Friday, June 20, 2008

Sad Farewells

Two fellow Amtrak employees have passed recently, and I sorely miss both of them. First was Dick Bush, Amtrak's Manager of Bus Operations for Northern California. He retired last year and passed only a few months later.

Dick had been battling cancer for the couple of years, but he always kept a smile on his face. He shared smiles with others, too. I have numerous forwarded jokes in my email folders from Dick, and memories of the many, many stories he told over the years.

Dick was a bus man. He had been a driver, dispatcher, etc. for several bus companies over the years, but somehow ended up at Amtrak, where he was a ticket clerk and station employee for quite a while. Then the State of California began setting up extended Thruway bus operations, and Dick worked with Rick Peterson to help set up a very successful system.

Beep, beep, Dick. Keep 'em rolling up in Heaven.

And just the other day we lost Tony Williams. This was a double blow, because Tony had married another longtime Amtrak friend, Lemette Goldston. Lemette was, for many, many years, the clerical crew dispatcher for the Bay District, and just retired a few weeks ago.

I will always see Tony as a smiling man with a cigar. When the San Francisco Reservation Bureau closed in 1974, I went to Oakland 16th Street as a ticket clerk. Tony was one of the Red Caps, formerly an SP employee.

The Red Caps and baggagemen were always a mystery to me. There were something like six baggagemen and four Red Caps per shift. They were always there for the few trains we had, but they seemed to vanish between trains. There were some who never left, of course - I will eventually find the time to blog about Bubba and Alton - but many just disappeared. Tony was one of them who only appeared around train times.

It wasn't until years later that I learned that Tony had a full time job at the nearby Oakland Army Base! Ah, the good old days!

I could always count on two things from Tony - whatever help I needed, and a genuine smile.

Thanks for the memories, guys.

Monday, May 5, 2008

So Long, Truckee

Skipping around again, but I woke up thinking about Truckee. Somewhere in mid to late '70's I was working on the Oakland station extra board. As such, I was able to work for a week at Truckee CA due to the agent there having had problems with his leg or knee. As I recall, it was late April, though my recall isn't always very good these days!

This was an interesting week to work there, as it was the last week the station was open. I was to work Monday through Thursday, then on Friday I would close out the books and that would be IT. Since I had never worked there before that, I jumped at the chance.

I always enjoyed working in Reno, and had a favorite hotel where I stayed. Truckee was close enough that I could work in Truckee and stay in Reno, so that's what I did. However, I didn't realize it might be more difficult than I had thought to find the station in Truckee!

Truckee, still basically a small town today, was even a bit smaller 30 years ago. There was one main road parallel to the railroad tracks. How hard could it be to drive through town and look for a railroad station?

What I found was that there were several buildings in the style of an old railroad station, none of which had obvious signs to let you know what was in them. And as always, I was right at the edge of being late - I would have been just a minute or two late if I had driven straight up to the right building and popped into the office right off. And one more thing - the first of the two daily trains was scheduled to arrive about 30 minutes after the station opened, if it was on time.

So here I was, driving through "downtown" Truckee, stopping at every railroad-station style building I could see. Finally I spotted a tiny Amtrak logo on a sign and pulled up to another station-type building. Thank goodness, this was it! I jumped out of the car and dashed in the door of the waiting room. There were a couple of people sitting in there, whom I greeted and said I'd be right with them. Looking around the waiting room I spotted the ticket window. What I didn't spot was a door to get to the area behind the ticket window. The only door was the one through which I'd entered.

I ran back outside and looked at the building. Nothing on the railroad side. I ran around the side and saw a door with an SP logo. The door was unlocked, so I ducked inside, where I found telephone equipment. There were several racks of wiring points nearly filling the room. I ran back outside and looked again. There was nothing of use on the street side, and now it's almost train time. I ran back into the telephone equipment room and found I could walk through it toward the tracks, where I found what was obviously a railroad telegrapher's office. And off that office was another door, which led to the ticket office! Whew!

