THE OTHER SIDE OF THE TRACKS
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.
"People are afraid to come...Nothing but crackheads and drug dealers out there anymore," he says. "Most of our clientele are elderly and don't want to deal with it."
Stan shakes his head and sits where he can see the door. Every time it opens, he stops talking and watches until he either recognizes the new arrival or deems him safe. Vigilance keeps the barbarians beyond the gate, although sometimes he has to hustle down the stairs to shoo a crack dealer away from the entrance.
So far, the bum's rush has cost Stan only dirty words and nasty looks. Eighty years old and dressed like he'd rather be playing golf, he knows his is a dangerous bluff that could be called at any time. "But you can't show them any weakness, or they'll be all over you."
It wasn't like that in the old days. Not when Five Points was famous all over the country for its jazz clubs. And even then, the Fraternal Club stood out.
But that, as they say, is history.
Black ballads are filled with the trials and triumphs of those who worked on the railroad all the live-long day. Chief among them was John Henry, thought to have been a real man, although his feats of strength and courage made him a legend.
While white children sang the praises of Paul Bunyan or Davy Crockett, black children had John Henry and his epic, albeit tragic, battle to save the jobs of his people from a steam-powered drill that threatened to put them out of work.
John Henry, he drove fifteen feet,
The steam drill only made nine.
But he hammered so hard that he broke his poor heart,
and he laid down his hammer and he died.
Well, early in the morning, when the bluebirds begin to sing,
You can see John Henry out on the line,
You can hear John Henry's hammer ring, Lord, Lord,
You can hear John Henry's hammer ring.
John Henry won that battle, but technology won the war. And when it did, black railroad workers moved inside the trains.
In the early days travel by railroad could be dangerous, but more than anything else, it was uncomfortable. The trains stopped at night, and passengers stayed in railroad hotels and took their meals at railroad "eating houses," where the dishes were uninspired at best and served by the sort of crude, ill-mannered varmints one expected to find on the frontier.
One visitor from Scotland wrote to his countrymen of being offered identical meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner of "tea, buffalo steaks, antelope chops, sweet potatoes and boiled Indian corn with hoe cakes and syrup." Such fare might be augmented by local delicacies like prairie-dog stew and sagebrush tea.
Although the eating houses eventually improved and railroad hotels lasted well into the twentieth century, their demise can in part be attributed to an enterprising young New Yorker, George Mortimer Pullman, who in the 1870s designed and patented a sleeping car. He followed that with a dining car. Not only did his inventions let passengers ride in comfort, but by eliminating stops, they allowed trains to pick up speed--and speed was a key to train travel's popularity.
By the end of the century Pullman sleeping cars were equipped with electric lights and bathrooms. They were essentially hotel rooms on wheels, complete with fancy decor that included brass fixtures, plush carpeting and art on the walls.
The elegant dining cars boasted menus and wine lists comparable to those at the finest restaurants, and passengers dressed up for dinner. The tables were topped with cloth napkins, fine china and wine glasses, and the silverware was really silver. The meals--featuring regional fare and flavors--were prepared from scratch by chefs and included fresh pastries and pies.
But someone had to serve those meals. Someone had to keep those elegant cars clean. And while conductors on the sleeping cars and coaches, as well as stewards in the dining cars, were expected to be white, the waiters and porters invariably were black.
The porters were assigned to cars with orders to see to their passengers' every whim. They were expected to be models of courtesy and efficiency from the moment their passengers stepped aboard to the last second when they saw them off safe and sound at their destinations. They cleaned the cars, saw to the baggage, fluffed pillows, fetched glasses of water, and at night sat as guards at the back of the cars, jumping up when summoned by an electric bell. Life as a dining-car waiter was no easier. The waiters were up at 5 a.m. to prepare for breakfast, which they immediately cleared to get ready for lunch, after which they began running for dinner. Their work wasn't finished until long after the passengers had turned in for the night.
To make any real money, a man had to hustle for tips, accomplishing it all with a smile no matter how tired he was or how badly the customers behaved. "Spotters" who worked for the Pullman Company or the railroads rode incognito as passengers to take note of soiled linen, stained jackets or rude employees. There were no excuses allowed for infractions and little in the way of an appeal.
Despite the drudgery and hardships, including being separated from families for four or five days, even a week, the railroad jobs were coveted. Well into the twentieth century, there weren't a lot of jobs available to black men, and certainly not ones that offered long-term employment and a liveable wage. There was the post office, or work as a chauffeur or domestic help.
