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Blue Train

ISSUE:  Spring 1998

When I found out that my mother’s newest husband rode round in a caboose for Southern Pacific, it didn’t surprise me at all. She’d already been married to two Air Force pilots, a biker, a truck driver, and a traveling salesman. She’d marry anyone she hoped would take her out of Oakland. What surprised me was that her newest husband—my newest father—had a really good job, and he was younger than me.

I met him at the Mohawk gas station where Pop and I lived. Pop hadn’t always worked at the Mohawk station, and we hadn’t always lived in a rusty Airstream trailer next to it. We had a house when I was a kid—lived right along the other rich sons of bitches. We had two cars. We had a washing machine. And Pop used to play his trumpet for a living. Pop played third chair trumpet for the Oakland Symphony before he married my mother.

He wouldn’t admit it, but his passion was jazz.

When I was a kid, I’d catch him playing along with Clifford Brown albums. I’d catch him trading eights with Lee Morgan.

I wanted to tell him to blow, to howl like he did before he married Mom, to quit work at the Mohawk station, skate on the bills and hit the road, the clubs, the bars, play for pay, play for free. I wanted to shake him and put his horn back in his hands and watch him kick in the television screen, pack a duffel bag and walk back out into the streets of Oakland and San Francisco and smell that air, the night air, to look at the lights of the great cities, to smell the smoke of something other than his own cigars, to play jazz. But even if he could have found somewhere to blow, he wouldn’t have gone.

“Jazz isn’t a job,” Pop said.

The day my mother showed up in town was the day I graduated from high school. In my neighborhood, graduation was the day you had to move out and find yourself a job. I didn’t know what I was going to do for a living, but I’d saved up 200 bucks, and that would go a long way. I could buy a lot of gas for 200 bucks. I could eat for months. Two hundred bucks would buy a lot of junkyard parts for my station wagon. I was set up pretty damn good, for a graduate.

After the Oakland High graduation ceremony, Pop threw me a surprise party in the lube-bays of the Mohawk station.

He lifted the rolling glass bay doors and the men inside the shop yelled “Surprise, motherfucker!” and they threw sandwich sized loaves of French bread at me.

Links of linguisca bubbled in vats of home-made Portuguese burgundy. The alignment rack was raised and draped with red and white checkered tablecloths and the concrete floor was slick with fresh solvent.

I walked into the bays and shook hands and the men hugged me and slapped my back. They poured beers down my throat. They wore grease stained blue shirts with red and white name-patches. If I ever ended up in jail, these men would bail me out without asking what I’d done.

A Honda 750 pulled up at the ethyl pump, and on the back of the motorcycle was my mother.

“I’m in love,” Rich Kuam said. “Hubba fucking hubba.”

I hadn’t seen her in eight years.

She sat behind a tall skinny guy. I couldn’t see the guy’s face through the tinted plastic of his helmet’s visor.

“Bitch,” Pop said.

Pop grabbed a copy of Tire Monthly from the workbench and took the restroom key and disappeared around the side of the station.

My mother stepped off the motorcycle, lifted the visor of the skinny guy’s helmet and kissed him. He dropped his visor back down and just sat there looking at us through the black plastic eyeball.

“Is that really you, T-Bird?” my mother called from the island. “My darling little boy all grown up into a hunk of a man. Come give mommy a hug.”

She walked into the lube bay. She wore hot-pants with stockings and a tube top and knee-high black leather boots. She’d gotten a boob job, and her breasts rode on her chest like Little Annie Fannie’s blimps in Playboy.

She hugged me, both arms wrapped around my back, her body crushed against me.

“Aren’t you surprised to see me?” she asked. “Aren’t you glad? Didn’t you miss me?”

“I graduated today,” I said.

“T-Bird dear, I’ve finally found the right one,” my mother said. “John’s simply wonderful. He’s my new husband, your new father. He works for Southern Pacific and we just go everywhere, riding around on trains, riding and riding and riding. Run run run, busy busy. You know how it is.”

“That sounds great,” I said.

“John and me have a layover in Oakland tonight. You’re still a virgin, aren’t you? John and I ride in the caboose. I want you to play me a song on your trumpet. One you wrote just for me.

She finally let me go. I stepped back.

“I have to tell you something,” she said. She leaned toward me. She lowered her voice almost to a whisper. “John is very young.”

