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Train Out of Cicero

by Peter Malakoff
Train out of Cicero - Peter Malakoff. Music by

It was a night train, westbound out of  Cicero, a predominantly Black area on the west side of Chicago, known for its high crime rate and the westbound terminus for all freight trains out of the city.  


It was almost midnight, nearly freezin' and a big harvest moon was sailin' the sky. I had just walked across the city of Cicero carrying a heavy knapsack and lookin' for all the world like a traveling hippy. There were many of us on the road that year, young people, long-haired, well-educated some of them, but I don't think many had passed through this way. People had warned me not to walk through Cicero, to take a bus instead, but I went anyway.      


It was late fall,1969, I was 17 years old and headed for the Burlington Northern freight yards, lookin' for a high-speed, straight through, Hot-Shot train, out to Denver, Salt Lake City and on to the California sun and the unique and legendary company that would live along its coast.      


The walk through town had been fairly eventful. I got to witness a robbery. The lookout man waved to me as I approached. He was outside a store, shufflin' about, nervous, but smiling. As I walked by, I looked in and saw a man with a gun on another guy. I walked faster and didn't turn around. A couple of blocks away

I heard the sirens.    

I  walked into the yard just as my train was pullin' out. A yardman pointed it out to me as a hotshot to Denver, "Only 19 hrs and you'll be in the Mile-high city.", he yelled . . . "You're gonna freeze your ass off!"      


The train was already pickin' up a good bit of speed as I ran alongside the gravel embankment, looking behind me for an empty boxcar . . . It was far too cold to ride the outside underneath a piggyback. Finally, I saw it coming; still runnin', I slide the pack off my back onto one arm and throw it up inside onto the floor and then, changin' to a steel handle on the door, I kick up my feet and haul myself on board. I made it, it looked clean; it should be a good ride ahead.  

On an empty boxcar, pulling out of a freight yards at night, I always like to watch the bright flood of the yard lights sweep across the inside of the car. First, they strike the back wall in a long, piercing look and then as the train pulls on,they broaden, moving, plastering the side wall like a billboard and then sweeping quickly across the car, narrow again to the front and you leave them behind.    

Well, the light entered the car, swept across the back and side walls and then, as it shone into the front of the car, I realized I was not alone. There was a dark figure squatting on the floor. I gave a start, but only inwardly. After walking through Cicero, I was already on full alert. I had heard many stories from the hobos, particularly the older ones about the 'bad people' ridin' these trains . . . the man was black and bearded and heavily dressed. He gave no welcome or sign of acknowledgment. I immediately felt this was not a good situation. 


Usually, when you ride in an empty boxcar, you ride towards the front. You are out of the wind and it's generally the best place to be, particularly in the case of a sudden stop when you can be thrown quickly and violently forward. (I once went from one end of a boxcar to the other when they hit the brakes going across the desert outside of Kingman, Arizona).  


Because I had come onto the car after he did and because he offered no greeting or sign of friendliness, and because it seemed too late to jump off, I thought it best to sit opposite the open door. It seemed better to me than the far end of the boxcar, not only because it was less in the wind, but it also seemed to hold out some possibility of relationship with my dark partner on this all-night ride.    


I spread out a blanket for a pad and leaning back against the wall and bending my knees, I slid my back down the wall until I was half-sitting on my blanket, my knees drawn up to my chest, the best position for absorbing the shock and bouncing of a freight car. I looked at the dark figure alone in the far corner and I thought to myself, "This is going to be a long night; I don't dare go to sleep with this guy here." I would have to stay awake and alert. I didn't have long to wait before things started to happen . . .      


I had been watching the city outskirts go by at an ever-increasing rate, listening to the clackety rhythms of the wheels and bouncing steel, when all of a sudden he was standing in front of me and just to the left.     


 "Got any food, white boy?"


It was his opening statement.


He was a large black man; obviously in an angry and antagonistic state of mind. 


I was taken by surprise and I didn't answer right away.


He growled again,


"I said, you got any food white boy?"      


"No, I don't have any food."


 I answered in my 'come on let's be rational and talk this all out' educated, 

Jewish-liberal, white-boy voice.     


"I know you got food in that knapsack ,white boy."


His voice was getting louder and more insistent.    


"I don't have any food, man." I now replied in a more firm tone of,  

'although I was never brought up this way, this is how it is,' voice.  


I was telling the truth. I did have some brown rice and miso, 

but I knew that wouldn't count in this situation.    


"I know you got food in that knapsack, white boy."


He took a step towards me as he spoke.


He had definitely approached within the critical range 

for a conversation of this sort.


I had to do something . . .      


I knew the train was going too fast for either one of us to leave now. I  envisioned a fight with someone being thrown out the door . . . it all wasn't pretty. The train was flying along and the whole boxcar had that rolling sway of a fast-moving ship on land. Our eyes were locked together and even though we couldn't see each other clearly, I made my move . . .     


I was wearing two pairs of pants, two undershirts, three flannel shirts, a heavy sweater, a vest, a large, heavy dark-grey flannel oversize, ankle-length salvation army coat. I had on gloves and hiking boots. I had a three-day growth of beard and even though I wore glasses, I made the right impression as I stood up . . . slowly, taking all my time, drawing myself almost lazily to my full height of over six-foot-four inches and more in my heavy hiking boots and looking slightly down on him and straight into his face said, in a deep and forceful, 'ain't gonna take this shit no more':


"I don't have no food, maaannn!"       


