the surgery and recovery. However, I knew my life was not in imminent or probable danger from the nose fracture.

I was very impressed with each of the kids and how they handled the challenges of immense pain, isolation from their family, countless medical tests, and insufferable boredom. I learned a lot about myself and other people that have lasted a lifetime from this experience that transcended the surgical trauma and recovery.

When finally, I was released from the hospital and sent home for more weeks of recovery, everyone in the children’s ward including the nurses shared a heartfelt sendoff. It was a bittersweet time given that some child abuse issues were waiting for me when I returned home.

During my recovery at home, there was still considerable bruising as well as swelling, and I had to make sure that my head was elevated, especially when sleeping or lying down to prevent further or prolonged swelling of the nose. I had to continue with the long strips of gauze hanging down out of my nostrils to soak up the blood. I imagined looking like a cross between a Saber-Tooth Tiger and a fire-breathing dragon. Nonetheless, I couldn’t stop thinking about the kids and especially some of the boys I talked with the most.

I still have a deviated septum, and my nose never quite looked the same. I have received comments like, “Your nose is an interesting conversation piece.” Although I am uncertain of exactly what that means, I have gracefully adopted my new nose.

After more of my recovery, I gathered up all my classic plastic green army men soldiers with a few military vehicles and accessories. I asked my mom to take me back to the children’s ward and wait in the lobby. Talking with the nurses who kindly remembered me, I was sad to hear that some of my newfound friends had died from their illness since I last saw them. It was too heartbreaking to give the toys in person, so I arranged with the nurses to anonymously share the gifts with my remaining friends and to see that everyone received something to sustain their playfulness during the countless boredom.

Frequently over the years, I’ve thought a lot about my time on that ward and each of the kids. We shared life and death conversations only young children with a terminal illness can have. It certainly puts into perspective the traumas that we must face when we think of what others must endure, and I began to embrace unconditional compassion as a lifestyle to the best of my capacity.

Violence: My Brief Junior High School Reflections


Zip Gun similar to the one I carried.

For many people, the 1950’s conjure up images of Rock-n-Roll, the Korean War, Sputnik, Jazz, “The Golden Age of Television,” and the sleek and classy cars.  On February 3, 1959 “The Day the Music Died” a chartered plane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson Rock-n-Roll musicians crashed near Clear Lake, Iowa in foggy conditions killing everyone.

For me, 1959 conjures up memories when I was involuntarily recruited into the predominantly Chicano/Latino White Fence gang which was considered one of the most violent and powerful gangs in East Los Angeles, while I was living with my single parent family and attending junior high school. The White Fence was the first gang in East Los Angeles to use firearms, chains and other dangerous weapons. I remember having my homemade zip gun consisting of a metal tube taped to a wooden stock and firing a .22-caliber bullet.

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