She smiled.

“He just turned 17,” she said. “The railroad thinks he’s 18.”

Before she left she told me to meet her at the Union Pacific switching yard where their caboose was moored for the night.

“How will I know which caboose?” I asked.

“You’ll know,” she said.

Some of the men cheered when my mother lifted her leg and straddled the seat of the motorcycle.

Pop lit a Roi-Tan and grabbed two beers and he opened them and chugged from each in turn.

He wiped beer from his beard with his forearm. “The boy needs his goods.”

He grabbed a tarp I’d thought was covering tires and lifted the tarp and beneath was a stack of Pennzoil boxes. The boxes were gift-wrapped with duct tape.

Joe Camozzi of Camozzi Carpets gave me carpet samples to use as floor mats for my Navy surplus station wagon. Steve Ballero of Concrete Wall Sawing gave me an acetylene torch welding/cutting kit. Ken Medeiros of Markstein Beverage gave me a case of Budweiser. Mike Santos of Santos Automotive and Kitchen Supply gave me a new rebuilt carburetor. George Webb of Webb’s Body shop gave me a can of bondo. Rich Kuam of Kuam’s Liquors gave me a box of Trojans. Everyone got a kick out of that one.

Pop gave me a sleeping bag, a metal Coleman ice-chest, a laborer’s union card, and the family trumpet.

He handed the trumpet case to me and he said, “I made a living on this.” He looked at me. “In the days when white men played trumpet.”

It was the trumpet his father had played in Wagner’s orchestra in Bayreuth and Pop himself had played in the Oakland Symphony. An 1886 Conn, bored-out 464.468, the lead-pipe expanding from a mellow cornet sound to a harsh lead-trumpet bore, a horn not made for backup seats but instead forged to cut through percussives and strings and brasses less shrill. Grandpop and Pop both had been fired for overblowing at third chair, technically unable to cut first.

He opened the case. The silver plating was tarnished black. The purple velvet was stained by slide grease and valve oil.

“You’re not a musician until you make a living at it,” Pop said. He handed me the horn. “And playing jazz with the niggers doesn’t count as making a living. You know what classical players call mistakes?”

“What’s that, Pop?”

“Jazz,” Pop said.

He looked at the front door.

“You’re 18,” he said. “And a graduate. It’s time for you to go away.”

“Damn right!” Joe Camozzi said.

“Make a living!” Pop said.

He was smiling, but his eyes were red and syrupy like transmission fluid.

The men cheered. They cheered and they clapped and I loaded the gifts into the back of my station wagon, and the men were still cheering and clapping as I drove away.

The first place I went was Archibald’s Playhouse, a gray unpainted shack in West Oakland, only a block from the Union Pacific switching yard. People lived upstairs, but downstairs men drank and played jazz. From the parking lot you could hear the trains clunk and squeal.

Mr. Beasley leaned against the Archibald’s bar puffing a cigar. He clenched the cigar between his teeth and he reached out his hand to shake. He worked for Oakland Demolition, and his fingers had been whacked off in an accident. The thick brown callused stubs looked like cigar butts. He wore a straw hat over his white knotted hair.

“Amateur night,” he said.

The rhythm section kicked off a B-flat blues, and an old white dude honked on a tenor, playing the head to “Kansas City.”

“A month now he’s been coming,” Mr. Beasley said. “Every week. Same tune every time. He’s a retired man now and always wanted to play the saxophone and so he takes lessons at the junior college. All they taught him so far be “Kansas City Here I Come.”“

Mr. Beasley shook his head, and then he smiled. “That boy got the blues.”

One of the old gin drinkers said, “Send that old white-boy a drink!” and he held up a five-spot and people laughed.

The rhythm section kicked off “Cherokee.” A tall thin black kid, clean shaven and wearing a white shirt and tie and glasses, stood on the plywood stage, his alto slung across his chest.

He let the band cut four choruses, the drummer riding the high-hat and the bass plucking so fast the pianist could only play one chord per measure to keep the pace.

Then the kid altoman played the half-note/whole-note melody, each tone punching a chord change, clear and precise and not a note bent or scooped, no vibrato, each note pregnant, and the old gin drinkers looked at each other as if each were the father of this boy blowing the head of “Cherokee.”

