I attended a storytelling workshop this week where I worked on a team assigned to go to a nearby town and find a story. My team happened upon a pack of three truly delightful people and had the pleasure of compiling a full story package on them. The following is the written piece we produced. These people are just too cool not to share. Note: the beginning of the piece is purposefully slanted in a semi-unflattering way, so I must state that these kids were absolutely lovely and totally open from the first words we exchanged. I'll remember them fondly and hope to meet them again.
They had fallen from Neverland, it seemed, and landed in a grubby heap beside a pizza shop. Accompanied by a gaggle of pet dogs, the tribe of three young people perch atop their overstuffed backpacks and scrawl “Spare change for pizza” on a cardboard scrap to begin an afternoon of panhandling on the busy sidewalk. They are Train Kids, electively homeless twenty-somethings running breathlessly from the ever-encroaching threat of adulthood by surreptitiously hopping freight trains to faraway places. Like Peter Pan’s Lost Boys, maturity has yet to catch them.
“That’s the scariest part. Growing up.” Despite an existence that regularly demands she fling herself onto moving trains and answer to angry cops, Morgan’s greatest fear in life is simply growing up. Along with her sister Jessie and boyfriend Tim, Morgan left her home in Virginia to trade the American dream of a house, job, and family for the American romance of wandering wide open spaces, sleeping under the stars, and hopping the rails. “You hurry up to the train yard, […] wait for a train, hop on, go to sleep, and wake up in a new state,” describes Jessie.
As Jessie talks, a young man as heavily laden and grimily dressed as Tim wanders by and chats amiably with Jessie as if he were an old friend. “I’ve never met him,” she explains. “But he’s a Kid, too.” These three Train Kids belong to a larger clan of wanderers banded together by a soul-deep yearning for freedom, a distinct culture and a unique vernacular. A pervasive case of claustrophobia and “itchy feet”, as Tim explains, grip Kids whenever they try to settle down between four walls.Their countercultural lifestyle results in a collective Train Kid archetype: baggy overalls dotted with patches, a tangle of matted hair, an eclectic accumulation of fading tattoos, and one enormous knapsack. Well-to-do passersby avoid eye contact with the Train Kids and may even cross the street to preempt an interaction with the perceived miscreants.
Tim, Morgan, and Jessie are dirty and different and defecting. From the outside, they seem unambitious, irresponsible, and lawless. They appear without origin or destination. Among their proudest accomplishments is scavenging half-eaten throwaways from food court dumpsters. Performing original songs, riddled with lyrics sure to make an adolescent giggle, proves their sole contribution to society. Skulking about on the fringes of humanity, they shirk the rules the rest of us follow. Surely these Kids, with minds and bodies capable of honest work, have made a mistake in choosing to run. Surely they should live like us. As we scurry past them with eyes averted, we tell ourselves they must be more lost than even the Lost Boys.
Children are wild, stubborn, and foolish. Children are also creative, open-minded, and completely free. While the advent of adulthood fosters the modern virtues of responsibility and productivity, it simultaneously suffocates so much goodness. Maturation replaces feeling with thinking, imagination with information, dependence with autonomy, and innocence with self-righteousness. By running from time, the Train Kids have preserved their childlike goodness. When considered rightly, these nonmaterialistic, peaceful, and uncommonly kind Kids begin to look more like an itinerant Jewish rabbi than the Lost Boys of Neverland. The resemblance isn’t lost on Tim. “I like living my life kind of like Jesus does, you know? I like […] loving people and loving the world around me.”
More widely traveled than most, the three have traversed almost forty states. The Kids froth with excited laughter as they list their dream destinations, including Thailand, India, Europe, and Canada. When asked why they travel, the three halfheartedly toss out reasons: to meet new people, learn new things, eat great food. Morgan pauses, sighs a little, then emphatically answers. “Because I’m free.”
“I want to grow old. I just don’t want to grow up,” Tim remarks with a wry laugh. He allows the obvious paradox to hang in the air as he fiddles with his guitar. He considers how one can possibly revel in life’s richness while simultaneously running from it’s consequences. Somehow, at least for a little while, the Train Kids are managing to do both.
Pedestrians, paralyzed by fear of interacting with such otherness, continue to timidly and tacitly toss coins and religious tracts towards the motley heap of humanity beside the pizza shop. A thought becomes obvious: Maybe we shouldn’t pity the Train Kids. Trapped in our prisons of status quo expectations, perhaps we are the ones to be pitied.