Bums, Tumbleweeds and the Empire Avenue Overpass

For some reason I frequently found myself playing in the industrial sections of Burbank. (Could it have been because there were so many industrial sections of Burbank?) Here's one, the railroad overpass above Empire Avenue, not far from the Lockheed reclamation yard where I would later work until I wised up and quit to go to college.

As you can see from the picture, this was a rather grotty site. The primary interest of the place for a 12-year-old was the dirty drawings and nasty writings executed on the black steel bridge with chunks of wall board inexplicably strewn around the place. Where did it come from? I have no idea. It was always there during my childhood, and when I revisited the place in 1994 when I took this picture, it was still there. Maybe the city of Burbank makes deliveries, I don't know.

You can just see some graffiti on the bridge. I used to wonder who authored all those nasty pictures and dirty writings. Big kids, no doubt; thuggish teenagers. I was always hopeful of finding some when I came by, to solve the mystery, and at the same time I was half-afraid of being caught by them. (After all, kids who drew that kind of stuff would no doubt beat me up if they found me looking at it.) I once mentioned the drawings to Dad, who responded with a saying that almost fit: "Fools' names and fools' faces often appear in public places."

My friends and I spent a lot of time near railroad tracks. When we weren't setting pennies on the rails so they'd be smashed, we were throwing rocks at the passing railroad cars. Or at bums. These days they're known as the homeless, but back in the Sixties they were called bums and winos. Whatever they were, they used to stop off near this site every now and then. I don't know why this particular place was special to them, but we saw them here, sleeping, smoking or just generally milling around to no purpose.

I sort of envied the lifestyle, and, when I got out of the Marine Corps, actually toyed with the idea of becoming a bum myself. (Instead I hired on with Lockheed, which was much the same thing, except the pay was better.) But there was a certain romance in finding out exactly where those rails led, not caring about mundane concerns like homework and pleasing parents. And, Roger Miller's hit "King of the Road" had been overplayed just a few years earlier, adding to the mystique.

The reality was different, of course. Once, Richard Springer and I came across a bum sleeping in a field, near this overpass. We backed off a bit and threw some rocks at him, then hauled out of there quickly when he got up and ran after us. Having gotten a good thump off of his back with a rather large rock, I don't think I ever pedalled that Sting Ray so quickly in my entire life... (And yes, I reflected on this incident when I was considering bumhood for myself.)

You can see a big clump of tumbleweeds in the foreground. I used to like these, the way they would scuttle through vacant lots when the winds came. When I was a kid I had a Whitman book of 365 bedtime stories, one for each day of the year. The one for my birthday (April 27th) was about some kids living on "What-A-Jolly Street" who put a note in a tumbleweed, encouraging whomever found it to phone the kids, telling of its discovery. They then launched the tumbleweed. I always wanted to do that with my own kids but never was able to. Living here in the east, I miss tumbleweeds almost as much as I miss the eucalyptus trees.

(Did anyone ever find the note in the tumbleweed? Yes. I bought this bedtime stories book as an adult on e-Bay and re-read the tale of the tumbleweed.)

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