Food on the Tracks

The Rail Car Diner keeps on chugging along.

The train is late, again, so the stringy blonde and her friend, the one with the silver stud through her nose, slouch toward a couple of stools at the far end of the Railcar Diner. The friend asks for a banana and a dollar's worth of change while the blonde squints through sleepy eyes.

"I hate waiting," she grunts.

It's 9:30 a.m. on a gray and dingy Monday at Union Station in LoDo. The train from Chicago to San Francisco is fifty minutes behind -- again. Visitors shuffle and moan like zombies through the weak morning light and the faint aroma of popcorn, coffee and dust. A child squeals. Someone spills pocket change. Someone else sneezes.

All aboard: Allen Reisman welcomes train travelers to his Railcar Diner.
James Bludworth
All aboard: Allen Reisman welcomes train travelers to his Railcar Diner.
Coffee and a roll: John Aldridge of Little Rock, Arkansas, waits for his train at the diner's counter.
James Bludworth
Coffee and a roll: John Aldridge of Little Rock, Arkansas, waits for his train at the diner's counter.

At the diner, the two women groan. They've come to fetch a friend or a relative -- they don't say which, don't say much of anything, but they're not happy about any of it.

"I'm going to be so late for work it's unbelievable," the blonde says. "I told work I was going to be in at nine!"

The friend lays her head down.

"I hate fucking waiting."

Behind the counter, the man with the dish towel and polo shirt, Allen Reisman, doesn't hate waiting. He doesn't hate it at all. This is how he makes his living. He owns the Railcar Diner, and it is his job to dispense bananas and dollars' worth of change to people who are unbelievably late for work. When he looks out at the visitors slumped on the rows of glossy high-backed benches, he sees potential customers, people in need of his services. Besides, he has stood behind the counter on and off for 31 years. Waiting is part of the rail-line experience. He knows the train will arrive eventually. He knows waiting will end soon enough. And if it doesn't, that's okay, too.

"When the train is late, it's good for us," he says. "The longer people wait, the more they come here. We have a captive audience. When they arrive, this is where it's at."


"Two coffees and a doughnut."

A polite man and his polite mother settle at the counter. He lives in Denver and she lives in Arkansas, and they're taking a trip to Glenwood Springs. He clutches a video camera and she clutches a handbag.

"Cream and sugar?"

"Please."

Allen holds out a plate of assorted store-bought doughnuts individually wrapped in plastic baggies. At the Railcar, Allen lets customers handpick their own doughnuts.

"Are they hot?"

"No, they're cold," Allen says. "We serve cold doughnuts here. But I can put them in the microwave if you want."

"No, thank you," says the son, who turns to his mother and whispers politely. "There aren't many places that serve hot doughnuts anymore. Go ahead and pick one, Mother."

She picks one. A plain one.

"Thank you."

The plastic sticks to the doughnut.

The thing you have to understand, Allen was saying, is that the Railcar is an old-fashioned diner, not one of those fast-food chains you find at the airport. He adds prices in his head, advertises specials with black markers on neon-colored posterboard, knocks off a few cents here and there for the regulars.

"We're old-time," Allen says. "We're a throwback to the old days."

At the Railcar, you can get a coffee and a doughnut for $1.10, a bowl of chili for $2.25, a cup of noodles for $1.75, a boiled egg for 50 cents, a piece of toast for 95 cents or a homemade burrito (prepared by Rose the waitress) for $3.50, plus tax. The counter is topped with mustard and ketchup bottles and jars of relish and onions. The stools are polished steel topped with alternating green and tan vinyl seats. The menu board is backlit by fluttering fluorescent bulbs. The coffee is served in thick, brown grandpa-style mugs. The microwaves were built in the era of Beta videotape.

"You don't see many places like this anymore," Allen says, running a palm along the well-worn Formica. "This counter is probably fifty years old. Where else can you sit down at a counter like this?"

Before he bought the Railcar in 1968, Allen owned the Brass Door tavern at 17th and Larimer streets, back when the upscale shopping square was "all bars and pawnshops." After "catering to bums" for more years than he intended to, Allen visited Union Station on a tip, looked over the diner and bought the mom-and-pop outfit along with the gift shop and what is now the video arcade. From 1972 to 1990, he also owned a restaurant in Aurora, and during that time, his mother, Ida, ran the diner. When she retired and he sold his restaurant, about eight years ago, he took over the Railcar with his son and a handful of employees, one of whom shares his counter duties.

"People say, 'Why don't you have a bar and sell a few beers?' And I say, 'Why? And deal with drunks? I'd rather sell a cup of coffee and a doughnut,'" he says.

When Allen first arrived at Union Station, twelve trains passed through Denver. Now there are only two -- the 8:40 a.m., from Chicago to San Francisco, and the 7:40 p.m., from San Francisco to Chicago. As a result, the Railcar is opened twice a day only -- two hours before the trains arrive and an hour after they leave. But since the trains are usually late, the schedule at the Railcar varies.

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