We Changed Our Names, Dylan Angell
Originally published in Fluland (May 6, 2017)
There was a house where I would often go after school during my final years of high school. It was unclear who lived in this house. The residents were an amorphous, nomadic crowd who lived there in shifts as they took turns taking off to travel. Their dogs ran free through the halls, the kitchen was stocked with dumpstered food and there was a mishmash of found furniture for travelers to rest upon. These travelers were my age but they seemed both older and younger, of a new era and of a world that had come and gone.
They neither worked nor went to school, and traveled by climbing into the empty boxcars of idling trains. Each time I returned to the house there were new faces and new stories of riding the rails and improvising new ways of survival. It was easy to be seduced by their ability to move freely and their refusal to be confined. So, like a staggered rapture my friends slowly disappeared from school and then from town until they returned months later: thinner, smellier, with a coat of dust and tales that reached far beyond my high school.
The High School
I felt like a phony as I left this house of travelers to return to the suburbs to have a warm meal and air conditioning and a house where everything was new and life was safe and easy. This was my parents’ world, and I accepted it as such, but felt a kind of vertigo as I returned to school each morning and walked among my peers who seemed to have no idea how easy it was to escape the monotony of school.
I began to receive postcards from my friends as they traveled. I imagined myself with them, witnessing the site of the American landscape from the frame of an open boxcar. The banality of high school felt heavier with each line of communication. There was nothing I wanted more than to take off, but I felt like I had to stick it out and finish school, if for nothing else than as some kind of peace offering to the status quo.
On the day of my high-school graduation I walked across the stage and gave my principal a limp handshake. As I stepped down from the stage I walked out of the auditorium and dropped my graduation gown without stopping. That night I bought some beer by way of Slim, an older homeless man who often would buy me beer at the gas station. I gave him the money and I handed him my diploma, he laughed and said, “What am I supposed to do with this?” I felt the same way.
An Idle Year
Although traveling was always on my mind, I didn’t take off quite yet. I attempted one year of film school in another small North Carolina town. On the first day, one of the professors made a speech that went something like this: If you really want to be a storyteller then go travel, work in a factory, see the world. As he spoke, my heart sank. My first day and the fear that I was wasting my time had already been validated.
Throughout the year I listened to the stories that my fellow students proposed for films and they didn’t come anywhere close to the excitement I got from the postcards I was receiving from my friends. I drunkenly flailed through one year of college. At the end of the year I met with the dean and we agreed: I didn’t want to be in his school and he didn’t want me there either.
I got a job in town as a dishwasher in a diner. I had convinced myself that I was saving money to travel but I had no clue where to go or what would happen next. I had convinced myself that I had missed my opportunity to travel with my friends as they were now all scattered across the country.
I eventually returned to my hometown. The group house that once served as a portal to the trainyard had since been condemned and boarded up. There were a few new houses that served the traveling kind but I was out of the loop and had become a stranger in my hometown.
One night at a bar I ran into two old friends who I had assumed were long gone. I will refer to them as The Kid and Ponyboy, their traveler names, which they each told me with wry smiles as if they were ancient outlaws passing through aliases. They had changed quite a bit since I last saw them. They had beards and lugged backpacks as big as their own bodies. They told me of how they had plans to leave the following weekend to travel to New Orleans and if I wanted to I could join them.
I was to find them in a baseball field outside of town that overlooked a trainyard. They drew me a map on a napkin with a pencil. We shared a few beers and they told me what I would need to know before setting out. Toward the end of the night I chose a name, an abbreviation of my own: Dy, pronounced die.
A friend drove me to the meeting place.
I leaned back in the passenger seat and listened to the radio knowing that I may not hear music for a few days. I had no idea if I would be back in six days or six months. All I knew is that I was to meet The Kid and Ponyboy and follow their lead. We followed the handwritten directions till we found ourselves next to the vacant baseball field. My friend gave me a hug and handed me my backpack.
“Is that all you have?”
“Damn. Good luck.”
I walked towards the baseball diamond and looked down to see the trainyard at the bottom of the hill. About halfway between myself and the yard I saw The Kid asleep in a makeshift hammock. He laid with a cowboy hat covering his face; a man in no hurry. I could tell then and there that I had to accept a new relationship to time. I had to practice patience and be aware that I had little control from here on out.
The Kid looked up from under his hat and reached for his large square glasses.
“Where is all your stuff?” he asked.
“It’s just this.”
“Where is Ponyboy?” I asked.
“He’s here . . . he’s sneaking around trying to figure out which train is ours, he thinks he knows which one is the right one but if it’s the wrong one we go to Boston.”
“I’d rather go to New Orleans.”
“Me too, but beggars can’t be choosers.”
“Are we beggars now?”
