SPIKE, another story for FOLKTALES, is about a teenage vagabond who unexpectedly meets up with an experienced freight hopper on a cold night in a fast-moving boxcar. The experienced hopper gradually reveals his derangement over the course of their conversation. The story, although it’s never mentioned directly, takes place during the Great Depression – a time in which an estimated 250,000 teenagers – who would eventually come to be known as “Road Kids” – took to hopping freight trains as a reaction to poverty, homelessness, and a desire for adventure. The Depression created for them the perfect storm (there’s a great documentary by Michael Uys and Lexy Lovell on the subject, called “Riding the Rails”). I’ve been interested in writing a story involving these Road Kids ever since I learned about them – there’s something very compelling to me about the naked vulnerability of youth being plunged into a world of violence and danger prematurely. That’s what interested me – putting a kid into a situation where he’s forced to confront an eery personification of humanity’s dark side; but that dark side only reveals itself slowly.
The character of the deranged freight hopper comes from an article I read in the San Francisco Chronicle during the mid 90’s – a time when my enthusiasm for hopping trains was at its highest. Some psychopath had been picked up by the police who, as it turns out, had murdered several people over the course of a few years – most (or maybe all) of them on freight trains. I can’t remember the exact details. The article definitely made me think twice about hopping freight trains, though. It stands as a reminder to me that it’s dangerous to think we can count on the civility of strangers; it has always interested me just how precarious those things are that we take for granted in society – namely the dependability of things like justice, fairness, morality, decency, etc. The experienced freight hopper represents the absence of those things.
With FOLKTALES, I want to do a little more time travelling than I did in ABANDONED CARS. By that, I mean tell stories that take place at different periods in American history – most specifically the 20th century. I don’t expect to make these eras clearly explicit – although elements of the story (styles, mood, references) will make it discernible. SPIKE is the first example of this time travelling.
(There’s a movie that came out in 1933 called “Wild Boys of the Road”, directed by William Wellman, that dramatizes the experience of the Road Kids. I, sadly, haven’t seen anymore than clips of the film. It’s been very difficult tracking it down, but I know it exists out there on DVD. If anyone knows how to get a copy, please let me know.)