Train hopping – that is, the art and practice of sneaking on board a freight train and riding the open rails – has long drawn literary greats in search of adventure, from Jack Kerouac to Jack London. Brooklyn-based Jeff Seal, however, is more hobo clown than high-flying author. And what’s up with his ridiculous helmet?
A film-maker, comedian and “self-proclaimed idiot” by trade, Seal makes his living doing stand-up and shooting short documentaries. Some of his recent productions for the website Gothamist include an eminently practical guide to dumpster diving and an intriguing inside look at New York City’s underground urbex scene.
His latest work, uploaded to YouTube, saw him attempting to train hop from Queens to Montauk in New York State. “I wanted to make this trip ever since my friend told me about it,” he told Gothamist. “I liked the idea that I could catch out somewhere that was near a subway stop and then just make it back home the same or next day.”
Train hopping, he explained, normally involves massive journeys or waiting for several days for a suitable freighter. Indeed, this seems to have been Seal’s experience a few summers ago when he rode his first boxcar from Delaware all the way to Florida – what an epic ride that 1,000-mile journey must have been.
“I think what I like most about train hopping is that you experience and see things that so few other people do,” said Seal in the YouTube video. “Anyone can pay to go skydiving or buy a plane ticket, take a picture of themselves in front of Machu Picchu. We can’t buy a ticket to go train-hopping…”
“You know,” he continued, “it’s something you have to seek out and learn how to do and it’s always a guaranteed adventure.” Indeed, few trips seem more exciting than riding thousands of miles across the United States with an unobstructed view of the landscape.
Seal took his maiden voyage with his friend Adam, who taught him how to train-hop safely. “Now is actually a good time to warn the viewer: do not try this yourself,” said Seal. “Otherwise, you know, you might lose a limb, or worse, become a gutter-punk.” Indeed, “tramp-poet” W.H. Davies lost part of his right leg while train-hopping in 1899.
Later, on a subsequent solo journey, Seal hopped a train in Newark in New Jersey and made it as far as Altoona in Pennsylvania – an old railroad town that used to serve as a maintenance and engineering hub for the Pennsylvania Railroad. However, he got caught and arrested in the train yard.
“The yard bull who arrested me let me take these photos because I told him I was a big Houdini fan,” joked Seal. In train-hopping parlance, a yard bull is a railway cop and it pays to remember that not only is it highly dangerous to climb on freight trains, it’s also highly illegal. Still, it’s hard not to admire Seal’s bravado.
Sadly, however, Seal’s attempts to make it to Montauk seem to have been as ill-fated as his trip to Altoona. Indeed, the first time he tried, he caught the wrong line and wound up in the Bronx. Too bad, but at least he had easy access to conventional public transport – hopping off at 149th and Bruckner, he was able to catch the subway all the way home.
Not one to give up, Seal was determined to get to Montauk. Last summer, he made it as far as Nassau County in Long Island, but, somewhat frustratingly, he was left stranded when the train’s engine decoupled from the cars. “I took the Long Island railroad train back home like a goddamn average schnook,” said Seal.
Undeterred, he returned to the railroads a week later, but once again, luck was not on his side. When he caught sight of a railway worker nearby, Seal cowered for cover in the bushes. But it was useless – he was busted. “Look how stupid I look when I know I’m about to get caught,” said Seal.
Seal was perp-walked to a nearby yard and ordered to sit down. “What the hell’s he got on his head?” asked one of the workers. “Are you calling the cops?” asked Seal, “Can I just take off, man?” Then, the man replied, “No, no listen, if you take off, I’ll press charges. Then I’ll press full charges.” Oh dear, things were looking serious…
As Seal subsequently admitted, white privilege came to the rescue. “So the cops came and basically just made fun of me and gave me a ticket for trespassing,” he said. “Said if I did it again they’d arrest me.” Of course, Seal wasn’t one to be deterred by the threat of arrest.
Given his poor track record, though, would he actually be able to reach Mantouk without getting nabbed? Fast-forward to the present day and Seal’s very latest attempt. “Right now I’m in Queens,” he said in the YouTube video, loitering by the side of the tracks. “Just gotta wait for the right moment here… and away we go…”
“This is what it’s all about,” he cried, clambering into an open-top carriage. “Climbing into a moving freight train with a camera attached to my head like a goddamn idiot.” Sprawling back in a cargo of loose gravel, he declared, “Look at me, I’m like a pig in **** I’m so happy.”
“It was actually a particularly beautiful day that day,” noted Seal, his car passing peacefully beneath sunlit canopies of gold and green trees. “The city don’t sleep my friend, ain’t that the truth.” But then, later, pulling into a railway station, he received a rude awakening…
“What are you doing inside that train?!” barked a uniformed cop from the tracks. “I don’t know,” said Seal. Not the smartest of answers. “Excuse me?” asked the cop. “I was just trying to ride it, for uh…” responded Seal. Then, the unimpressed cop replied, “What you’re gonna do right now is step down and you’re not gonna step on any of these white beams… Do not touch that, step over that… Do you have identification on you?” Ah, that sinking feeling…
Thwarted once again, Seal climbed down from his carriage to be led away into the protective custody of the police. So far, he has failed to reach Mantouk. “I suppose I could just buy a ticket on the Long Island Railroad like any other goddamn schtoon,” he said.
“But I’m not a quitter,” he added. “Maybe I’ll try again some other day. Until then, I guess I’ll just keep hopping subway trains.” Great idea, Jeff, but try to stay on the right side of the tracks.