Mike Brodie's life, when narrated by an outsider, seems a lot like free association — where one thing leads to the next, leads to the next, etc.
Before he discovered trains, Brodie was bagging groceries in Pensacola, Fla., and really into BMX. Then he met a girl. She worked at the Chinese restaurant in the same strip mall and, he says, "she was like a punk rocker."
She asked him on a date, then invited him over to her house, which Brodie describes as a "punk house." And that's where, for the first time, he met a train-hopper — an 18-year-old Tennessee kid named Scott who was passing through town.
The two of them were sitting on a couch on the front porch of that punk house (because "in the South, a lot of houses have couches on the porch," he says). As Scott casually described how a passing train was headed to New Orleans, Brodie made up his mind.
"Probably two weeks after that, I left town by myself," he says. "I had no idea what I was doing, but I just got on a train and went somewhere."
He brought a Polaroid Spectra and one pack of film for a three-day trip. He was 17. And that marked the beginning of a yearslong relationship with train-hopping culture and photography.
Now he's 28 and working as a mechanic in Oakland, Calif. He doesn't hop trains anymore. He doesn't really even take photos. But he does have a book out — with some of the best portraits from his years on the tracks. And in his reluctant but refreshingly honest essay, he writes, "I am not sure I want anyone to read this."
That's probably because he doesn't fancy himself a photographer or an artist — and maybe sees the irony in publishing a book about subversive subculture. But he does concede one thing: That it's a worthy document of a distinct group in time.
Like the image of a boy named Soup dangling from the back of a rail car, flipping his middle finger at the camera. "I kind of think that deep down he knew that one day the world was gonna see this image," Brodie says. "And in my mind, he was kind of just sending his message to society."
Brodie says that although he does not miss the lifestyle, he would not be surprised if he ended up on a train again.
"In my heart I do not feel like a photographer. I don't know if I ever have," he says. "But what I've always felt like is a railroader."
He recently interviewed for a position as a mechanic with a railroad company. Which seems appropriate. And there's no telling where that would lead.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish. Finally, this hour, we're going to ride the rails. Train-hoppers have been hitching rides since the earliest days of America's railways and today, a new generation of tramps is catching out, as it's called; many of them post-punk teens. For years, self-taught photographer Mike Brodie was one of them.
MIKE BRODIE: Compare it to the way a dog puts his nose out of a window, and the wind is smashing him in the nose and - you know, all these senses are just like, whoosh! And the dog is - I have heard that dogs get high off that. And that's how it is when you're on a train. You're on a railcar that's not built to accommodate people. It's built to accommodate freight and goods and cargo, and so it's not comfortable; and you're out in the open, and you're seeing the world in the same way, but different.
CORNISH: And thanks to Brodie, you can see, close up, this very different world of train-hoppers. A young man, guitar in hand, running to catch a boxcar; the steady gaze of a girl curled against the cold, on top of an ore hopper. Starting as a teenager, Brodie took thousands of photos while hopping trains. And some of the best - shot between 2003 and 2006 - are collected in a new book, called "A Period of Juvenile Prosperity."
Mike Brodie told me about the night before he caught his very first freight train.
BRODIE: Oh, I couldn't even sleep. What was going through my head is, I want to get the hell out of here and see something new. I was bored. And I think that's what goes through a lot of young people's minds when they take to the rails, so to speak. They want to see something they haven't seen. They've been in one town for a while. They want to go explore and get in trouble and - I don't know, risk their lives for some fun or adventure.
CORNISH: Brodie's one town, at that time, was Pensacola, Fla. He'd never thought much about trains or train-hopping until a girl he knew offered the couch on her porch to a train-hopper.
BRODIE: He was this 18-year-old kid from Chattanooga, Tenn. His name was Scott Youth, and I swear he looked like he was in his late 30s. But he just - he was really dirty; he had a big beard. And her house was really close to the tracks, and we could sit on the porch and watch trains go by. And he just started telling me about this train as it went by. He said it was a Hot Shot; it was going to New Orleans.
He just told me a little information - not very much - and immediately after he said that, I was just totally engulfed in that idea of getting on a train and riding it. So I talked to a couple of other folks about it, but I didn't wait very long. Probably two weeks after that, I just left town by myself. I had no idea what I was doing, but I just got on a train and went somewhere.
CORNISH: And at that time, did you take your Polaroid camera with you?
BRODIE: Exactly. I had a Polaroid Spectra. I only had one pack of film, so I think I took 10 pictures throughout the whole trip. Basically, I just took some photos of my own shadow - you know, things like that; things that looked kind of nice. (LAUGHTER)
CORNISH: Well, the photos you begin to take over time are not just of your shadow. They're of your friends. And I want to talk even just about the cover of the book, which has two people sleeping, and it's taken from above; and they're sort of curled in the - sort of fetal position. But what strikes me is that maybe it's because of the way they're dressed, it looks like it could have been taken at any time in history. I mean, it could've been taken in the '20s; it could've been taken in the '50s. When was it taken, and what's the story behind it?