The altoman stood erect and tall, his eyes closed, his fingers the only moving sight in the bar, everyone watching those fingers now, waiting for them to stretch, for the kid to solo. When the band snapped off for the solo break the kid waited, a pause that seemed to stop all time in Oakland in a grand caesura.

Ice clinked in glasses and you could hear the wheezing of the smokers.

And finally the altoman played. I ordered a Schlitz and a gin and leaned against the bar and I drank.

I moved my trumpet case under the bar where no one could see it.

The kid altoman played more and I ordered another round of drinks and then another, and even though I didn’t smoke I bought a pack of Salems and smoked. The altoman floated through the changes, and the changes weren’t Brown’s anymore.

“That boy,” Mr. Beasley said.

Mr. Beasley looked at me.

“Your turn now.”

“Not tonight,” I said. “I got to find a job.”

“Only job you be finding tonight is up on that stage,” Mr. Beasley said.

“I need a real job,” I said.

“You come to my work tomorrow, I’ll get you one of those real jobs.”

I drove around the corner to the switching yard to meet my mother and my new stepfather. It had rained earlier in the day, and now it was clear, the air cold and iced as if with shards of glass, the pavement sparkling with the blue-green dew of shattered windshields.

A wind gusted through the alleys of traincars whipping up leaves of cellophane cigarette wrappers.

I walked along tracks, between trains, thousands of flatcars and boxcars and locomotives and an occasional caboose. Rusted Amtrak passenger cars with nicotine windows and sun-scorched shades spread over the gravel and rail and broken wine bottles and splintered pallets like immense iron tombstones. My feet slipped on the rain-wet stones that had been packed into soft bayside mud.

A train pulled slowly in, no blast of its whistle and no squeal of metal, no passengers unloading and no one to greet them if there were, only a lone conductor coming to a gentle stop then stepping out as if he’d parked a wheezing Studebaker in a silent junkyard. He walked slowly down the rails and turned and he was gone.

I spotted a pair of stockings fluttering above the porch of a caboose.

John opened the caboose door when I knocked. He wore tight jeans and a plaid shirt, a large silver beltbuckle the shape of Texas.

“T-Bird?” he said.

I nodded.

“Come on in,” he said. “My place is yours.” And the way he said it made me ashamed of myself, older than him and my first day no longer living at home, never having had a full time job, a kid.

My mother was wearing a flimsy nightie, red and lacy, low cut.

The inside of the caboose looked like the trailer Pop and I lived in next to the Mohawk station, except bigger and older. The sink was filled with empty wine bottles. On the counter were three jugs of Spañada and a bottle of Cabin Still whiskey and a twelve-rack of Olympia.

“We went shopping,” my mother said. “We’ll have so much fun. The last time I saw you, you were too young to drink. Now we can be a family.”

“I’ll have a whiskey and a beer,” I said.

“There they are,” my mother said.

I poured a whiskey into a plastic cup and cracked a beer.

“Just look at that,” my mother said. “My little boy pours drinks just like a man.”

I drank quickly, shooting the cup of whiskey and guzzling the beer and then refilling and drinking and refilling again. They kept pace with me, and soon we’d finished off the beer and the whiskey and we’d started on the wine.

I looked at John. Even though he was younger than me, he looked very old, his thin German face tanned and weathered like an old truck tire, eyes gray and cold as train rail. His hands were large and muscular like the hands of old workers.

We drank and talked and my mother laughed and outside the cranes dropped containers onto flatcars and cables whined as they rolled and unrolled on iron spools.

Then she talked about my father, how he used to play his trumpet for her, how he serenaded her with the trumpet and how much I looked like him, how he looked when she married him, hairy and broad-shouldered and thick-necked and eyes gray as rainclouds and dry as plaster, just like mine.

We ran out of liquor and my mother told me to take John for a booze run.

“Did you bring your trumpet?” my mother said.


“What?” she yelled. “I told you I want you to play a song for me,” she yelled. “One you wrote just for me.

I didn’t bring it.”

“Bring it.”

John and I walked down the tracks away from the caboose.

“Lori’s a really great lady,” John said.

I didn’t say anything.

“You sure are lucky to have a mom like Lori,” John said.

I looked back toward the caboose. My mother stood on the porch, waving slowly and smiling. She looked like she was posing for a dirty magazine. She looked like she’d never get old.