It was something, really something, to be a railroad man.
Freddie Gomez sits on his bed in the tidy little home on Gaylord Street where he has lived since 1956. He can't walk anymore, his feet are swollen like balloons, and cancer keeps him bedridden. Tubes run up his nose, supplying oxygen from a machine that whispers and hiccups in a corner.
He's a big man, and, as old photographs suggest, he didn't mind sampling the fare he served for more than thirty years as a waiter and bartender for the Union Pacific. His hearing's also about gone, a casualty of the loud music he danced to as a youth and a lifetime listening to the clickety-clack of the steel wheels.
In order to talk to him, his second wife, Willia D., whom he calls Deannie, puts her face about a foot from his and yells, occasionally pantomiming her questions. She's a wisp of a woman with a quick laugh; she was a regular down at the club when Freddie managed the place after his first wife died. Despite his condition, they still laugh a lot.
"WHAT DID YOU DO ON THE RAILROADS?" she shouts.
Freddie looks confused. "What was I doing in Portland?" he asks.
"His mind is still sharp," Willia explains as he puzzles over the question. "But his ears are worthless." She repeats herself, slowly so that he can study her lips, and finally Freddie grasps her words.
"Why, I was a waiter," he says. "And a bartender."
"HOW DID YOU GET STARTED?" Willia shouts.
"WHAT, BABY? I CAN'T UNDERSTAND YOU," he yells back. They repeat the process. But once he understands the question, he's off like a locomotive with a full head of steam.
"Times was awful rough just after the Depression," he says, his eyes on the floor but obviously seeing something else. "I had a wife and a young son, and I needed a regular job." He sends Willia to the dresser behind his bed for a frame containing a photograph of the first girl he married.
The woman in the picture smiles back at him, and he's quiet for a moment. Opposite her portrait is a photograph of Freddie at twenty--a skinny young rake in a white turtleneck with his dark hair slicked back and parted like Cab Calloway's. It was taken back in the days when he haunted 12th Street in Kansas City, Kansas, where he was known as a ladies' man and "one hell of a good dancer."
"All the girls was after you," says Willia.
"I SAID, ALL THE GIRLS WAS AFTER YOU!"
"Oh," he says. His rheumy eyes grow merry, and he chuckles. "Yeah. I was a bad, bad boy."
But his wayward ways came to a halt one day in 1934 when Freddie was walking down the street minding his own business, and fourteen-year-old Luellen came flying around the corner on roller skates and into his arms. She was from Kansas City, Missouri, and had come to his side of the river to find a party.
"You're mine," Freddie said as he held her, and they were married soon after, on June 14, Flag Day. A year later she dropped out of her high school classes to give birth to their son.
It was 1935, and Freddie struggled to make ends meet working at a pharmacy for a dollar a day. Thirty-five cents of that went for a bushel of heating coal and the rest to buy supper. To make ends meet, Freddie worked part-time at a restaurant. "It was tough pickin's," he says, "till I got on with the railroad."
In 1937 the superintendent of the Union Pacific railroad in Kansas City advertised for three men to work the trains out of Denver. He sent Freddie, Willie Blue "and some fella whose name I can't recall," Freddie says.
It didn't take Freddie long to learn the art of serving on a moving train--like picking up a coffee cup and pouring so that man, coffee and china all swayed together without spilling a drop. In short order he became one of the Union Pacific's top waiters and bartenders, chosen to work the special trains for VIPs like the president of the railroad. He was such a valued employee that the UP kept him out of World War II by getting him judged 4-F; he tried to do his part by serving the troops that boarded the trains bound for war like they were paying customers. Freddie even had his own car, Number 114, on which he worked every UP route between Chicago and the West Coast, serving up stiff drinks and Omaha steaks, "the best beef this side of the Missoura."
When he started, he made $62.50 a month. But that was enough to buy nice clothes and purchase the little homes that he and Luellen lived in around Five Points. They had six children, only three of whom are still alive. Freddie takes a deep breath. When it comes to Luellen, his memory is as sharp as an ice pick. "She died June 15, 1975--the day after Flag Day, at 1:15 in the mornin'...We were married 42 years and one day." He holds the picture of her with a slight smile on his face but soon has to look away.
"TELL HIM ABOUT THE WRECK," Willia shouts. She touches Freddie's right hand where the skin under his nightshirt appears waxy, melted.
