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.