Fog had rolled in while we’d been drinking in the caboose, the sky now lowered onto us, a mist that revealed only one warehouse at a time as we walked.

A dog slinked between two delivery trucks. Warehouses rose on either side of us, small window panes busted out.

“You know where you’re going?” I asked.

“Never been lost yet.”

Ahead was a bar called the Mediterranean, a neon martini glass blinking red and the walls sided with rusted corrugated tin.

“Here,” John said.

“But we need to find a store.”


“Have you ever seen her mad?”

“Yes,” John said.

Inside The Mediterranean old black-haired Greeks wore hardhats and baseball caps with the names of local companies patched above the bills. The walls and ceiling were decorated with fishing gear: nets, tackle, stuffed fish, pictures of the Greek Isles, anchors and driftwood, rudders, ropes, harpoon guns. Above our table was a stuffed swordfish, lacquered gray skin, glassy eye bulging out, staring.

“We need beers,” John said.

“A little young, aren’t you guys?” the old bartender said.

“Old enough for Southern Pacific,” John said. He pulled out his wallet and flashed his union card.

The old bartender got us two beers, Budweiser, “Union beer for union men,” he said.

“Union boys,” I said.

John looked at me.

The old bartender walked away.

John kept staring at me.

“You got a problem?” I said.

“I know I’m younger than you,” he said. “But Lori’s my wife, and she’s your mother. That means I’m your father, and you’re my son, so you’d better start acting like it.”

“How’s that?”

“By treating your mother with respect,” John said. “Play your trumpet for her.”

“You don’t get it,” I said. “Do you?”

“Get what?”

I chugged my beer.

“I’m not going to play for her,” I said.

John and I drank together. We drank a long time. We closed the place down.

Outside the wind blew and fog billowed through the streets and you could hear the switching yard distant and muted as if it were smothered beneath a giant pillow, and we stood there, John and I, and then we smiled, and I don’t know who started first, but without deciding to I found myself running down the street, parting the fog and hurdling fire-hydrants and garbage cans and parking meters. And alongside me ran John, keeping step with me, and drunk and laughing we ran, flailing our arms and laughing and sometimes one of us would do a spin, twirling with arms outstretched like helicopter blades, and the other would pick up a rock and send it sailing over the roofs of warehouses. And we didn’t stay to listen where it landed but ran, cutting the fog and leaving a double wake behind.

When we got to my car we stood laughing, doubled over and holding our sides, and then getting control over the laughter. And then one of us would giggle and the other would cough out a laugh, and then we’d both be laughing again, laughing so hard our stomachs hurt and our eyes watered.

Finally I opened my car door, and John stood next to me, the trains backdropped behind him hazy and dark.

“I have to go,” I said.

“So do I.”

I got into my car and closed the door.

“Take care of my mother,” I said.

“I’ll do that.”

I watched him walk into the switching yard toward the caboose. I saw the shape of my mother standing in the open. When he got near her she yelled, “What do mean you don’t have any booze?” and then John crouched beneath her swinging fists.

Her fists smacked his face and popped like distant gunshot.

The first job Oakland Demo sent Mr. Beasley and me on was a sewer tube, hammering out an old line that dead-ended near the wharves.

We duct-taped flashlights to our hardhats and then we dropped down through the manhole, lowering the 90 pound jackhammers into the hole with the airhoses that trailed behind to the Ingersol-Rand 250 compressor.

We stepped into black crusted tar up to our knees.

“It never dries up,” Mr. Beasley said. He laughed. “Every time it rains it stinks all up again. I’ve worked sewers all over this Bay Area. Sometimes we lose men when their waders get leaky. Eats clean through their legs.”

He looked at me, the flashlight taped to his hardhat blazing at my face like a spotlight.

“Now you got a real job,” he said.

By lunchtime my hands were bruised black and numb and my stomach was beaten purple. We had to hold the jackhammers horizontally to break the wall, so with one hand I held the yoke near the bit, with the other hand I held the handle, and I pushed with my stomach. Mr. Beasley built himself a network of ropes attached to the rebar hanging from the ceiling of the tunnel so he could use both hands to push instead of his stomach.

“You didn’t bring no rope?” he said.


“Where’s your gloves?”