Freddie shakes his head as he recalls that awful cold night in February 1941. The train was near Gilchrist, a small burg south of Greeley, when a puddle of ice water derailed one of the coaches. He was in the pantry cleaning up after the dinner crowd when suddenly he was flying through the air into the kitchen. He landed, struck his head on the stove and was knocked unconscious--a good thing, really, since his hand was burned in the fire that started, and two gallons of boiling water tipped over the stove and onto him, scalding a V-shaped scar into his back.
"WHAT ABOUT THAT ONE?" Willia shouts, pointing at a scar on his leg.
"WHAT?" he shouts back. She jabs him in the leg. He understands but shakes his head. "Oh, naw, that happened when I set the bed on fire when I was a baby." They both laugh.
Most of Freddie's memories of life on the road are fond ones. He pulls out an old black-and-white photograph from 1947. Three men, the train's cooks, pose in the latest suits and trench coats, their wide-brimmed fedoras and caps tipped at jaunty angles. The railroad had given the crew a day off in Sun Valley, Idaho, a place that stirs recollections of one of his more famous passengers, Judy Garland. He looked after the actress and her children on the four-hour ride to Salt Lake City, where they switched to another train that took them back to Los Angeles.
"I'd pick up Liza and her brother to shush them," he recalls. "Whatever they wanted, I did it for them...It was a shame what happened to her...She was real nice."
When important riders scheduled trips, the call often went out for Freddie and Number 114. On whistlestops, "Bessie and Harry--the Trumans--would always sit at the table right in front of my bar; I was bartending then," he recalls.
Forty years later, Freddie can't think of anything in particular the president said to him--just small, everyday pleasantries. Still, how many men could say they fixed drinks for the President of the United States?
For all the wonders Freddie saw on the road, though, his best times as a railroad man were in Five Points.
In 1938 the Protective Order of Dining-Car Waiters and Porters, Local 465, which then numbered about 200 members, rented an apartment on the second level of a small brick building at 2621-1/2 Welton Street and established the Fraternal Club of Dining-Car Waiters and Porters. Not long afterward, it rented the apartment across the hall and combined the two, putting a union hall/card room on one side, a tiny bar and a few tables on the other.
This was Freddie's home away from home, a place where he could blow off steam after long days on the road. "Luellen wasn't much of a `going' woman," he says. "She was a homer...stayed home and took care of the kids." After her death, the club was a place in which to pour his energies and remember happier times.
"WHY'D YOU START THE CLUB?" Willia shouts.
Willia sighs and patiently repeats, "WHY... DID...YOU...START...THE...CLUB?"
"Oh," he says, then shrugs. "We needed someplace to go for entertainment."
Look deep enough into the background of a successful black man or woman, and chances are a train barrels through it.
The late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall was the great-grandson of a slave--and the son of a dining-car waiter. Marshall himself worked summers in dining cars to pay for his college tuition, and in later years he spoke fondly about the adventures he'd had and the discipline he learned on the job.
Roy Wilkins, the grandson of a Mississippi slave, paid for his education by working as a dining-car waiter. He later became the executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Famed Chicago architect Le Roy Hilliard, one of the first blacks accepted as a member of the American Institute of Architects, paid for college with money he made as a dining-car waiter. His son became a doctor.
Gordon Parks, an author, director and photographer whose work appeared in Life and Vogue magazines, got his start taking photographs of Depression scenes while working as a dining-car waiter in 1935.
Pulitzer Prize winner James MacPherson; painters Robert Colescott and Felrath Hines, who became the chief art conservator at the Smithsonian Institution's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; Wiley W. Manuel, the first black California Supreme Court justice; Patricia Roberts Harris, a Cabinet secretary and the first black American delegate to the United Nations--all were children of dining-car waiters and porters.
Wellington Webb Sr. was a Pullman porter for 41 years, working for much of that time on a car attached to the City of Denver express train that ran between Chicago and the Colorado capital. This was how his family became familiar with Denver, where they moved when his son needed help combating asthma. Without the railroad, Denver might never have had that son--Wellington Webb Jr.--as its mayor.
Leon Forrest is a professor in the African-American studies program at Northwestern University and a novelist whose work includes Divine Days; his maternal grandfather worked on the railroads, and his father was a bartender on the Santa Fe for twenty years, usually working on the Super Chief that ran between Chicago and Los Angeles.