We stood there for a few seconds, swaying in unison as the boxcar bounced along on the rails. The silence in the midst of all the noise around was crying out a million things. I didn't know what he was hearin'. I had played my cards and now 

it was up to him.


He spat on the floor, not in my direction, (I knew it was gonna be all right at that point), he mumbled something about the white race and he walked away to his end of the boxcar. It had worked.  


I stayed up all that night, thinking plenty of thoughts with my man like a backup horn section, playin' some remembersome licks of apprehension, but the train was rockin' like a lullaby cradle and he was passed off to sleep in his anger.


I watched a bunch of lovely moon-night country fly by, the fields all barren, white birds scattering in the fall moonlight, thinking the thoughts of an angel at war.    


The next morning before sunrise, while pulled off on a siding to let a passenger train by, I left that boxcar and found another, for the rest of the ride to Denver.


Photo: Stephan VanFleteran

Lookin' Back at Anger

When the black man came at me in the boxcar, I felt a situation in which neither passivity nor aggression would work. To be mild in the face of a crazy, angry man seemed to invite disaster; to be aggressive and fight,

was an unnecessary and dangerous violence.


It was a third consideration on which I acted. . . a consideration I first heard in the teachings of Sri Ramakrishna.  

Ramakrishna was a great God- Realizer of the late 19th Century India. Often, when teaching, he would recount the many tales and stories he heard as a child growing up in rural India. By means of these stories, he would add spice to the transmission of his own Realization and give new meaning to previously unexamined issues.


Let me tell you a story of his, a story which gave me another way to act

in the face of violence:


Some cowherd boys used to tend their herd in a meadow where a terrible poisonous snake lived; everybody was always on alert for the fear of it. One day a sadhu, a saint was going along that way to the meadow and the boys ran to him and said, "Revered sir, please don't go that way.

A terrible venomous snake lives over there."      


"What of it, my good children?" said the saint. "I am not afraid of the snake."  And so saying, he continued on his way through the meadow. But the cowherd boys, being afraid, did not accompany him. In the meantime, the snake heard him and moved swiftly against him with an upraised hood.


As soon as it came near, the saint recited a  mantra,

and the snake lay at his feet like an earthworm.      


The holy man said, "Look here. Why do you go about doing harm? Come, I will give you a holy mantra. By repeating it you will learn to love God. Ultimately you will Realize Him and also get rid of your violent nature," and saying this he taught the snake a Holy Word and initiated him into spiritual life.


The snake bowed before the teacher and said,

"Revered sir, how shall I practice spiritual discipline?"      


"Repeat that sacred word," said his teacher, "And do no harm to anybody." As he was about to depart, the saint said, "I shall see you again, for sure."      


Some days passed and the cowherd boys noticed that the snake seemed passive. They threw stones at it. Still, it showed no anger; it behaved as if it were an earthworm. One day one of the boys came close to it, caught it by the tail, and whirling it round and round, dashed it against a tree and threw it away on the ground. The snake vomited and became unconscious.

It was stunned, it could not move.

Thinking it dead, the boys went their way.  


Late at night, the snake regained consciousness. Slowly and with great difficulty, it dragged itself into its hole; its bones were broken and it could scarcely move. Many days and weeks passed. The snake became a mere skeleton covered with skin. For fear of the boys, it would not leave its hole during the daytime. Night and day it practiced its mantra. And at night, it would sometimes come out in search of food. Since receiving the sacred word from the Teacher it had given up doing harm to others. It maintained its life on dirt, leaves, or the fruit dropped from trees.      


About a year later the saint came that way again and asked after the snake. The cowherd boys told him that it was dead. But, he didn't believe them. He knew that the snake would not die before attaining the fruit of the Holy Word with which it had been initiated. He went out into the fields and searching here and there, called the snake by the name he had given it, and hearing his guru's voice, the snake came out of its hole and bowed down before him with great reverence.      


"How are you?" asked the saint.


"I am well, sir," replied the snake.


"But," the teacher asked, "Why are you so thin?"  


The snake replied, "Revered sir, you ordered me not to harm anybody. So I have been living on leaves and fruit. Perhaps that has made me thinner." The snake had developed the quality of sattva or purity; it could not be angry with anyone and it had totally forgotten that the cowherd boys had almost killed it.  


The saint said, "It can't be mere want of food that has reduced you to this state. There must be some other reason; think a little."


And then the snake remembered that the boys had dashed it against a tree and it said, "Yes, now I remember. The boys held me by my tail and dashed me violently against the tree. They are ignorant after all. They didn't realize what a great change had come over my mind. How could they know I wouldn't bite or harm anyone?"


      And the saint exclaimed, "What a shame! You are such a fool! You don't know how to protect yourself.


"But Guruji," the snake protested, "you told me not to harm anybody."


"Yes, I asked you not to harm anybody, but, I did not forbid you to hiss.


You must scare them away by hissing!"

Ramakrishna once summarized this story:


“So you must hiss at wicked people. You must frighten them lest they should do you harm.  But never inject your venom into them. One must not injure others.  In this creation of God there are a variety of things: men, animals, trees, plants.  Among the animals, some are good, some bad. There are ferocious animals like the tiger. Some trees bear fruit sweet as nectar, and others bear fruit that is poisonous.  Likewise, among human beings, there are the good and the wicked, the holy and the unholy.  There are some who are devoted to God, and others who are attached to the world. ”

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