Food on the Tracks
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.
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?"
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.
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.
"Every day it could be something different," Allen says. "The weather might have been bad, there might be trouble up the line -- you can never tell. So I call every day before I come down."
With his silver hair, tanned skin, khaki shorts and white tennis shoes, Allen looks more like an architect than a counter jockey. And for someone who used to be a bartender, he's a tad on the serious side, though he'll yuk it up if a customer is in the mood. He can also work the Hamilton Beach milkshake mixer like nobody's business.
"People ask me what I do for a living, and I tell them I'm a soda jerk," he says. "My friends just say a jerk, but don't write that."
A woman with a blue sweatshirt, close-cropped gray hair and an armload of crossword-puzzle books orders a large Pepsi and four packets of sugar. She tears open the packets one by one and pours them into her soda. Slowly she drains the drink.
"You want to know how we got our name?" Allen was saying. "It was the movie people."
A few years ago, Steven Seagal made an action flick called Under Siege II: Dark Territory. It's about a karate-chopping cook named Casey who foils a satellite terrorism scheme on a transcontinental train. Part of it was filmed at Union Station. When crews came down to take a look, they didn't like the diner's original name, Glass House Jr. (Allen doesn't know why it was called that), so they decided to change it. They installed a new menu board and a sign that said "Railcar Diner."
"They picked out the name," Allen says. "I don't know where they got it from. I just left it. I was the one who benefited. The movie people did a thousand dollars' worth of work here. I got a free facelift."
Allen didn't appear in the movie. He doesn't remember if the Railcar did, either. But he did get to stand beside Seagal, whom he remembers as tall and fit, "a nice guy, but kind of arrogant." For instance, when Allen brought his daughter to watch the filming, Seagal made a beeline for her and her friend and sat between them on the bench.
"He hustled them," Allen says. "But don't write that. You gonna write all that?"
An elderly woman with a watermelon-print shirt orders a large coffee.
"Are you writing down complaints?" she asks the visitor beside her. "I was going to make a complaint about the train being late. Never mind."
"You wanna know what makes us unique?" Allen continues. "Travelers from all over the world. Germany. Japan. Everywhere. They all sit at the counter of the Railcar Diner. A lot of them don't understand English, so you have to dissect what they're saying. Then there's the thing with the money. A lot of them don't know how our money works, so they hold out their hand and tell you to take what you need. This is what we get. These are the kind of people we get. New faces, every day and every night. That's what makes it."
And it's not only world travelers, he says. John Madden, former coach of the Oakland Raiders, used to sit at his counter when his team played the Broncos. Yeah, people from all walks of life come through, Allen says. And not all of them looking to save money on traveling.
"Oh, no. Not at all," he says. "In some instances, it's more expensive to ride the train. I've seen wealthy people here. I used to have a couple who owned eight McDonald's franchises in Iowa, and they loved to ride the train. I also know a guy who's afraid to fly, so he takes the train. Yeah. You see that all the time. A lot of people think that train travel is not very popular, but that's a misconception."
A large woman hauling a backpack and her small son approaches the counter and orders ice cream, which Allen retrieves in a Styrofoam cup.
The train has arrived, finally, at 10 a.m.
"This is the only stop where you can get off between here and Chicago," the woman says, scooping a spoonful of soft-serve vanilla. "The one thing you can't get on the train is ice cream. That might seem insane to you to eat ice cream at this time of morning, but this is the only place between Chicago and San Francisco where you can get off and walk around. By accident, this place has become the hub."
She goes on to say that she travels by train every chance she gets. Although it's cheaper and faster to fly, she prefers the rails.
"It feels like you're actually seeing the country," she says. "And the coach fare, you can't beat it. Yeah, the train is always late. You can never plan anything on the day you return. Which is fine with me. Which is great. Because I like the train. In an airport, you're stuck there two hours when you arrive and two hours when you leave. With the train, you can get off and on and stretch your legs. If you have children, you get a sleeper and they can walk around. It's great for children. Speaking of which, I lost my kid. Excuse me."
The woman heads toward the arcade, spooning in ice cream.
"See," Allen says. "All kinds."
A rumpled Asian kid with a Discman orders a jumbo cheeseburger. Allen takes a pre-packaged burger from the refrigerator, sets it on a paper plate and pops it into the microwave. A minute later, he sets the burger on the counter.
"Anything else? That will be $3.19. The mustard and ketchup are right there."
The kid opens his cheeseburger and looks inside. A few seconds later, he squirts in some ketchup.
About the food.
