By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
part 1 of 2
Stan Dillard stares hard at a drop of rainwater that has worked its way through the roof to the ceiling. It hangs for a moment, then plunges to the thin carpet covering the floor of the Fraternal Club of Dining-Car Waiters and Porters.
"Got a leak," he sighs, hardly surprised. The club, located on the second floor of an old brick building on Welton Street, has been going downhill for years--and not just physically.
An old jukebox blares B.B. King: "The only one who loves me is my mother/And she might be jivin'." Over at the bar, several patrons and bartender Debbie Owens, at 36 easily the youngest person in the place, are discussing a recent robbery at a neighborhood grocery store.
"I heard he got $200,000 and disappeared," says a gray-haired man in a tired three-piece suit, snapping his fingers, "...like that."
"It was an inside job," a middle-aged woman declares. Her companions agree, take another tug on their drinks and continue talking. The woman quickly loses interest in the conversation, however, and announces that she'd like to get some fried chicken from the place down the street. But not by herself.
"I don't want to deal with no gang members," she says. "They is so disrespectful."
Her companions nod, but no one volunteers to go with her. So she lights the cigarette that has been dangling from her upper lip for the past five minutes and, staring into space, bounces blue smoke off the low black ceiling.
Stan has been general manager of the club for eleven years, mostly by default. The Protective Order of Dining-Car Waiters and Porters, Local 465, an all-black union, opened the club in 1938; by the mid-Eighties, Freddie Gomez, who along with a few other original members saved the place back in 1978, had fallen on hard times and needed out.
No spring chicken himself after 39 years working for the U.S. Post Office, Stan had time on his hands. His government check meant he wouldn't have to depend on the bar for a living--which was good, since it had been a while since the club had done better than break even. And he'd belonged to the union back in the Thirties when he worked on the railroad for a couple of summers to earn money for college; that practically made him a legacy.
Besides, Stan and the other members of his golf group were looking for a place to meet. So the old-timers of the club voted them in, and Stan has been here ever since--running out for booze between regular deliveries, washing dishes, trying not to let the red line in the club's books get any higher.
"In the old days," he recalls, "when it was busy on a Saturday night, there'd be 45, maybe 50 people in here, mostly railroad men and their ladies. They'd dress nice, and most were literate people."
Stan runs his fingers through his wavy white hair. "There aren't many of the old guys left--maybe four or five," he says, trying to recall who may have died recently. Freddie'd been sick. But Chico was doing all right, going to college the last he heard...and at his age.
It had been a long time since any of them had been out on the road. The railroad companies--the Union Pacific, the Rio Grande, the Santa Fe--had given up on their passenger trains in the Sixties and pensioned the men off, abandoned them like the old dining cars sitting in the weeds at the Forney Transportation Museum. Run off the road by airplanes and the public's desire to go faster, amenities be damned.
Many of the men moved away from Five Points, the black neighborhood the railroad workers helped create just a streetcar ride from Union Station. Those still around are in their seventies and eighties and don't make it down to the club much anymore. In fact, Stan was able to get enough of the members together to hold a meeting only once in the past five years. So he gave up on that idea and now conducts club business over the telephone.
These days the club is busy if there are a half-dozen customers inside--mostly men in their fifties and older, although a dozen or so women are regulars, and you don't have to have worked on the road to come in. Talk around the bar, or in the room where Stan sits, or in the old union hall/card room in back, rarely touches on the railroads--unless one of the old-timers wanders in. Now it's mostly neighborhood gossip, or sports, or complaints about young people. Still, most of the people who frequent the club have at least some inkling of its place in the history of their community. And while the club may not look like much today, they think of it as someplace special.
But old age and a leaky roof aren't the only things keeping people away. "It's what's happening on the street," Stan says. Moving to the front windows that overlook Welton, he pulls apart faded yellow curtains. Everywhere he looks, young men hang out in doorways or drift down the sidewalks.