Forrest still recalls the day more than forty years ago when his father came home with a screenplay given to him by a Hollywood screenwriter. "My father had mentioned that I was interested in writing," Forrest says. "A few weeks later, the writer--who was a regular on the train--handed him the screenplay and said, `Show this to your son.'
"I can't begin to tell you what a difference that made in my life...the idea that I could be a writer."
His father had wanted to be a doctor, but lack of money and education made that impossible. The railroads offered a chance to expand his horizons.
"The country was still young," says Forrest. "It was an adventure. The West was still a frontier. It gave my father the sense of limitless possibilities, and he brought that home to me."
Forrest's father had noted how black jazz musicians had managed to transcend some racial barriers, and he believed he could overcome abuse and insults by rising above them. "Talking face to face goes a long way toward breaking down issues of class and race," Forrest says. "Guys like my father carried themselves with a great deal of dignity. He spoke well and had an extensive vocabulary, which made him seem more educated than he really was."
But familiarity did not always breed civility. "I do remember one time," Forrest adds, "when a customer called my father, who was light-skinned, a `white nigger.' My father came out from around the bar and decked him. He was suspended for thirty days but told my mother, `What's a few paychecks compared to self-respect?'"
And the railroad men were among the most respected members of their communities. In fact, they helped create those communities, in areas where few blacks had lived before.
In Denver, the Five Points neighborhood owes much of its existence as the heart of the city's black population to its proximity to Union Station. Until the railroad jobs opened up at the turn of the century, most blacks worked as domestic servants, scattered throughout the city with no real sense of community.
And without a geographic community, there was almost no way to support black-owned businesses. When railroad men spent their money in their neighborhoods--buying houses, buying cars--everyone benefited.
"They were a sort of working-class aristocracy," Forrest says. They were unlikely to be troublemakers or boozers; for one thing, if word of such carrying on got back to the railroad companies, they would be out of a job. For the most part, they were stable family men who made consistent, if not outstanding, salaries.
The customers these men waited on were typically people with money who dressed in the latest fashions--especially those on the trains to Los Angeles, Chicago, New York or the beach resorts in Florida. The railroad workers took note of what the musicians, athletes and movie stars were wearing and brought that heightened sense of fashion back home with them.
"Historically in the black community, a man showed his position by how he dressed," says Forrest. "And the railroad guys were always great dressers. Their influence is evident even today when sometimes it seems what a black man wears is more important to him than what he eats.
"That may not always be a good thing. But when you don't have much, you take pride in what you can."
Railroading ran in the families--at times, several generations might be working on trains simultaneously. And the influence of these railroad families ran fast and deep along the streets they lived on. It wasn't just clothing; often the impacts were more subtle.
By their nature, railroaders were men who wanted to see what lay beyond the next hill. It was a big, big country they viewed from the windows during their short breaks and layovers, and it fostered even bigger dreams for themselves and their children.
It took courage for a young black man to leave home and step aboard a train bound for the wide world. Kids and adults alike looked up to them and hung on the stories they brought back.
Whenever he could, Forrest's father would get off the train and mingle with people along the line. Aboard the train, he spent his precious free moments reading or writing lyrics for songs. And when he came home, neighbors would gather at the family home on Chicago's southside to hear about Hopi Indians, the great jazzmen, fighters like Joe Louis, or the time he poured drinks for Bing Crosby.
"My father had an enriched feeling for what life could be," Forrest says. "He believed that we could transcend whatever limitations had been placed on us."
But the railroad men had to work to remove those limitations.
In the late 1800s, white railroad workers organized into unions to agitate for better pay and working conditions. Many times, their efforts were met with brutality by the government, which was not about to allow strikers to bring the main supply line of American industry to a standstill. Gradually, however, the unions succeeded in their demands.
But these were white unions, and blacks generally were not welcome. So in 1912 black rail workers also began to organize, establishing the Association of Colored Railway Trainmen and Locomotive Firemen and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
Two decades later the Protective Order of Dining-Car Waiters and Porters was formed, with headquarters in Omaha and the rest of the country broken into five districts. The union established the Denver district, Local 465, in 1934. The railroad companies, which were never partial to unions of any ilk, were particularly hostile to black unions and refused to even recognize the Protective Order as bargaining for its members.
To help bolster their efforts, A. Philip Randolph, the founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, brought his message to Denver during the Thirties, speaking from the pulpit of the Zion Baptist Church. Whenever he could, Pullman porter Charles L. Cousins went to listen, taking along his teenaged son Charles R., better known as Charlie.
end of part 1
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