Okay, open the blinds over the ticket window, say hi and tell the three or so people in the waiting room that you'll be right with them. What next? Ah yes, find out if the train is on time! This was before the days of small stations having computers, so I picked up the phone and started to dial the number for the Reno station. Oops, fast busy before I finish. Must need to dial 9 for an outside line. No, not 9. 8? No. Oh boy. It was an SP internal phone line, and I had no idea how to dial out. All right, assume it's on time and get moving!

I had the safe combination, so I dashed over and spun the dial - which fell off my hand. I stared at it, horrified. Then I reached out and tentatively tried the handle. It opened, revealing an empty interior - except for a small door with another combination lock on it. I tried the numbers I had, and it opened and there was the station working fund.

Back at the window, I quickly sold two tickets, then the third person wanted to pay with a credit card. No problem, it was under the amount where we were required to call for authorization (whew!). All I needed was the credit card imprinter. I looked around on the shelves under the desk - nothing. I looked on the shelves behind me, and finally found it. I thought it was odd that it was so tucked away, and pretty dusty looking. Oh well, must be a cash-based town. I put the card in the imprinter, put in the ticket, slid the slide. The slide grabbed the edge of the card, buckling it almost in half - but not imprinting the card onto the ticket. I flattened the card as best I could, and tried again. This time the card buckled badly enough to break it in the center. I took the card and ticket out, then tossed the imprinter over my shoulder. I landed on the shelf behind me and broke the window. I apologized like crazy and wrote out a new ticket, this time writing the card information in by hand. Fortunately the guy was amused rather than mad. Later on, I noticed that in the open part of the safe was another credit card imprinter, a new one, obviously a replacement for the other one!

By now the train would have come and gone had it been on time. A couple of the people had checked bags, so I had to get out the baggage tractor and just be ready for the train. So, back outside and figure out where they keep the tractor and trailer.

Unfortunately, once outside, I realized there was no garage, no outbuilding, nowhere to park a tractor. How strange. The only thing I could find was a big, very old-style highwheel redcap cart. It had a padlock, and the key marked "Baggage" opened the lock! This was a two-wheel cart, about five feet long, with high sides and long handles. Had a seat been installed on the bed, it would have looked like a rickshaw. This was the baggage wagon?

I put the bags on it just as I heard the train whistle. Looking up the tracks, I saw it was the westbound Zephyr (that would have been the San Francisco Zephyr back then - Amtrak wasn't permitted to call it the California Zephyr in those days, just as we couldn't call trains 3 & 4 the Super Chief). I wheeled the cart out to where I thought the baggage car might spot, feeling like a fool. I thought sure that this was meant to be an ornament, not the actual baggage cart. But I had to make do.

The train stopped on a curve. The curve was heavily engineered, banked very high. The floor of the baggage car was at the level of my forehead. Since the cart was only two-wheeled, there was no way to stand on it. So I had to heft the bags up over my head to the train baggageman. I told him I had to use this cart because I couldn't find anything else. He looked at me funny, and said that what I was using was what was always used! He handed down a couple of my bags and off went the train.

The rest of the day was unbelievably quiet. I had no one for the eastbound train, and no one off. No phone to answer, and no walk-ins. I ended up taking off my shirt and laying in the sun on the redcap cart. No wonder the regular agent loved this job so much!

This continued for the next couple of days, until finally on Thursday I sold the last ticket to be issued from the Truckee station. I knew the next day would be even quieter, just paperwork, so I partied a bit heavier than I should have and ended up arriving really, really late on Friday. I had planned to work as long as needed to finish everything off. I was surprised, though, to get to the station and find the regular agent there. He had come in and finished everything up. All I had to do was put the stuff on the westbound train and take off for home. The ticket stock went to Reno, where it was held for several years - more on that later!

So that was Truckee.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The SLO Baggage Handler

Okay, I'm getting way out of order, but I actually had a request of sorts. After working all over the Bay Area, Reno, Bakersfield and most every other station in our District, even selling the last tickets at Truckee, I decided to make a move. I had been living in San Francisco with my partner Nick. We decided to move to San Luis Obispo, which we did in February of 1981. I bid into the job of station agent due to the sudden, unexpected death of the previous long-time agent, George "Pookie" Mello. George was a truly fine guy, and I had been looking forward to working with him. Nick and I had gone through SLO early in February on our way to Mexico on vacation. I hopped off the train at SLO and told George I was going to bid down to SLO. I hope that didn't bring on the fatal heart attack!
One of the really awful things about SLO was setting up and working baggage. Both the northbound and southbound Coast Starlights were scheduled into SLO within minutes of each other. Once the SP did away with Telegraphers, we never knew which train would be in first. We frequently had up to four trailer loads of baggage for each train - and only three trailers! So you loaded which one you hoped would come in first. If it didn't, you did a LOT of quick running around to unload and reload the carts. Not a job for me any more!
That funny looking guy in the picture is me, by the way.