“I don’t need gloves.”

“Do it the easy way, it’s easier,”

Mr. Beasley stood at the cyclone gate waiting for me.

“I’ll just stay here,” I said.

He looked at me, and he said, “You needing anything?”


When he left I took out the trumpet and played. The air was cold and the mouthpiece against my lips felt like dry-ice, burning and sticking to the skin. The valves were slow and soft because of the cold, but my hands were too bruised to play anything fast anyway.

The sewer lingered in my mouth.

It was so quiet I heard the waves of the bay slapping the pylons of the piers. Dogs barked and weeds rustled like crumpled paper blowing down streets. A ship in the harbor sounded its horn, low and heavy through the fog, bumping in waves over soft crests of water. Someone popped off a few rounds in the distance. Then it was quiet again. I blew until the taste of the day’s work went away.

I blew a long time.

The next day after work Mr. Beasley and I stood next to his camper and smoked and drank gin. A cold bay breeze blew.

“I heard you blowing horn,” Mr. Beasley said. “Last night.”

He looked at me. His eyes were very old. He tugged on the gin bottle and he brought up his other hand and pointed his finger-stubs at me. The scarred ends were pink.

“I knew a man one time who played horn,” Mr. Beasley said. “Baritone saxophone,” he said. “He quit.”

He lit a cigarette.

“He’s been sorry about that,” he said. “My father played trumpet,” I said.

“Tomorrow we’ll be done busting through that concrete,” Mr. Beasley said. “That’s your business, demo-man.” He handed me the bottle and I drank gin.

We finished the sewer job, and I didn’t get fired, and Oakland Demo sent us to the North-Side neighborhood job.

The night before the wrecking crews began work, Mr. Beasley gave me a tour of the neighborhood.

We stood on the street, sidewalk expansion joints split with weeds and the hulks of stripped-down abandoned cars rusting on foxtail lawns, broken windows spanned with spider webs shimmering.

Mr. Beasley walked down the street.

He stopped in front of a sagging two-story Victorian.

“See that house,” he said. “There was a time that house was the pride of this neighborhood. Every room bright and lit up.”

I looked down the street and tried to imagine a neighborhood, children and lovers and working men, cocktails in heirloom crystal snifters, roses and morning-dewed lawns and the smell of freshly painted wood.

A helicopter circled above for a moment, centering its spotlight on us for an instant, then diving into another part of the city.

“A man who played ban lived here,” Mr. Beasley said. “He wrote his own songs. Every time he played for the people he played a new song he wrote. There wasn’t nobody playing jazz he didn’t trade eights with.”

He pointed across the street to a sagging barn-like church, the once white paint peeling and tattooed with spray-painted graffiti, indecipherable like the kanji store-signs of Chinatown.

We walked across the street. The needle of a syringe sparkled in the gutter.

Mr. Beasley stood before the door of the church for an instant, then pushed it open and stepped in.

The concrete floor was coated with fine dust so soft underfoot that the floor seemed like the ancient surface of a moon.

Mr. Beasley gathered cardboard boxes and old newspapers and splintered boards and lit a fire in the center of the dark.

The fire rose and shadows stretched black and twisted, and the smell of dust and dry and musted smoke powdered the air. The ceiling vaulted above and the walls were lined with broken pews and mice scattered beneath.

We walked to where the altar would have been.

“Nighttime,” Mr. Beasley said. “Nighttime when the day work was done, this was the place where men played.”

He picked up a slat of wood from the floor and tossed it into the fire. Ashes and sparks rose and snapped in the air.

“One by one those jazzmen, they quit,” Mr. Beasley said.

He spat into the fire and the fire crackled.

“You know what I’m talking about,” he said.

Mr. Beasley and I stood smoking while dozers drove through the old houses and shops. By noon they’d cleared two blocks, the old houses and the shops and the jazzman church now leveled. In the distance men on porches drank and fanned themselves with fishing hats and rocked slow in wooden chairs.

I’d never seen Mr. Beasley work so hard, sweat pooled in the crevices of his face, the veins of his neck like piano wires, dust rising around him as if he’d hammered a hole into the fires of hell.

“Slow down,” I said. “Let’s take a break.”

Mr. Beasley wouldn’t look at me. He kept hammering.

“You’re going to kill yourself for a check,” I said.

