Train Out of Cicero


This story takes you around the world, beginning in 1969 with my hopping a Train out of Cicero on the outskirts of Chicago, Illinois and an encounter with an angry hobo; to a tale about how to act in the face of aggression as told by Sri Ramakrishna, the great saint of Calcutta, India, telling of a snake and a sadhu and how to act in the face of aggression. Here are words, pictures and a recorded narration with music and sound effects.

Every page holds a separate recording and at the end of the page, simply click to flip to the next one and the narration and music will continue. If you desire to listen to the story and wonderful music as a whole, without the breaks of the different pages, you will find on the very last page, the embed of the complete story and music: Train out of Cicero

Music: Spann's Stomp, by Otis Spann, 1924-1970, the greatest Blues piano player of all time.
The music on the final page music is from a live performance by:
Anoushka Shankar, Bhairavi Raga

Train Out of Cicero

Tales of Freight Trains and Sri Ramakrishna

(Written and Spoken Word: AUDIO)

by: Peter Malakoff

Cover Photograph by: Michael Ranta

Train Out of Cicero

It was a night train, westbound out of Cicero, a predominantly

Black area on the west side of Chicago, known for its high crime

rate and the westbound terminus for all freight trains out of the city.

It was almost midnight, nearly freezin' and a big harvest moon was

sailin' the sky. I had just walked across the city of Cicero carrying a

heavy knapsack and lookin' for all the world like a traveling hippy.

There were many of us on the road that year; young people, longhaired,

well-educated some of em, but I don't think many had

passed through this way.

People had warned me not to walk through Cicero, to take a bus

instead, but I went anyway.

It was late fall,1969, I was 17 years old and headed for the

Burlington Northern freight-yards, lookin' for a high-speed, straight

through, Hot Shot train, out to Denver, Salt Lake City and on to the

California sun and the unique and legendary company that would

live along its coast.

The walk through town had been fairly eventful. I got to witness

a robbery. The lookout man had waved to me as I approached.

He was outside a store, shufflin' about, nervous, but smiling. As

I walked by I looked in and saw a man with a gun on another

guy. I walked faster and didn't turn around. A couple blocks

away I heard the sirens.

I walked into the yard just as my train was pullin' out. A yardman pointed

it out to me as a hotshot to Denver, "Only 19 hrs and you'll be in the Mile

high city.", he yelled . . . "You're gonna freeze your ass off!"

The train was already pickin' up a good bit of speed as I ran

alongside the gravel embankment, looking behind me for an

empty boxcar . . . it was far too cold to ride the outside

underneath a piggyback. Finally, I saw it coming; still running, I

slide the pack off my back onto one arm, throw it up inside onto

the floor and then changin’ to a steel handle on the door, I kick

up my feet and haul myself on board. I made it, it looked clean;

It should be a good ride ahead . . .

On an empty boxcar, pulling out of the freight-yards at night, I

always liked to watch the bright flood of the yard lights sweep

across the inside of the car. First they strike the back wall in a

long, piercing look and then as the train pulls on they broaden,

moving, plastering the side wall like a billboard and then

sweeping quickly across the car, narrow again to the front and

you leave them behind.

Well, the light entered the car, swept across the back and side

walls and then as it shone into the front of the car, I realized I was

not alone. There was a dark figure squatting on the floor. I gave a

start, but only inwardly. After walking through Cicero, I was

already on full alert. I had heard many stories from the hobos,

particularly the older ones about the 'bad people' ridin' these

trains . . . the man was black and bearded and heavily dressed.

He gave no welcome or sign of acknowledgement. I immediately

felt this was not a good situation.

Usually, when you ride in a empty boxcar, you ride towards the

front. You are out of the wind and it's generally the best place to

be, particularly in the case of a sudden stop when you can be

thrown quickly and violently forward; I once went from one end

of a boxcar to the other, when they hit the brakes going across

the desert outside of Kingman, Arizona.

Because I had come onto the car after he did and because he

offered no greeting or sign of friendliness and because it

seemed too late to jump off, I thought it best to sit opposite the

open door. It seemed better to me than the far other end of the

boxcar, not only because it was less in the wind, but it also

seemed to hold out some possibility of relationship with my dark

partner on this all night ride.

