At the intersection of marine conservation and social, economic, environmental and food justice

Thursday, August 7, 2014

From Young Blood to Old Timer; Life on Amtrak - RevolOceanary Road Diary 8/6/14

This post comes to us from Niaz Dorry, NAMA's coordinating director, who has been on the road - actually the train - for three weeks. These are her RevolOceanary Road Diaries.

Warning: this is a long blog entry. But I believe it’s worth reading because the stories of Amtrak attendants I spoke with are truly priceless.

I’ve always had a fascination with railroads. Talking to various members of the Amtrak crew on this trip - sleeper car attendants, engineers, crew, dining car waiters, and cafĂ© car attendants working on the Empire Builder, Coast Starlight, California Zephyr, and Lake Shore Limited Routes - gave me a greater appreciation for those who work on the passenger rail systems. The activist in me also made me wonder about advocating for ways of making rail travel better and the workers lives easier. If I only had more time!

There was consensus amongst all of them that they all love what they do, and hate delays. Which is funny because delays are so common. Every single train I took was delayed. As of this writing, I’m back on the Lake Shore Limited, this time heading home and we are already four hours late.

From all the conversations, two of them stand out and both were with sleeper car attendants. One worked on the Empire Builder (Chicago to Seattle) and the other on the California Zephyr (Emeryville to Chicago).

Honestly, I couldn’t do what the sleeper car attendants do. They have to have a mixture of people skills, patience, good nature, technical expertise on a whole range of things, ability to deflate frustration and housekeeping. One moment they are a waiter the next they are electricians and plumbers. They have to keep track of every person in their care, where they got on and, most importantly, where they need to get off. Getting rest is sometimes a luxury, especially if the train is running late.

The Chicago-based attendant is now an “old timer” having been at Amtrak for almost 30 years. He said when he first started an old timer encouraged him to take a job as a sleeper attendant when his job as a cook was eliminated in the 80s due to Amtrak’s downsizing. The old timer said: “Young blood… This is the best job on the train [sleeping car attendant].” He says he soon realized why. He clearly loves his work, and takes great care of the passengers in his car.
"Old timer" reflecting on "his story" as towns whizzed by
When we first got on, he went on to explain everything and then said “when you go upstairs where the coffee is, you’ll see some snacks. If you don’t see those in other cars it’s because I believe you are all special.” And believe me, he made us feel that way. And it wasn’t because of the snacks. He is a special man that brings a special attitude to his job.

My car attendant on the Seattle-bound leg had to stay up almost the entire trip. The train was late and he needed to make sure passengers whose stops were now in the middle of the night wouldn’t sleep through them. Although the engineers, conductors and drivers are required to stop and rest at 12 hours, similar requirements don’t exist for other crew.

He was good-natured, and his way of dealing with requests he couldn’t meet was to reply with “I love you!” And that usually meant, “no!” He’s what the attendant on the Chicago-Bound train would call a “young blood” because he’s only been working on trains for six years. But his family has roots on the railroad. His grandfather, great uncle – and all his sons - worked on the switch crew for Union Tank. He clearly loves his job, but hates delays because they change everything.

I asked him about a story that stuck out in his mind, and he shared a rather tragic one. An urgent call over the PA broadcasted a “drop everything and go” emergency. An older man, possibly with dementia, was affected by high elevation in Montana. He had kicked out both windows in their sleeper car and was trying to shove his wife outside all the while yelling “you need to be with the trees. The trees need you.”

"Young bloods" ready for action!
At the Essex stop, the older man got out and started to run through the community, and even tried getting into the driver seat of a shuttle van. After much to do and great presence by various branches of law enforcement, he was detained. His wife joined him and they disappeared into the trees. Just kidding. He didn’t know what happened next. But what he does remember is waking up to the primal screams of the man's wife in the middle of the night.

I asked the attendant on the Zephyr about a story, and he said he doesn’t think about them because those are tragic stories involving people who clearly had a need. He rather remembers his own stories, and the one he told me was when a recurring nightmare actually came true.

He said he often dreams about missing the train, and one day he actually did! Many years ago, the crew stepped off in Havre, Montana, where the train needed some extra work. As it often happened, they went across the tracks to a place where they could see the train, hang out, smoke, and take a break. He got distracted, looked up and the train was gone! The ticket agent said it had left 10 minutes earlier. He never heard the two horns and the classic “All Aboard” calls. He recalls what he had to do to catch up with his train as “one of those national lampoon vacations when nothing goes right. But I made it and that’s my story!”

