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Memories of a NYC RR Train Girl

Eating and Drinking on Trains

Almost all the railroads had a man come through the aisles carrying a large rectangular metal box with a handle selling sandwiches, candy bars and potato chips. It reminded me of the one the Omar Bread Man had that came to our house to deliver bread when I was a small child. The same man would return later with orange pop or coke and coffee and later with pillows. In some trains a man had a cart he pushed from car to car that even had magazines. Pop only came in bottles in those days so he would open the bottle and pour in it in a large paper cup for you. My mother thought pop was bad for children so I would watch wistfully as the man poured pop for others and wish I was getting pop. When I got in the seventh grade and had my own baby sitting money things changed. Those were the days when Coca Cola put the name of the city of the bottling company on the bottom of the small coke bottles so my older sister and I would dash into a depot to find a coke machine to add that city to our collection. I remember making a dash for it at Mattoon, Illinois and getting a coke out of a vending machine for a nickel and opening it and running back on the train. We had one from every depot with a coke machine along the Big Four to St. Louis and from Elkhart to Chicago. Mom still wouldn't allow Coke in the house so on hot afternoons when my sister and I were sunning we took turns running to the nearby Dairy Bar to get each of us a 5 cent cherry Coke and a 5 cent package of Seiferts Potato Chips. That was the best snack ever on a hot humid day. I also started getting cavities for the first time so mom was probably right.

When we went to Mexico City on the people's train a stop at even the smallest depot was an event. The townspeople came on board and sold their wares including various types of food. Some of it was presented on a lettuce leaf. Some didn't look too bad and some smelled awful. After we first boarded the train a man who spoke English told us not to eat any food that people brought on board to sell to us and not to drink the water from the water fountain on the train or we would likely get deathly sick. He told us to get off and buy Coke from a vending machine at a certain stop. The train had no diner and so for two days all we ate was a bit of fruit and some candy left from our original snack bag packed by a sister in St. Louis and the only liquid we drank was Coke. That was one time mom was grateful for Coke. Unfortunately mom thought the Coke bottle collection was silly and disposed of it after I got married. I felt sad as there was so much history to each bottle.

The people's train went up to higher and higher elevations as we approached Mexico City and we nearly froze at night as we had on summer clothing. That is one time mom, dad, and I cuddled together to stay warm. When we left Mexico City we boarded a beautiful modern train for El Paso and shared a compartment with a business man who was quite interesting. When we got to the United States border they made sure everyone had been vaccinated for small pox before crossing into the United States. They had a nurse come on board who simply did it on the spot for those who hadn't had shots and it was very traumatic for many small children. We had our shots before the trip and I felt sorry for dad as he really suffered from his smallpox vaccination as it swelled up horribly. I was so lucky as mine left no scar.

On rare instances we ate in the diner which was when we were on long trips or coming back late afternoon from Chicago. Getting to the diner was a challenge as you had to leave your car and walk through a door out to the area between the two cars and where they met it moved back and forth and it was rather scary to have to walk over that constantly moving narrow opening and through the door to the next car. Sometimes you had to walk through several coaches to get to the diner so it was often an ordeal. The dining cars of various railroads varied but the New York Central ones were always plush with linen table clothes and so were the Santa Fe. The prices were exhorbenant but it was a thrill to have a table to set at to eat and look out the window. Eating in a train that is jogging back and forth takes fine eye hand coordination and fine muscle control and I struggled with getting food to my mouth as a child. When I was a teenager I was more coordinated and it was a more pleasant experience. It seemed strange to me as a child that cooks and porters usually were all black in crisp white uniforms and hats but engineers, brakemen, and conductors were never black. You also seldom saw blacks riding the trains. I did notice things began to slowly change in the 70's as a black man welcomed us on the Zephyr in Lincoln. When my youngest was seven I wanted her to have a chance to ride a train so we took Amtrak from Cincinnati to Peru, Indiana. I was really disappointed as the diner was anything but elegant and the service below the NYC RR standard. It didn't bother me much when they changed the Amtrak route to go through Indianapolis as the era of the elegant cars and superior service for the average traveler had long past.

Conductors had their own seat at the front of the coach where they did their paperwork after they had collected tickets. In the Zephyr they had their own private booth. After you were seated and the train started, the conductor came through and checked to see who was new and took tickets or checked passes. He would ask where you were from and make conversation to make you feel welcome. Sometimes they joked when announcing certain stops. When we approached Mattoon, Illinois the conductor would always say "Mattoon, Mattoon, the Buckle on the Cornbelt." They would slur Terre Haute together so it sounded like Terror Haute. Before your stop he would come through the car and tell you that your stop was coming up so you would get your luggage down and head for the exit so you would be ready to get off when the train stopped. As the train slowed down the conductor announced the town. Then the train would stop with a jerk and sometimes with such force you would nearly lose your balance if you were standing up with your luggage. A lot depended on the engineer as some were more skilled at bringing trains to a smooth stop than others. The conductor would announce the stop once more and then descend down the steps to help passengers off. Before the train started up again he yelled "All Aboard" and then put his stool back on the train and climbed back up the steps. If we were lucky he would check tickets and passes as we pulled out of the station but in my teens he was usually all through checking them before we departed as there was so much mail to load. Once in a while someone would board after the conductor was back on the train and the train was just starting to move. The conductor would be surprised to see a straggler so the stragglers usually felt obligated to tell him before they sat down why they nearly missed the train. Sometimes the conductor would say "All aboard" and dad wasn't yet in sight after getting off for a few minutes but somehow I knew he would make it on even if it was by jumping on a car or two behind us. I was so glad when we nearly missed the train at Elkhart the conductor held up the train until mom and dad got there.


Photo Credit:
Mattoon IL NYC Depot Postcard Photo
Diner and Porter drawings from Clip Art at

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