BRODIE: This photo was taken summer 2008. These two individuals are sleeping inside of what's called a coal porter. It's those train cars that transport coal like, to and from places like the Powder River Coal Basin; you know, those big coal mines. And when the coal gets unloaded, the empties have to be returned. So we're deep in the bottom of one, and the reason why the lighting is so good - and it's bright - is because it's aluminum, and it was really sunny. And the sun was bouncing all around in there, and it just looked incredible. But immediately, when you said, "it looks like it could be taken anytime" - I immediately stared at this pink duct tape, and I was like, I know they didn't have that in the '20s.
CORNISH: Oh, this is the pink duct tape on the shoes?
BRODIE: Yeah, see on his shoe? His shoe sole was coming off, so we got some pink duct tape, and we wrapped it around his shoe.
CORNISH: The personalities, and the lifestyle, depicted in the book are both rough and romantic; piercings, tattoos, punk tramps sleeping on steel and cardboard, and eating whatever they can forage - crayfish, blackberries, thrown-out vegetables. But there's also a sense of community among them, of shared purpose. In one shot, three grease-smeared teens hand around a can of beans as the ground races beneath their feet. They're wearing Nikes, their pants tattered and stitched and restitched, hands black as coal miners. In another shot, two riders stare over the lip of a rail car at a sunlit field of golden grass. One leans an arm over the edge and barely visible, tattooed across her knuckles, the word "free."
I asked Mike Brodie about one photo that stood out to me. It shows his friend, nicknamed Soup, leaning back in a rush of wind, hanging from a metal railing at the rear of the train, flashing his middle finger at the camera.
BRODIE: This is his idea. We were sitting there. The sun was going down and he's like, oh, Brodie, I got an idea and he - and I go, okay. So he unbuttons his shirt, he steps behind this handrail here and, you know, I didn't think he was going to fall off and die, but, you know, that's what's going through your mind. A train's going like 50 miles per hour, you know, I'm not going to stop him.
He's holding on tight. And so I snapped a few photos. He stuck his finger out and I was laughing. He was, you know, I had a hard time holding the camera. But, you know, I still want to talk to him about what his intention was 'cause, you know, I kind of think that deep down he knew that one day someone was going to - you know, the world was going to see this image and, in my opinion, he was just kind of sending his message to society.
CORNISH: And he's the one who helped you name the book, is that right?
BRODIE: Yes. He wrote the title.
CORNISH: Do you look back on that period yourself? Was that a period of prosperity in a way for you?
BRODIE: Yeah, well, I guess what it means to me, we were young and stupid, kind of, and we didn't have a lot of money or resource - or we didn't have a lot of money, didn't have a lot of responsibility, doing whatever we want and we were broke, but things came our way. We got, you know, ate out of garbage, got free food, people gave us rides. We caught free train rides. People living in squats.
You know, all this, like, this quote/unquote "free lifestyle" we were living and being relatively prosperous, you know. Not necessarily down and out, because we chose this lifestyle. And people choose this lifestyle, for the most part.
CORNISH: Now, you're not riding the rails anymore and I think I'm reading, not really taking photos. And you're living in Oakland and working as a mechanic, right?
BRODIE: Yeah, right now, I work as just a freelance auto mechanic for Bay Area residents. I got a small shop space that I rent.
CORNISH: In your heart, do you still feel like a photographer?
BRODIE: In my heart, I do not feel like a photographer. I don't know if I ever have. But what I've always felt like is a railroader and coincidentally, Thursday morning, I have an interview with BNSF Railway as a diesel mechanic here in the Bay Area, which is a job I've been trying to get for the better part of three years. And what's funny is NPR's constantly pushing these BNSF Railway commercials and every time I listen to NPR, it's like do-do-do, do-do, BNSF railway.
And I'm like, yep, going to work for BNSF one day, yep. So it's like this really funny circle, so.
CORNISH: Well, Mike Brodie, I'm glad that you're still going to be around trains, even if you're not taking pictures. It sounds like that's where you're at home.
CORNISH: Thank you so much for speaking with us.
BRODIE: Cool. Thanks a lot. Appreciate it. Great talking to you.
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CORNISH: Mike Brodie's new book of photographs is called "A Period of Juvenile Prosperity." You can see many of his pictures at our website, NPR.org. And though we've since heard Brodie did not get that job, he is still pursuing his dream of working on the railroad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.