On a cold dark Christmas Eve a very long time ago, two figures slowly walked in search of shelter for the night. They had no money for a room, or even a bed and were exhausted by their long journey. This was the Los Angeles freight yards of 1974 and the two men had ridden for many hours in the bottom of a “Gondola” car which was part of the freight train that had finally stopped in Los Angeles, the farthest west one could travel. They were at the end of the line, which for many, who rode freights west, it surely was the end of the line.
The two men were brothers-in-law and had been on the hard road for many years now. Chasing or running, who knows, but it had started to rain and the men were forced to climb a chain link fence and seek some small shelter in the parked cab of a garbage truck that had no doors. There was a big white crown painted on the side of the truck. Crown Disposal Company, the sign read, with two cold princes of the road huddled inside, while the heavy rain beat a drumming racket on the steel top of the truck, which made sleep impossible, but there was a half gallon of red port between them and also the photographs in his wallet that made the man smile as he looked at the faces by the soft glow of a nearby street lamp.
The photographs were of children lined up for the camera that day seven long years ago, about the time he was to leave forever for a wandering life on that hard, hard road that many men and women have to walk. Two men, haunted by the faces in the wallet and the past lives that lay in ruins without them. Two men in a truck in the cold rain of the seventh Christmas Eve that they have spent on the road, but they had a bottle of wine between them.
Christmas day found them waiting for a train that would take them out of this very dangerous place where hundreds of tramps, runaways and predators came in the winter to escape the cruel cold of the east. Head west they said. Pick oranges off the trees and sleep on a warm beach. There were no oranges or places on the beach, just a hard cruel place where other men waited for the unwary to drop their guard and end up badly beaten or dead at the end of the line.
It was Christmas day and after my wife and three year old son and baby girl had our celebration of presents and cookies, I headed down to the Los Angeles freight yards where I had photographed for a year on a project that was to last for ten years. Ten years of photographing the tragic lives of rail road tramps, hoping that maybe my photographs might in some way provide a more compassionate understanding of the severely damaged and mostly unprotected men and women who wandered on foot along the outskirts of what we call society. Tramps are shunned as bad, dangerous or crazy souls who must be avoided. The truth that I found in that bad, bad place was that these tramps were someones brother or son or father, who had had a bad shock in their lives that they could not handle and so they took to the road of remorse and pain.
It was a loving and very understanding wife who did not mind me leaving on Christmas day for a couple of hours to do what I had done almost daily for the past year.
The brothers-in-law were sitting on the dirt by the side of the main line in and out of L.A., waiting for their destiny to arrive in the form of an outward bound freight train that would take them somewhere else. Anywhere but L.A. I approached them with a smile and a Nikon F, with a 28mm lens, which would force me to get so close that some of their misery would invade my heart and stay with me these many years later. We talked, we shook hands, I photographed as I knew I must to share this subject or life story with others through my photographs. It was so hard for me to listen as their lives poured out to me and me clicking away with tears in my eyes and heart. I must though, because this little situation or life drama that I found myself in was important in some way.
The man with the hat had once been a Cadillac dealer in one of the most affluent cities in the country. He had two families which were unknown to each other. One in Mexico and one in Texas. So many faces in the wallet long gone, with a bottle of wine between them. Seven years gone, with the brother-in-law from Mexico he had persuaded to leave with him on a long search or escape from themselves.
The photographs were of the faces of children who were now many years older. The boy would be fourteen now somewhere, but there was a bottle of wine between them. The bottle was always there, even as he showed off his long ago family, the bottle was there in the background. The empty bottle.
The brother-in-law from Mexico said nothing. He was in pain and mostly sobbed as he turned their last coin in his hand over and over again. Round and hard like the train wheels that beat them up for so many miles. We were friends for the twenty minutes that we spent together on that Christmas day so long ago. In twenty minutes the life story of two tragic men had been poured out to my saddened ears. I still carry their pain. Their stories were very similar to the many stories I was to hear over the ten years of my documentary photography project.
The pictures will never go away. The words are here to stay and I was there. I made these photographs and wrote these words for everyone, but the best thing is that I was there. I photograph because I must.