The thing you have to understand, Allen was saying, is the type of business he operates. The Railcar is a diner, true, but not a diner in the traditional sense. You can't just slide up and order a BLT or a fried-egg sandwich and expect it to be hot from the grill -- it doesn't work that way. Some items, like hot dogs and sandwiches, are prepared at the diner, but the rest, like hamburgers and pizza, are pre-packaged, pre-cooked, and warmed in the microwave.
And he'll tell you why.
There is no grill at the Railcar Diner. There never has been.
"Do know how much it would cost?" Allen says. "About $25,000! I'm all for improving things if there's a reason, but that doesn't make sense. It's too expensive. But I wouldn't put one in if it cost $5,000. I don't think a grill blends in here. And it would take longer to prepare the food."
And taking longer to prepare the food is a luxury he does not have. When the train arrives -- if it's on time -- passengers have about forty minutes to get off, walk around, grab some food and get on board.
"Everything is fast-paced," he says. "The food has to be prepared and ready to go. It's all boxed-lunch-type items. People are always in a hurry. People are always nervous. They're always worried they'll miss the train. We have to calm them down: 'Relax, folks. You're not going to miss the train. They've got plenty of announcements.' We serve them quick and get them back on the train. That's why we're here. That's what we do."
And that's why the Railcar menu features everything from freshly popped popcorn to Mexican pizza to chicken nuggets to old-fashioned milkshakes, which, thanks to a conductor named Mike, are known from Chicago to San Francisco and many points in between.
"People will jump off the train after ten or twelve hours, their schedules are upset, they're in a different time zone and they might order anything," he says. "In Chicago it might be noon, but here it's 10 a.m., so they'll get a cheeseburger. You just never know."
Sure, the doughnuts are wrapped in plastic. That's to preserve freshness and sanitation. Sure, the ice cream is served in Styrofoam cups. That's so customers can eat on the train.
"What do you think this is? A five-star restaurant?" Allen says. "When you go to McDonald's, do they serve you on china? People don't have time to sit here and dine. They want to eat their food and leave. We've been successful with this type of operation for years. Why should we change it?"
The Asian kid opens his burger again and adds more ketchup.
"Do I ride the train?" Allen asks. "No. I haven't been on a train since I was two."
The thing you have to understand, he was saying, is that the Railcar is a business. It's a diner, true, but not a traditional diner in the sense that buddies gather at the counter each day to discuss the meaning of life. Yes, the Railcar has its regulars, like the parking lot attendant, the hair stylist and the garage owner, but they don't linger on their stools for hours. And he wouldn't want them to. That's why you don't see a TV behind the counter like you do at the airport or the bus station. That's why you don't see a stack of newspapers and magazines like you do at a coffeehouse.
"I don't want people lounging around," he says. "I'm doing a business. I want people to spend money, move on and make way for the next person."
And like he said before, his business operates on Amtrak time.
"It's connected to one train," Allen says. "When it leaves, we're done. It's empty in here. You could throw a bomb and not hit anyone. At the airport, they've got hundreds of flights a day and 500 to 600 customers going through. We don't. We get one train in the morning, one at night, and boom -- it's over."
But that's not to say the Railcar doesn't turn a profit. Every day, twice a day, the counter is packed with customers.
"We're a successful family operation," he says. "We've been here 31 years. We've got to be making some money, right?"
The bottom line? He likes the place. He likes the hours, he likes the flow of customers, he likes serving hot dogs, burritos and popcorn.
"After running a bar and a restaurant and working ten- to twelve-hour days, this is fun," Allen says. "You make your money, you get out of here, you meet your buddies on the golf course. I work two or three hours a day, and if the train comes in on time, I'm out of here by eleven. I'll be on the golf course by noon. It's like being retired."
The woman with the cup of ice cream and the son hurries to the counter and asks Allen for an Ace bandage. The porter has just hurt his ankle.
"Do you have an Ace bandage?"
"No," Allen replies. "No Ace bandages."
The woman hurries away in a huff.
"All kinds," Allen says.
It's 10:30 a.m. now, and Union Station has cleared out. The stringy blonde and her friend are long gone, the polite man and his mother have boarded the train, the Asian kid with the Discman is digesting his burger, and the clatter of shoes and scuffed bags echoes softly off the white walls.
This is life at the Railcar Diner, Allen says. This is the rhythm of Union Station. Unless you're one of the people who love to ride the train, you'll never know it. Outside, secretaries, architects and construction crews contemplate lunch, but here, in the dim light of the Denver landmark, Allen and his crew wrap up another shift.
The overhead speaker squawks a muffled "Last call," Allen's counter help locks the refrigerator, and the train from Chicago to San Francisco pulls away. And Allen, as he has done for years, sets aside his dish towel.
"What else can I say?" he says. "In another hour, I'll be on the golf course. But don't write that."
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