Another Pathetic Derailment
by Calendar Hacksaw
Last month, ol' Calendar had the good sense and good fortune to take a ride up through the Central Valley aboard Amtrak's San Joaquin, then back down to Bakersfield two days later. And for anyone whose knowledge and appreciation of California's 'heartland' and 'breadbasket' is based on high-speed, cannonball runs up Interstate Five and down ol' Highway 99, the sights to be seen while voluntarily imprisoned aboard a railcar can be a real eye-opener. Herewith is a firsthand accounting of what I witnessed, along with appropriate commentary, where necessary.
Highballin' north toward Wasco on a Friday morning can be a joy, unless you're seated next to one of the last leftovers from the drug wars of the sixties, a relic who's desperately trying to carry on some semblance of what you and I would call a 'meaningful' conversation. The dang thing went something like this:
"I don't know who got here first, man, us or them," the amateur pharmacist pondered, before losing all track of where he was. "I don't know why there's a 'Northern California' and a 'Southern California.' Is it pronounced "Oh-HIGH-oh," or "Oh-HEY-oh?"
Well, "heck-and-Oh-HEY-oh," it was time for ol' Calendar to head on down to the bar-car at that juncture! I could bear no more!
From my new cellblock, I was much better able to enjoy the sights: restored and gilded streetlights, main drags of small towns where diagonal parking is still encouraged, and new sub-divisions being built on prime agricultural land or in flood plains. One in particular, I named "Floating El Nino Estates."
I saw plenty of fine folks like you and me who had made good use of their 2-1/2 acres, and many others who had nary a clue, wasting it terribly. There were yard sales that looked interesting, and yards that looked like yard sales, but weren't.
Things I hadn't seen in some time: people fishing in streams and rivers without having to pay an admission fee. Freshly laundered clothes blowing in the breeze. Well-tended backyard 'victory' gardens, a boarding house, a tent revival, labor camps with 8'x12' 'homes,' some equipped with swamp coolers.
From Fresno to Madera to Merced to Riverbank, onward we rolled, passing along the way those burgs created by the railways and then left in the lurch, left in the void, left in the wake created by the infamous Lurch, Void and Wake Act of 1932.
At every station there were sights to see, but none quite as interesting as Hanford on the return trip.
It struck me as unusual on a Sunday afternoon to see a dozen or so young men of mixed ethnicity boarding at such a small town. Until, that is, I noticed the three prison guards on the siding, loitering over their Cokes-n-smokes. Yes, it was another "release day" at California State Prison, Corcoran. It struck me as somewhat strange that the guards would truck these guys up to Hanford to board the train, when the southbound San Joaquin's next stop is back at Corcoran, where they just came from. Maybe the deja vu is intended to lessen the likelihood of recidivism by once again giving the offenders a peak at what the "Big House" looks like to the outside world.
In any event, wearing pants that didn't fit, cheap new tennis shoes, and carrying all their worldly possessions in brown grocery bags (just like me), they were 'free' men again, as had once been their birthright, and now headed for Los Angeles and beyond. Once on board, a few still engaged in the vulgar, obscenity-laced dialogue and bravado typical of life behind bars.
All but one. He was an older gentleman of about 30, head shaved, sporting a well-scripted tattoo of some lover's name on the side of his neck. He remained apart from his former roommates, purposeful, composed, peaceful, facing the future. Something in his bearing told me that his days of living at taxpayer expense were over now, and he was ready to become a contributor. He had learned his lesson, and learned it well. I sidled right over.
"Ever heard tell of Walker Basin," I asked. "I think you might fit right in. Do you know anything about shorin' up a snow roof? Would you like to meet my granddaughter? How about buyin' ol' Cal a beer? Wanna meet Wayne Moody?"
I sure hope he decides to settle around Twin Oaks somewhere. We wouldn't have to worry about him stealin' anything; you don't get to Corcoran by just stealin' stuff. On the contrary, his reputation might just deter a few of the local thieves!
Calendar Hacksaw can be reached via e-mail at <email@example.com> or <firstname.lastname@example.org>, and he'd love to hear from you. On his next train trip, he hopes to stop at a women's prison on release day.