Mike Brodie's life, when narrated by an outsider, seems a lot like free association — where one thing leads to the next, leads to the next, etc.
Before he discovered trains, Brodie was bagging groceries in Pensacola, Fla., and really into BMX. Then he met a girl. She worked at the Chinese restaurant in the same strip mall and, he says, "she was like a punk rocker."
She asked him on a date, then invited him over to her house, which Brodie describes as a "punk house." And that's where, for the first time, he met a train-hopper — an 18-year-old Tennessee kid named Scott who was passing through town.
The two of them were sitting on a couch on the front porch of that punk house (because "in the South, a lot of houses have couches on the porch," he says). As Scott casually described how a passing train was headed to New Orleans, Brodie made up his mind.
"Probably two weeks after that, I left town by myself," he says. "I had no idea what I was doing, but I just got on a train and went somewhere."
He brought a Polaroid Spectra and one pack of film for a three-day trip. He was 17. And that marked the beginning of a yearslong relationship with train-hopping culture and photography.
Now he's 28 and working as a mechanic in Oakland, Calif. He doesn't hop trains anymore. He doesn't really even take photos. But he does have a book out — with some of the best portraits from his years on the tracks. And in his reluctant but refreshingly honest essay, he writes, "I am not sure I want anyone to read this."
That's probably because he doesn't fancy himself a photographer or an artist — and maybe sees the irony in publishing a book about subversive subculture. But he does concede one thing: That it's a worthy document of a distinct group in time.
Like the image of a boy named Soup dangling from the back of a rail car, flipping his middle finger at the camera. "I kind of think that deep down he knew that one day the world was gonna see this image," Brodie says. "And in my mind, he was kind of just sending his message to society."
Brodie says that although he does not miss the lifestyle, he would not be surprised if he ended up on a train again.
"In my heart I do not feel like a photographer. I don't know if I ever have," he says. "But what I've always felt like is a railroader."
He recently interviewed for a position as a mechanic with a railroad company. Which seems appropriate. And there's no telling where that would lead.