I spread out a blanket for a pad and leaning back against the

wall and bending my knees, I slid my back down the wall until I

was half sitting on my blanket, my knees drawn up to my chest;

the best position for absorbing the shock and bouncing of a

freight car. I looked at the dark figure alone in the far corner and

I thought to myself, "This is going to be a long night. I don't dare

go to sleep with this guy here.” I would have to stay awake and

alert. I didn't have long to wait before things started to happen.

I had been watching the city outskirts go by at an ever

increasing rate, listening to the clackety rhythms of the wheels

and bouncing steel, when all of a sudden he was standing in

front of me and just to the left.

“Got any food white boy?"

It was his opening statement . . .

He was a large black man and obviously in an angry and

antagonistic state of mind. I was taken by surprise and I didn't

answer right away.

He growled again,

"I said, you got any food white boy?"

"No, I don't have any food."

I answered in my 'come on lets be rational and talk this all out'

educated, jewish-liberal, white-boy voice.’

"I know you got food in that knapsack white boy."

His voice was getting louder and more insistent.

"I don't have any food, man." I now replied in a more firm tone

of 'although I was never brought up this way, this is how it is'


I was telling the truth. I did have some brown rice and miso, but

I knew that wouldn't count in this situation.

"I know you got food in that knapsack white boy."

He took a step towards me as he spoke.

He had definitely approached within the critical range for a

conversation of this sort. I had to do something.

I knew the train was going too fast for either one of us to leave

now. I envisioned a fight with someone being thrown out the

door . . . it all wasn't pretty. The train was flying along and the

whole boxcar had that rolling sway of a fast-moving ship on


Our eyes were locked together and even though we couldn't

see each other clearly, I made my move . . .

I was wearing two pairs of pants, two undershirts, three flannel

shirts, a heavy sweater, a vest, a large, heavy dark-grey,

oversize, ankle-length salvation army coat. I had on gloves and

hiking boots. I had a three-day growth of beard and even

though I wore glasses, I made the right impression as I stood up

. . . slowly, taking all my time, drawing myself almost lazily to my

full height of over six-foot-four inches and more in my heavy

hiking boots and looking slightly down on him and straight into

his face said, in a deep and forceful, 'ain't gonna take this shit

no more,’

"I don't have no food, Maaannn!!!”

We stood there for a few seconds, swaying in unison as the

boxcar bounced along on the rails. The silence in the midst of

all the noise around was crying out a million things. I didn't know

what he was hearin'. I had played my cards and now it was up

to him.

He spat on the floor, not in my direction, (I knew it was gonna

be all right at that point), he mumbled something about the

white race and he walked away to his end of the boxcar. It had


I stayed up all that night, thinking plenty of thoughts with my

man like a backup horn section, playin' some remember-some

licks of apprehension, but the train was rockin' like a lullaby

cradle and he was passed off to sleep in his anger.

I watched a bunch of lovely moon-night country fly by, the fields

all barren, white birds scattering in the fall moonlight, thinking

the thoughts of an angel at war.

Train Photos by: Michael Ranta

The next morning before sunrise, while pulled off on a siding

to let a passenger train by, I left that boxcar and found

another, for the rest of the ride to Denver.

Lookin' Back at Anger

When the black man came at me in the boxcar, I felt a

situation in which neither passivity nor aggression would work.

To be mild in the face of a crazy, angry man seemed to invite

disaster. To be aggressive and fight was an unnecessary and

dangerous violence. It was a third consideration on which I

acted . . . a consideration I first heard in the teachings of Sri


Sri Ramakrishna

Ramakrishna was a great God- Realizer of the late 19th

Century India. Often, when teaching, he would recount the

many tales and stories he heard as a child growing up in rural

India. By means of these stories, he would add spice to the

transmission of his own Realization, and give new meaning to

previously unexamined issues.

Let me tell you a story of his, a story which gave me another

way to act in the face of violence:

“Some cowherd boys used to tend their herd in a meadow

where a terrible poisonous snake lived. Everybody was always

on alert for fear of it . One day a sadhu, a saint, was going

along that way to the meadow. The boys ran to him and said:

"Revered sir, please don't go that way. A terrible, venomous

snake lives over there."

