Mike Brodie is settled in the sense that he rents a room that has a closet with clothes hung up, a bookshelf and a radio, but his mind is always moving. The Pensacola kid who got famous snapping Polaroids of coal-dusted drifters getting loose is now a railroad mechanic, repairing fuel injectors on the graveyard shift at a port in Oakland, California. When the traffic dies down on the nearby harbor streets, Brodie and his crew drive service rigs out to the edge of the yard and watch street racers ripping through tungsten-lit exhaust fog on motorcycles until the cops show up to send them home. It’s been more than a year since his last train ride and he doesn’t take too many photos lately.
Since learning diesel mechanics at a Nashville trade school, the former BMX-stunting snotnose pulls an honest paycheck, putting it towards the rent he splits with a couple of rail-working roommates. Though no longer riding them, he still loves trains and has worked hard to stake a legitimate claim on the locomotive business. “Every day is crazy!” Brodie says, at 26 his mildly Southern vowels and easy laugh still plump with goofy teenage enthusiasm. “Crazy stories happen all the time. You don’t have to get on a coal train for life to be crazy, I’ll tell you that much. In fact, most of the time train riding is fucking boring. But then there are those little apexes.”
Despite growing up by train tracks and catching the occasional flash of slumped riders passing by out his kitchen window, Brodie got his first real look at hobo culture on a blind date with a punk girl who worked at a Chinese restaurant in town. “The date was we were gonna go to a This Bike is a Pipe Bomb show at the End of the Line Cafe, and she was punk with her dyed black hair, and there were these smelly young people dancing around barefoot and I thought, This is so cool! It’s ridiculous, but I don’t know where I’d be without the punk scene.” After that date, Brodie, fascinated, spent all his time studying this weird niche of society from the inside. He heard about train riding soon after and went off to do it.
Brodie’s not a runaway in the sense that he came from a broken home. It’s more like he’s got this fanatical personality, like a real Romeo, who takes up interests with such a far-gone passion that you wouldn’t be surprised to see them burn him up whole. He took his first train ride right out of Pensacola two days after picking up a Polaroid camera off a friend who had it gathering dust in her car. He stuffed the camera in a backpack with some stale bagels and, without a word to his girlfriend or mother, headed to a spot downtown where trains came slow around a kind of a bend with the idea that he’d ride west to see a friend in Mobile. But he couldn’t wait. Two hours and some fidgeting later, he was poking his head out of the first train that passed, an eastbound freight that carried him clean across the state of Florida in Jacksonville. “I simply just wanted to ride trains, so I got on a train in my town and rode it!” He was 18.
After that trip, life blew wide open. Brodie took a few photos on the ride to Jacksonville and found himself hooked on both shooting and riding before he even made it home. “I had a lot of curiosity about the world and wanted to go travel. It was an addiction. And photography turned out to be something that just happened naturally for me.” With each successive ride came a new slew of photos, and they were sharp, anthropological things. He started calling himself the Polaroid Kidd and earned the name with sad-eyed portraits and blurs of barefoot riders, dripping dead-honest loner emotion and ancient looking blues, yellows and reds.
It wasn’t long before the checks started showing up at his mom’s house. He put the photos online and caught the eye of celebrity-darling gallery owner Benjamin Trigano out in LA. They put together an opening at M+B in West Hollywood and before he knew it, Brodie’s photos were tacked up first on the walls of small galleries, and later, literally, in the Louvre. At this point in most stories, corruption enters holding glitz’ hand and a change comes, but not so for Brodie. He didn’t keep track of the money or particularly care to have it. He gave most of it to his mom and kept riding, his resolve in the face of success owed in part to his time on trains. “If you actually wanna successfully get from point A to point B, you have to do some research and know where you’re going,” he says. “Otherwise you’re gonna just end up in the middle of nowhere lost and confused. Some people prefer to ride trains that way, but I like to map out routes and stick to them.”
After a few years dodging both responsibility and the law as a full-time trespasser, Brodie began plotting a more disciplined path. He eased off of his reckless addictions, took up studies and some jobs, and started making a new kind of progress. “I have a list of goals,” he says. “I wrote them down! I can tell you them!” The list is mundane but admirable: Pay off all debts to society, work ten years with the railroad, get a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, establish a 401K, buy a truck and have a kid. When he first took off, Brodie’s mom endlessly begged to know what he was running away from, but it was always more about finding something than escaping. Whether he’s chasing an express train to Chicago, greasing pistons or poring over outlandish math in preparation for school, Brodie’s all about plotting the most efficient path to find himself a life defined by his love of the rails. “That’s how I get energy,” he says. “Pursuing little goals. I think that’s required to be healthy. Keep moving.”