The Kid had recently dropped out of art school in New York. He moved there on September 1st, 2001, and a couple of days later he sent me a polaroid of himself standing on a rooftop with a bandana over his face as the sky rained ash. The Kid hated NYC and the recent trauma that the city had endured made it all the more easy to take a year off to hop trains with Ponyboy.
Ponyboy soon returned and told us the plan: the train was to come sometime in the next six hours, and we would ride for three to four days with one stop, and then we would most likely go to New Orleans. Or, possibly, Boston.
I felt like Ponyboy was doing all the work, so I asked if there is something I could do. “Just wait.”
Ponyboy was very focused as he consulted the manual. The manual is pieced together from a forum that is made for and by train-hoppers. If one were to be appointed, then Ponyboy would easily be our leader but his leadership laid mostly in that it was he who had acquired the manual. The information listed ranged from the obvious, like train schedules and safety tips, but also small, esoteric details, such as where you can find a hole in a fence, where there may be a board to cross a creek, where nearby water sources may be, abandoned houses to sleep in and which trainyards have a history of a violent bull, aka railroad police, the human guard dogs of the trainyard.
When it appeared that the yard was clear, we quietly ran with our heads toward the ground to the open train car. We climbed in and pressed our backs against the front wall of the car as to stay out of sight. We sat patiently knowing that it might be hours till the train moved. The engine started as the sun began to set. As we pulled out of town we took part in a victory dance that caused clouds of dust to fill the car.
The light dimly flickered through the trees as we eased into our new lodging. We said nothing to each other as our voices were silenced by the train’s rhythmic pulse. The sunlight flickered with the ever changing scenery as quickly as a television bounces in between channels. With the ambient thumping of the train we were already slipping into a trance where the unfolding of the American landscape was all that mattered. While in that trance I realized that I was now living within the daydreams that were with me every second that I spent in that dish pit. Once the sun set, it was replaced by the light of the stars. We sat with our backs to the wall as we were cradled by the rhythm of the car, unable to speak and too excited to sleep.
As the sun returned in the early morning the heat began to weigh upon us. Throughout the night we had all been in a constant state of half sleep and now that we were again beneath a Southern June sun and the train car was a good 20 degrees hotter than it was outside. We rationed the warm milk jugs of water as we weren't sure when we would have a chance to refill them.
For food we had only rationed one granola bar and a package of dry ramen per day. The air was heavy and still and upon entering the train we all now wore a clay colored coat of dust. Occasionally we danced a little trying to make some kind of visual joke to one another, but ultimately we got used to staying quiet and watching the landscape morph from farm to trailer park to suburb to river to mountain and onward.
After about 24 hours of steady movement, the train came to a halt. We were to sleep outside of a South Carolina trainyard that night, a layover until we boarded our next train in the morning for our final destination of New Orleans, which we now were certain we were headed toward.
As soon as the train silenced itself we began to speak again, it was clear that we were all a bit loopy from the heat and lack of food. We snuck out of the trainyard with our bodies close to the ground and towards a hole in a fence. Ponyboy led us to the woods as instructed by the manual. It was late and we were exhausted and ready to sleep but as soon as we climbed into our sleeping bags it started to rain.
I could hear metal scraping in the trainyard as they piece together a train. My dreams and my surroundings began to blend. I dreamed I was back on the train and I saw dozens of dogs running alongside us. I had imagined that the Bull had sent these dogs after us and they would follow us from state to state till they finally caught up to us.
I heard the dogs howling and sniffing around. I woke up The Kid and Ponyboy. “Did you hear that? Can you hear the dogs!” I said. They assured me I just needed water and sleep and soon the the dogs would go away. As the rain pounded harder, I decided that our scent has been washed away and that the dogs had given up on their search.
By morning we were in motion again. Slightly rested and with our water replenished, I no longer imagined the beasts on our trail. The heat got worst as we went through Alabama and Georgia. The only reason I ever used my sleeping bag for anything other than a pillow was to shield myself from the increasing swarms of mosquitos that joined us and as we went deeper south. I could see on The Kid and Ponyboy that we all looked liked we had scarred faces as the swarms chewed on us.
The Kid sat with his large square glasses that blurred his eyes for all to see yet somehow gave his vision clarity. He wore a large cowboy hat that he would swing in the air as he galloped in place as if the rhythm of the train was actually a sea of thrushing horses. He spent most of his time sitting in the sun while reading old science fiction novels making the most of the daylight.
Ponyboy had plans to busk on the streets on New Orleans and brought his banjo. In spite of the fact that he couldn’t hear it, he often played picking patterns along to the train’s constant metronome.
I had books and notebooks but I found it hard to focus. I found the scenarios in my books too incongruous to my current setting. I opted to gaze from the open door of the boxcar, I figured I would never have this floating perspective again. Throughout my years of school and shitty jobs I wasted a lot of time disconnecting from my reality in an attempt to transcend the moment. I no longer needed that escape. I had finally stepped out of that world and now I needed to be present. The world inspired my attention.
