The Train-Hopping ‘Polaroid Kidd’ Settles in Oakland

Aired on BBC World News Outlook 

Mike Brodie is famous for his photos documenting his life train hopping across the United States. (Photo: Shuka Kalantari)

Mike Brodie is famous for his photos documenting his life train hopping across the United States. (Photo: Shuka Kalantari)

We meet Mike Brodie, the man who spent ten years criss-crossing America by jumping on and off freight trains (begins around 15 minute point in audio).

This story was also aired on KQED Public Radio and was posted on KQED’s NewsFix blog:

Mike Brodie has earned the nickname “Polaroid Kidd” by winning prestigious photography awards for his pictures documenting the lives of freight train hoppers across the United States. Now, while also working as a car mechanic in Oakland, he has just published his first book of photography, “A Period of Juvenile Prosperity,” which chronicles his years on the rails.

Brodie said that when he caught his first freight train out of town at the age of 17 in 2004, he didn’t know a thing about train hopping. He was trying to go from Pensacola, Fla., to Mobile, Ala., but ended up in Jacksonville instead.

“I just took like two or three stale bagels and put them in my backpack and that’s all I brought,” said Brodie during in an interview at Oakland’s Fifth Avenue Marina. “I don’t think I even brought water. Maybe like I brought like a Gatorade bottle full of water.  But it was like summer. It was like 95 degrees. So I didn’t bring much.”

Brodie didn’t go back home for three days. After that first train ride, he said he was hooked on the practice, which can be extremely dangerous. On each trip, he brought along an old Polaroid Spectra that he had found in the backseat of a friend’s car.

Brodie would spend months traveling, often sleeping on the side of railroad tracks or in the woods. Occasionally, he’d go home to Florida to visit his mother.

“For years I’d come home and every time I would see my mom I would be wearing the same dirty shirt, have really bad B.O., I’d have the same pants with all the patches on them. Wouldn’t change my socks or underwear, not often, you know? So my mom just got annoyed. She was like, ‘Mike! You’re such a good-looking man! Why are you dressed like this!?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t care!’ ” Brodie began posting photos from journeys on a website he created under the moniker “The Polaroid Kidd.” He said he wanted to document a culture of people considered “punks” and “hobos” – people whom Brodie knew as writers, musicians, artists.

“I think I was seeing a lot of really unique and creative people and I wanted to capture them on film. I felt like, man, this is not going to last. I’m not going to live like this forever and[n] either are those people. I feel like I should photograph this. Like, this is like my job, I gotta do this.”

Brodie’s artist friends started spreading the word about his pictures online, and they immediately starting attracting attention. In 2007, Brodie won the Baum Award for American Emerging Artists in San Francisco, a $10,000 payday. He quickly called his mom, who was working at Wal-Mart.

“I didn’t really know what to do with the money. I was like, ‘$10,000. Oh my God. What am I gonna do with this!?’ So I put all the money in my bank account and I called [my mom] and I told her to write herself a check. And she was like, “Are you serious, Mike?” And I was like, “Yeah. Just put: one, zero, comma, zero, zero, zero.’ ”

Brodie was happy to be able to help out his mother, but said he also hated the attention he was getting in the art world. So he took down his photography website and went back to riding trains. That is, until he found himself in prison in Sullivan, Ill. – for train hopping.

“I was in jail for only 10 days, but I [was] bored as hell. I was like, ‘Man, this is no way to live. I’m just going to end up going to jail more. I don’t want to live in paranoia for the rest of my life, you know. Just traveling and doing this.’ ”

So he decided that instead of hopping trains, he’d learn how to work on them. He enrolled in diesel mechanic school, and after he graduated Brodie settled down in Oakland, because he said he has friends here and wanted to live near West Oakland’s big train yard. Today Brodie rents out a large garage space with a few friends in West Oakland. In the front is his small mechanic shop.

In between working cars, Brodie recently published his first photography book. He said he was on the fence about making the book, because he hates the fame. But he wants future generations to know there was a unique culture of people called train hoppers.

“One hundred years from now, people will look back and look at this historical document and be like, ‘Wow, this was this time in history,’ ” said Brodie. “That’s meaningful. That goes beyond popular culture and being a popular person. It’s more like this is information that should be shared and saved for the future.”

Brodie said he probably could have train-hopped indefinitely, taking pictures along the way. But that idea actually frightens him, as much as it entices him.

“You could kind of live that way forever, and that’s the scary part. I don’t really want to. I got to settle down and get a place of my own and make things happen. You can’t do those things if you’re traveling around the road. You can’t set down any roots and develop good relationships with people because every relationship is just so fleeting. It lasts a couple of days and then you’re gone.”

Since settling down, Brodie has bought a dog and a car — and he’s looking for a full-time job as a mechanic. But sometimes when he hears the freight train horns from his home in West Oakland, he says he thinks about jumping on the next train out of town.

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