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
"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
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
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
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
"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
You must scare them away by hissing!”
“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
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