In spite of all this I occasionally thought back to my dish-pit and to my touch-and-go year in college. I didn’t miss any of it and now my senses were heightened even if they were distorted by heat and hunger. This is how I wanted to live life. I didn’t want to imagine stories; I wanted to live them.
Occasionally the train stopped in a field or somewhere far away from civilization and we would move freely or just dangle our legs over the edge of the car. We would often have to idle for hours as the train waited for a more important train to overcome it. If there were no houses or eyes on us then we would get out and stretch, talk or just enjoy the stillness and silence.
It was now a luxury to move freely. To not be restricted to the confines of a train that moves on its own accord. If one of us saw a house in the distance, and one of us was feeling brave, whoever it was would run toward it, looking for a spigot to replenish the water jugs.
Ponyboy as usual would take the lead. He’d memorized the map, knew the route, knew when our next stops came and had a generally informed understanding of how we should ration our water. Ponyboy only shared the most immediate of details with us, and when we’d see him head toward a lone house upon a hill then The Kid and I assumed that he must know something we don’t. This house may be featured in the manual or we were not likely to stop for a stretch after this. I would lean back to enjoy the stillness and hope that Ponyboy didn’t get shot or left behind.
As a 19-year-old who was already resisting/straying from the common course of college and moving toward what I saw to be career/adulthood, I always expected that I would turn into some cautionary tale. I expected the universe would sacrifice me to show the others that they had been wiser by taking the known route. I would be punished for their amusement to think that the rules did not apply to me.
I daydreamed of the worst as I watched Ponyboy ascend up the hill. I listened for the slightest sign that the train was about to move. I dangled my legs over the edge of the car as The Kid stood about 100 feet away wandering the field. I imagined the train moving suddenly, with me waving goodbye to my friends as we realized that the game was up, that they were stranded and I was suddenly on my own -- the two of them with nothing but water and a train-hopping manual in a field somewhere between Alabama and New Orleans. At least they would have each other.
During what should’ve been a moment of calm, this scene played out in my mind. I was relieved to see Ponyboy as he returned down the hill but I still feared that the jugs would make it hard for him to run if he needed to. I shouted to The Kid when the engine started and he instantly broke into a sprint towards me. I grabbed his hand and pulled him aboard. Ponyboy was running toward us and we positioned ourselves to be ready to pull him up. Once Ponyboy was close enough we grabbed the water and then hoisted him up as the train began to roll. We all smiled and laughed at our brush of near-separation. I decided to stay quiet about my anxiety dream. Now that we were safe I was reminded: we were constantly at risk of being arrested, stranded, lost or starved. We had to take things as they came; otherwise, worry would obstruct adventure.
How The Others Live
My face felt raw as we descended through the Louisiana swamps. The mosquitoes were constantly with us. I imagined, when I found myself standing in front of a mirror again, that I would be stick-thin, coated in dust and my face a never-ending scar.
Within the swamps I saw small islands where people lived. They were spread out and random and made up of a structure not much larger than a doghouse or a shed standing on some lone marsh, usually with a rowboat tied to a tree. I imagined the lives they must live and saw something of myself in this daydream. This adventure was the first time I stepped out so severely from the rules of society and here was a first row glimpse of people who lived like this all the time.
Finally it came: a sign for New Orleans. I dreamed of an oyster Po’Boy and a beer. We gathered our things to prepare for the train to stop. We held ourselves sturdy at the sound of scraping metal. We do our best not to slam into walls or fly from the train. As soon as we are still we will have to run. We jump from the train but we are weak and our bodies shake as if the earthquake is in us.
Ponyboy leads us to a hole in the fence that his friend had cut for us days earlier. We follow a path and find three full water jugs waiting for us. In the last four days I had barely eaten, slept, or moved, yet I was relieved to be running. Ponyboy leads us to a second hole in the fence and we find ourselves running through a cemetery. Once we pass the cemetery gates we find our bus stop. We catch our breath and began to count our change and soon we climb aboard. The commuters stare as they see a group of dust covered, bearded boys with a sour smell. What they can't see is that our insides are still shaking.
Dylan Angell is a North Carolinian who is currently based in Queens, New York. In 2016 he released the book An Index of Strangers Whom I Will Never Forget A-Z, via his Basic Battles Books imprint. He has collaborated on two books with photographer Erin Taylor Kennedy; 2017’s I'll Just Keep On Dreaming And Being The Way I Am and 2018’s Beyond the Colosseum. He has been published in Fanzine, Fluland, Parhelion, The Travelin’ Appalachians Revue, and Sleaze Magazine. Sometimes when he can’t sleep he will ride his bike and listen to Bill Evans.
Dylan is also the author of three books, which you can find here: http://www.blurb.com/my/account/profile.
Find him on instagram: https://www.instagram.com/dythekid_basicbattlesbooks/