Thursday, June 02, 2005


Philadelphia, PA, USA

I'm sitting in the train station right now, waiting for Amtrack to change the engine on our ride. Apparently, we're 45 minutes delayed, but I didn't really notice. When I boarded the train, I sat down next to an old black man napping against the window. Over the course of the ride up to Philly, he woke up, and we started talking.

His name was George, and he had something to say.

George was born in May of 1924, and had eight siblings. His family started in Georgia, but when he was five, the depression started, and they had to move to Philly to find work. He specifically remembers Hoover and how he "fucked this country up". In 1935, he recalls FDR providing him with his original social security card, which he showed me, slowly fading away in his cracked leather wallet. His mother died when he was fourteen, and he left the house to look for work.
He was tall for his age, so he was able to convince the government that he was a ripe sixteen; old enough to get work on one of FDR's New Deal projects. He ended up in a small town in Pennsylvania, which he affectionately referred to as "the coldest fucking place in the world", building new roads through the Appalachian hills. He only stayed there for two months before he left, hitchhiking his way south, getting odd jobs as a farm-hand the whole way down. When he finally made it down to Florida at the grizzled age of sixteen, he got work at a lumber yard hauling poles on a truck. He had never driven a truck before, but he took the job anyway, and learned quickly. After doing that for a few months, he met a man in Jacksonville who needed a driver to do long hauls. He took the job, and found his career.
George worked as a trucker for this man for close to forty years, hauling cargo all around the southeastern seaboard, occasionally getting to such far off locales as New York City, and Sioux City, Iowa. Eventually, after almost four decades, George and his girlfriend found themselves trapped in a blizzard in Upstate New York. The generator on his truck was busted, and it was way too cold to drive without heat. He tried in vain to get his employer to send enough money to pay for a replacement generator, but he refused. So, George left the truck trapped in the snow, and his girlfriend convinced the Red Cross to drive them to Philly. He never talked to that guy again.
For the next fifteen years, George worked as a trucker for a few more employers, spreading himself out a little further from his roots in Florida. It's not clear to me what happened during those years, or how he ended up retired and taking the train from Fredericksburg, Virgina to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
George never got married, never had any kids, and seemed very happy to have someone to talk to on the train. I would have guessed that spending fifty years as a truck driver would be lonely, but he shook his head and hands vigorously when I suggested it. He had an interesting theory about people making their own happiness and not getting caught up in the unnecessary stressses in life. An interesting point of view coming from a man who almost got killed a couple of times just because of the color of his skin.

And now, he's gone. Back to Philadelphia to live with Christine and her son.


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