"What of it, my good children?" said the saint. "I am not afraid of

the snake." And so saying, he continued on his way through the

meadow. But the cowherd boys, being afraid, did not

accompany him. In the meantime, the snake heard him and

moved swiftly against him with upraised hood.

As soon as it came near, the sadhu recited a mantra, and the

snake lay at his feet like an earthworm.

The holy man said: "Look here. Why do you go about doing

harm? Come, I will give you a holy mantra. By repeating it you

will learn to love God. Ultimately you will realize him and also

get rid of your violent nature." And saying this, he taught the

snake the holy word and initiated him into spiritual life.

The snake bowed before the teacher and said, "Revered sir,

how shall I practice spiritual discipline?"

"Repeat that sacred word", said his teacher and do no harm to

anybody." As he was about to depart, the saint said, "I shall see

you again for sure."

Some days passed and the cowherd boys noticed that the

snake seemed passive. They threw stones at it. Still it showed

no anger; It behaved as if it were an earthworm.

One day one of the boys came close to it, caught it by the tail,

and whirling it round and round, dashed it against a tree and

threw it away on the ground. The snake vomited and became

unconscious. It was stunned. It could not move. Thinking it

dead, the boys went their way.

Late at night the snake regained consciousness. Slowly and

with great difficulty it dragged itself into its hole; its bones were

broken and it could scarcely move. Many days and weeks

passed. The snake became a mere skeleton covered with skin.

For fear of the boys it would not leave its hole during the daytime.

Night and day it practiced its mantra and at night it would

sometimes come out in search of food. Since receiving the

sacred word from the teacher, it had given up doing harm to

others. It maintained its life on dirt, leaves, or the fruit dropped

from trees.

About a year later the saint came that way again and asked

after the snake. The cowherd boys told him that it was dead.

But he didn't believe them. He knew that the snake would not

die before attaining the fruit of the holy word with which it had

been initiated. He went out into the fields and searching here

and there, called the snake by the name he had given it. And

hearing his Guru's voice, the snake came out of its hole and

bowed before him with great reverence. "How are you?" asked

the saint.

"I am well, sir", replied the snake.

"But", the teacher asked, "Why are you so thin?"

The snake replied,"Revered sir, you ordered me not to harm

anybody. So I have been living on leaves and fruit. Perhaps that

has made me thinner." The snake had developed the quality of

sattva or purity; it could not be angry with anyone and it had

totally forgotten that the cowherd boys had almost killed it.

The saint said, "It can't be mere want of food that has reduced

you to this state. There must be some other reason. Think a


And then the snake remembered that the boys had dashed it

against the tree and it said, "Yes, now I remember. The boys

held me by my tail and dashed me violently against the tree.

They are ignorant after all. They didn't realize what a great

change had come over my mind. How could they know I

wouldn't bite or harm anyone?"

And the saint exclaimed, "What a shame! You are such a fool!

You don't know how to protect yourself.

"But, Guruji" , the snake protested, "you told me not to harm


"Yes, I asked you not to harm anybody, but I did not forbid you

to hiss!

You must scare them away by hissing!”

Ramakrishna said:

“So you must hiss at wicked people. You must frighten them lest

they should do you harm. But never inject your venom into

them. One must not injure others. “In this creation of God there

is a variety of things: men, animals, trees, plants. Among the

animals some are good, some bad. There are ferocious animals

like the tiger. Some trees bear fruit sweet as nectar, and others

bear fruit that is poisonous. Likewise, among human beings,

there are the good and the wicked, the holy and the unholy.

There are some who are devoted to God, and others who are

attached to the world.”

I have followed the words of Ramakrishna since I first heard


Peter Malakoff

Here is the recording of the whole story:

Train out of Cicero

with narration, music and sound effects:

Narration by: Peter Malakoff

Music: Spann’s Stomp by: Otis Spann

The “Colossus of Blues”


Anoushka Shankar: Bhairavi Raga

More magazines by this user