Scott Sparling

Hallucinations, a blog about writing, trains, and Wire to Wire

Wild In Minneapolis

Posted on Dec 28th, 2011.

One day in Minneapolis, when I didn’t have anything else to do, I leapt from an overpass onto the top of a moving train. It was one of a few reckless things I used to do that didn’t seem reckless at the time—the time being 1978 or so.

At night, for example, I used to walk out on the railroad bridge that crossed the Mississippi between Minneapolis and St. Paul. It was a long bridge, with two tracks and a raised metal ledge running the length of the span. The ledge was about as wide as a sidewalk and some nights I would stand on it and look at the blackness far below where I knew the river was. I never gave a thought to jumping—it wasn’t about that. Just the opposite: I went out there to feel alive. And also, to be honest, because I didn’t have many friends or a lot of other places to go.

This past October, I went back to Minneapolis to read at Magers & Quinn, a great indie bookstore on Hennepin Avenue, a few blocks from where I lived in the ‘70s. (Another wonderful bookstore in Minneapolis, btw, is Birchbark Books near Lake of the Isles. Birchbark is owned by Louise Erdrich and run by a very friendly, book-loving staff.)

Magers & Quinn had invited me to read with Matt Burgess, author of Dogfight, A Love Story. Matt’s a great guy and his book is amazing—get your hands on it and prepare to inhale.

When the reading was over, Andy at M&Q told me about a place in town called the Hard Times Café. It was a vegan, cooperative café, he said, and also a gathering spot for people who still rode freight trains. The Hard Times happened to be across the way from a place that made prosthetic limbs, and Andy told me that you'd sometimes you’d see riders in the café wearing them. I knew I had to check the place out. 

But first—around midnight, actually—I went back to the railroad bridge, intending to walk out over the Mississippi. To feel alive, of course, but also with the hope that the bridge might now extend backward into time. To the days when I used to sleep on the floor of the Minnesota Tenants Union, where I sometimes worked—back when $300 would get me through a whole summer of riding trains, with a little fruit-picking thrown in to tide me over. And back to the friends who took me in or let me go, like Cara and Patti and Kink, and Richard who let me ride in the caboose all the way to Mankato, and Flo, Kirk, Diana—hey, I guess I did have friends back then after all. 

Before I could get to the bridge there was a fence that had to be jumped, and that much I still have in me. But past it, at the edge of the river, there was a second, much bigger fence, with barbed wire extensions. You used to walk out on this bridge, the fence said, but you aren’t walking out no more.

This second fence was a serious piece of work. I spent a long time trying, but the portal to the past remained closed. Afterward I spent an hour or so trying, more successfully, to open a portal at Palmer’s Bar in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood.

So it was that I ended up at the Hard Times Café after 2 a.m. on a Thursday night in October. The place was still open—til 4:00 a.m. said the girl behind the counter, who had eyes so much like cats-eye marbles I never wanted to look away.

There were no freight riders around that I could see, but everyone in the place had a glow of some kind; a strange middle-of-the-night energy of people who were vegans, or students, or involved in romances that were ending or beginning or fouled up in ways that kept them from going home. I didn’t know. But I knew I wanted to be there just to bask in whatever it was.

I also wanted to abandon/release a copy of Wire to Wire there. So I left behind WILD W2W-003, one of four copies that are running around loose in the world. There’s a message from me on the inside, asking those who find the book to get in touch if they like.

In November, I got this message:

SCOTT:  I am currently reading one of the "wild" copies of your novel Wire to Wire, which I found in the free bin of the Hard Times Cafe in Minneapolis where I work. I like it so far; your writing reminds me a little of Brett Easton Ellis or maybe a less snarky Chuck Palahniuk.  I'm glad I decided to give it a go, man....will probably just return it to the free bin when I'm done or give it to someone else.  Cheers-DOUG SARETSKY

I wrote Doug back, telling him what I’d heard about Hard Times being a mecca for people hopping freights—which didn’t really mesh with what I’d seen in late October. He replied:  

“Man, Hard Times is trainhopper central in the spring and summer—some of ‘em are kind of cool and some of ‘em are just drunk kids.” 

I should have known that, of course. Spring is when I used to quit whatever job I had so I could go back out on the road. So it looks like I’ll have to return to the Twin Cities next year. I want to meet these kids who are still riding the rails.

In the meantime, the other three wild copies of W2W are still out there. If you come across one, let me know.


A bridge to the past. "Because some things in life are still worth a good brawl." Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter, "Tell the Boys."

The story of how I jumped from the overpass onto a moving freight is here.