But he kept hammering and breaking foundations and the compressor whined in high gear. I stood in front of him and yelled, “Stop!” and he wouldn’t look up at me. I crouched so I could see his eyes and “Stop!” I yelled, and he hammered and broke and rocked and hammered still, plates of concrete and rebar lifting with wedges of the hammer, and coveralled and hardhatted Mr. Beasley worked.

And then I saw his tears. And when I saw those tears leaking out of his eyes like motor oil I understood what this neighborhood had once been, and I looked at his cigar-stub fingers, and I looked at this man demolishing already rubbled rock and sweating over the chugging jackhammer.

And I knew then that each time he listened to the jazzmen at Archibald’s Playhouse, just listening—just being there, standing there with the men smoking—just listening and standing there with his glass of gin in his hand was an act of courage and shame and bravery.

I looked at Mr. Beasley’s weathered rotten stubs and tried to imagine them long and full and filled with music I’d never heard and tripping lightly over the pads of a baritone saxophone.

It was the saddest thing I’ve seen in this world.

I drove along the perimeters of parks where no children played. I drove along the shore of bay, brine-reddened air salted and musty and dry, the shores foamed and dark.

I stopped across the street from the Mohawk service station where my father worked and saw him standing on the lot breaking-down a truck tire, swinging his five-pound sledge against a split-rim 10.00 × 20, the canopy fluorescence lighting his hulk in a spot, sparks of metal on metal popping into the night and the lead hammer flashing, the sound ringing across the asphalt like a trolley bell on an empty morning street. I wanted to honk my carhorn and let him know I was there, but I didn’t. I just sat in my car, the family trumpet on the bench seat to my side, and I watched the old man work, watched him swing his hammer and break down the tire, crow-bar the split-ring and pull the flap and mount the recap, standing over his work broadchested and washed in the light of his work.

I drove through warehouse-lined streets, and in the yards of each warehouse there was a man working, forklifting a pallet or dollying crates or push-brooming catering truck wrappers and cigarette butts alongside a playful shepherd watchguard dog. I drove through these places slowly.

I drank a six pack of Schlitz and half a bottle of Gilbey’s gin and drove and I parked in the dirt lot across from Archibald’s Playhouse. The exhaust fan big as an airplane propeller rotated slowly, pumping smoke of cigars and cigarettes to the rhythm of bass and drum and piano-chord blues. The music bobbed across tables and through windows and it pumped between the blades of the exhaust fan and into the parking lot where I sat on the seat of my Navy surplus stationwagon liquored-up and bloodshot and my head against the steering wheel.

The beat of bass and ride of cymbal cut into the lot. Lights beamed from everywhere, from parking lot lamps, from yellow-bulbed fog-lights, from the windows of neighborhood homes, spiraling from the beacons of incoming trains, the spotlights of switching-yard towers.

I drove. I heard car-horns and sirens and slamming wooden doors and the gab of folk.

Streetlight switchboxes clicked, directing deserted intersections.

There were places in the city I hadn’t been.

I drove back to the Mohawk station. I walked around the side to Pop’s Airstream trailer and I knocked on the door. He didn’t answer so I let myself in.

Pop sat on his bed in the dark smoking a cigar.

“Been working?” Pop said.

I nodded.

“Tires on your car okay?”

“Tires are fine,” I said.

“You visit with your mother?”

I nodded.

“What’d the bitch have to say?”

“Wanted me to play her a song.”

Pop looked at the vinyl floor.

“I didn’t do it,” I said.

Pop took a long drag and blew smoke rings.

“The guy on the motorcycle?”

“Another stepfather.”

Pop reached and took a Roi-Tan from the headboard. He handed it to me and gave me his Zippo.

I lit the cigar.

“I used to play for her,” Pop said. “When we first met.”

We smoked.

“Could have used some help around here tonight,” Pop said. “A Bekins truck came in with three flats. Just before I closed the shop. Split-ring rims.”

We sat silent and smoking until there was no cigar left to smoke.

When Pop fell asleep, I went out to my stationwagon and got my union card.

I went back into the trailer and set the card in the old Pennzoil can where he kept his change and keys and wallet.

I sat in my car a long time looking at the trailer before I drove away.

Streetlights shone on the aluminum shell.

It was time I got a job.


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