But the best story about this attendant was how he got into train work. In 1976, he took off with a friend on a whim, flew down to Miami on a fourth of July weekend. No luggage; nothing. They planned to come back a couple of days later, but met up with a couple of girls and stayed for 2.5 years. The two of them married those two girls, and are still together. Originally from Washington, DC once they finished college in Florida, they moved to Chicago; the girls’ hometown.  The girls’ lived downstairs from Amtrak’s union local 43 president, Richard Smith, since deceased. He got him a job on Amtrak, starting as a cook, and the rest, is history. Or as he says “my history.”

He started as a ‘young blood’ when you get 48 hour breaks between long shifts. Eventually seniority led to 6 days on, 8 days off, a schedule he considers “leisurely.”

I could paraphrase his words and how he talked about those days, but I really think his own words are priceless. I felt transplanted to a better time as I listened to him. So although this blog is already really long I hope you’ll take the time and read his story – and history.

“Beginning was great. Very family oriented atmosphere. Everyone took care of everyone else. New and old employees mingled. Admired how everyone banded together. Older employees took us under their wings. Exciting times. Different times. Different cities!

I started off as a cook in the kitchen – or the Gulley!

Back then it was such camaraderie. Everyone was in synch. We had log-burning stoves, steams, and everything was prepared from scratch. You rode the train just to have dinner or a good meal! It was a good time in my history. In history period.
An Amtrak kitchen at the time our "old timer" worked as a cook. Circa late 1970s, early 80s.
There were 4-5 cooks in the gulley, 7-8 waiters.

When we reached various points in the trip, people would show us around the town. We grew up with people on those trains and these towns.

These were our second homes. We were all so close. When you’re off only 48 hours, you’re here more than you’re home. Marriages broke up. Relationships ended, but you grew a thicker skin.

After being home for a while, my wife would say “don’t you need a trip?” Then kids came along, and when they became teenagers and didn’t want you in their business they’d say “Dad, don’t you have a trip coming up!?”

Back then you could take family trips for free. But that all changed in the 80s. Back in the 80s when the downsizing phase hit, Amtrak fell in that niche, too. They closed a lot of bases. New Orleans, Miami, Seattle, Portland (OR), and others. All those folks with seniority transferred. Chicago was a big transfer point. That meant many of us got phased out, or were furloughed. But that was for short periods. Then downsizing came in and more jobs phased out.

Cooks went down to 1 to 2. Waiters to 2. Food phased out, too. No more cooking from scratch. It was like airline food. Microwaves and prepared foods. Eventually, they started to bring some things back cause people wanted fresh stuff.

But still just 2 people down there. We got more work with less people.

Beyond that it’s been great.

When they changed over, they took my job away as a cook. Had to become a waiter or a sleeping car attendant. Cooked for 5 years, then a porter, and the rest has been as an attendant.

People you meet, sometimes you become friends for life. Passengers and coworkers. They invite you to their homes – all over the country – and we invite them to our homes.

Hopefully be around when my time is up I’ll turn it over to the young bloods! I used to call others old timers, now I’m one of the old timers. I’ve adapted and used what they’ve taught me. I’ve come to enjoy it. I’m here. It’s people helping people. Why be here with a frown even though some times it gets to you.”

He’s now reaching retirement age. At Amtrak, you can retire at 60 or when you’ve served for 30 years. He’s almost there. I asked him if he knew what he wanted to do. Here what he said – again in his own words:

“Now is now. Some guys stick around till 60 or 70 years old. When you go home, there isn’t much life when you’ve been traveling all your life. You can stay home and then your wife will say “don’t you have a trip coming up?”

Towns going by... this is Lincoln, Nebraska
We hear stories about “your wife doesn’t want you there!” Gotta find something to do. Go work at Walmart as a greeter? Or stay at Amtrak? It’s long hours, sure, but we rest. We get used to it in a sense. Mentally. Some can’t take it. It’s not for them. Some say I give it about 5 years… I said that. And now it’s been almost 30 years. There are a lot of stories, sometimes I think I should get a diary and write it all down. When we come through a town, it triggers thoughts. Maybe some day…”

As my trip comes to a close I want to take this opportunity to thank all the Amtrak folks who took care of all of us, delays and all, with a smile on their face and a helping hand.

They made the RevolOceanary Road truly memorable. My advice to you, should you plan to travel by train, is take the Chicago-based attendant’s advice: "don’t be here if you’re gonna have a frown on your face." Even if the delays might get to you!

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