Funny Lady at Oakland 16th Street Station

Another place I worked for many years was the Oakland 16th Street station. I took almost no pictures here - how sad! The only picture I have come up with that was taken when I was here is a screen grab from the movie Funny Lady. Starring Barbra Streisand and James Caan, one scene was filmed at 16th Street in 1974. In the photo, Barbra is sitting on the bench just right of the center. She kept very much to herself, but the other star, James Caan, was very friendly and pleasant. There were several of us Amtrak employees hiding out of camera range. Some of the guys went outside and somehow David Deem got left out there. A major part of the scene being filmed involved James Caan coming out of the Men's room and walking across the way to where Babs is sitting, above. It was a long, slow walk, very dramatic. On the first take, Caan got about two-thirds of the way to Babs when the whole building was suddenly filled with an incredibly loud, raucous noise. No one knew what it was, but the action was stopped and everything was reset. After several minutes, when everything was ready and rolling again, Caan came out and made it just a little further when - BLAAAAAAAHHHHH. It happened again. I don't remember exactly how many times it happened, but as it turned out, there was a buzzer on the back baggage door. David Deem, having been locked out, was pushing the button for the buzzer, something no one had ever done before, so no one knew how unbelievable loud it was! Acclaimed director James Wong Howe, directing his last film, was NOT pleased.
Several of the ladies with whom I worked were heartbroken when I walked back over to where they were standing. I had gone over with my camera (somewhere I have a great shot of James Wong Howe from this shoot) and was chatting with James Caan. We talked for probably an hour altogether while shots were being set up. Caan, not wanting to wrinkle his suit, sort of leaned up against the end of the bench, while I was at the end of it. Apparently from the angle the ladies could see us from, it looked like Caan was sitting on my lap, so they got the idea he was gay! Very amusing, at least to me.

Friday, February 22, 2008

The Old-Timers

When the new-hires walked into the office, we met a fascinating group of people who had worked in the Southern Pacific reservation bureau across the street in the Southern Pacific building. The Wheel was obviously moved from there to its new location in the Ferry Building. The SP employees were "on loan" to Amtrak, and were able to return to the SP at some point.
The office was managed, very admirably, by Evelyn Thomas. She was quite a remarkable woman. She had an accent that sounded very eastern - a bit New York, a bit New Jersey, but neither, really. I recognized it - my great aunt sounded just like that, and her sister, my grandmother, had a touch of it, too. As it turned out all three had what was well-known in San Francisco as a South of Market accent. My grandmother and her sister were born and raised in Noe Valley, Evelyn just over the hill in the Castro. This area had a conglomeration of ethnic groups over the years, all lending bits and pieces of their own accents to create a very unique accent for the child of the neighborhoods. Thanks to TV, its likely gone now, wiped out by the homogenization of the American language.
Be that as it may, Evelyn was amazing. Tough as nails and gentle as a lamb - often in the same minute! She brooked no sass, but had a sense of humor. And talk about multi-tasking - she used to run the office AND keep track of the Reno Fun Train all on her own. Around the time the Fun Train was operating, Evelyn would run around with this huge notebook in her pocket. When anyone got a call about the Fun Train, she would take it book their reservation - train and hotel. All by herself - amazing!
Another old-timer was Evelyn's right-hand man, Al Schnurmann, pictured above. He was a post-war emigrant from Germany, with a heavy accent, hence known as "Herr" Schnurmann. Having taken German in high school, I had to try it out with him. He was kind - he said my accent was superb, but I had no vocabulary to speak of. So we stuck to English!
More old-timers in the next post...

