The Southern Pacific tracks ran through our town, through a depot situated a quarter of a mile from my bedroom window. Every night, I fell asleep -- and it took hours -- to the comings and goings of trains, freight trains and passenger trains, San Juan a significant stop, because of its tourist attraction, the Mission San Juan Capistrano, on the way from Los Angeles to San Diego, or vice versa.
We lived on the East side of the tracks in the old section of town, on Mission Hill. At the top of the hill stood the house my father was born in, surrounded by an adobe wall draped with bougainvillea. For many years during my childhood, we walked our bikes or our skateboards to the top of Don Juan Street, using my father's childhood house as the turn-around point, turned around, pointed our vehicles down the hill and, yelling GERONIMO! let ourselves fly for 1000 feet. This fun was, of course, very dangerous, as there were at least two blind curves in the street. Luckily, there were rarely any cars using the street. Most of the people who lived on our hill were old, as in old timers, as in house-, porch- and patio- bound most of the day. When the streetlights came on, we had to go home.
The trains carried tourists and fruit and whatever else -- sometimes livestock, sometimes coal -- up and down the Pacific coast. Because we lived on a hill, we could see the train pulling into town, especially when the condos near the creek bed were not yet built. Sometimes, while hanging out in the white oak tree in our front yard, we'd see human beings riding the tops of the cargo trains -- illegals who had hopped the trains while they were pulling in and out of towns. Right before the trains would pull into the depot, we saw these people scrambling along the tops of cargo cars, making their way towards the ladders, preparing to dismount and bolt towards the creek bed, where they could disappear into the bamboo forests until it got dark. They could follow the natural bamboo tunnels down the creek and once night fell, hop back on the freight train that pulled through town sometime around 9 p.m.
One night, on our way home from visiting my father's mother, who lived on the West side of the tracks, we were stopped at the railroad crossing by a bunch of police cars. After a long time, the police began to wave us over the tracks with their flashlights. As we drove over the crossing, I looked out the station wagon window and saw 20, maybe 50, small, dusty men sitting "Indian style" on either side of the tracks, their hands clasped around their legs, their foreheads resting on their knees. Some of them looked up as we passed them, the beams from the flashlights catching their eyes, which burned and shone, flat as a cat's caught in a car's headlights at night.