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You see it as a train. Others see it as a ride.

The Secret Freedoms of Train Hoppin’


I’m confused. Two days earlier, I had met filmmaker Brian Paul in New Orleans while he was promoting his documentary, Cure For the Crash, a fascinating look inside the minds of “train hoppers.” I told him I wanted to learn about the “art” of hopping, and he agreed to meet me across the river, in the old train yards of Algiers.

“What do you mean ‘No?,’” I ask, not even trying to hide my annoyance.

“I don’t promote this [train hopping], especially into that microphone.”

As good as his movie was, I’m not going to let that be the only thing we talk about.

“Why not?” I press. For two reasons, Paul says.

“First, it’s one of the most dangerous things you can try – and it has nothing to do with Hollywood’s version of people getting their teeth kicked in by bulls [train yard policemen] – that’s a luxury compared to what these machines will do to you.”

“The second is because of my respect for this group,” he goes on. “I came down here wanting to make a film and spent seven months immersed in this subculture. These people brought me into their circle, so I’m not going to disrespect that.”

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You see it as a train. Others see it as a ride.

This isn’t going well.

“Okay, can you at least tell me how many people are still doing this?” I ask, quietly wondering if a photo gallery of the train yard might have been a better idea.

“Oh yeah, man,” he says, his tone going from defensive to enthusiastic. “You’d be amazed at how many people are still hopping. I met hundreds while doing this film, but no doubt there are thousands of them still out there.”

“The cool thing is that during the time I spent with them – learning the rails, the codes, the information passed only from one hopper to another – I saw a freedom they had that you or I only know for a few weeks a year,” he says.

“Everything they need is in their backpack – the things left at home are simply luxury items, they’re things. You find out that if you’re willing to drop your standards, you’ll never go hungry.”

He points to a supermarket behind us.

“You know, they throw out stuff – good stuff – every day? If you’re willing to eat out of a dumpster, then suddenly, there’s a freedom that our society really doesn’t know.”

I half-raise an eyebrow at this. Begging is one thing, but eating out of a trash can is another. I didn’t say anything, but I think Paul knows what I’m thinking. He smiles back as if to suggest I ought to just try it.

But I’m not about to.

And maybe that’s one of the reasons he won’t tell me how to go about hoppin.’

Maybe he could tell that I like my things.

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