Amtrak San Francisco Res Bureau

Though I had been very actively involved in photography for many years before taking a job at Amtrak, I took very few pictures for many years. In a year and a half at the San Francisco Res Bureau, I only know of two photos that I took in the office. In fact, I never even printed these pictures. The negatives have been kicking around all this time, fortunately in a glassine sleeve so they aren't too scratched up.
At left is a group of people at The Wheel, the "brains" of the reservation system. From the left, if I remember at all, are Caroline McDaniel, Mary Sasges, umm can't remember, and on the far right Alan Orchison. Note the high-tech phones. For you younger folks, the circular thing on the phone is a dial...
The desk part of The Wheel is fairly ordinary, other than its six sides. The wonderful parts are the four rotating file sections ro reels sitting on the desk. Visible in at least the lower reel are the folders of car diagrams that make up each train. I'm not sure why there are so few folders in The Wheel. Normally every slot in three of the reels would have a folder in it, other than those actually being used. Each reel held a different train - train 6 from Oakland to Chicago, train 14 Oakland to Seattle, and train 11/12 Oakland to Los Angeles. Those were the trains for which our office held space.
Note I used 11/12 for the southbound Coast Starlight. Since the western operations were totally running on the Southern Pacific, we used the SP terminology. Any train leaving Oakland, regardless of compass direction, was going east. And any eastbound train had an even train number. SO even though Amtrak's timetable showed the train running from Oakland to Los Angeles as being train 11, everyone in the SP called it train 12. And of course the same thing applied to the train coming down from Seattle. SP didn't care what it was called out of Seattle to Portland, because that was on the BN. But once it left Portland it was known as train 13. At Oakland, it became train 12. It could get very confusing talking about trains 11, 12, 13, & 14 when the timetable had 11 & 14. Needless to say, it was the source of numerous problems over the years!

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Beginning

For me, it all began on Monday, December 14, 1972, at 9:00AM PT in the Sheraton Palace Hotel on Market Street in San Francisco. There were quite a few of us, though I can't remember exactly how many. None of us knew each other, though there was one person who knew someone I knew. That person was Connie Edwards, who knew Henry Luna, who I knew. They married later, but that's a long way off in this story.

The whole group met in a room that was set up rather like a school room - a table, two chairs and a blackboard at the front of the room. A few rows of chairs set up facing the front. In the two seats at the front sat two men. One was older, the other relatively young - though at only 21 myself, everyone else seemed old!

As it turned out later, there were only two of us new-hires who did not have relatives who worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad. In point of fact, it was Connie and me. BUT - we both had referrals from people in the Southern Pacific. It used to be a tight little family back in those days.

The two guys up front were the trainers. The older was a near-retirement railroad employee, the other a hotshot young railroad employee. Both had been "loaned" to Amtrak in its early days, and I'm sure both went back to their respective railroads, laughing at the miserable little company they were leaving behind.

It seemed to be common knowledge that Amtrak was created to fail. After all, we were underfunded, drastically underfunded. Before Amtrak was allowed to purchase equipment, the railroads were allowed to sell off whatever they wanted. The good equipment went to Canada or Mexico. Amtrak ended up buying cars off scrap lines.

But, back to the beginning. The two trainers took turns giving us a pep talk on Amtrak and rail travel in general. We were to stress "City center to city center" whenever possible, meaning people didn't have to drive out of town to get on an airplane. This worked well for the Northeast Corridor, where rail already had a foothold, but came off sounding a bit silly when talking about a 48+ hour trip from San Francisco to Chicago.

We were supposed to come out of the week of training ready to answer phones for the soon-to-open Amtrak San Francisco Reservation Bureau. Up to the point of our starting late in December, reservations were being handled by the old Southern Pacific reservation bureau. Since Southern Pacific was anxious to get completely out of the passenger business, they were very willing to part with the age-old equipment and procedures, and even throw in a bunch of the employees. Apparently some of the employees chose to avoid the year or so "special duty" with Amtrak, which is why I was being hired, along with the others, to fill in the gaps.

One question the trainers - I remember white shoes, white belts, and large amounts of polyester at the front of the room - asked was who could read timetables. I had learned about age 5, my mom having taught me during one of our many trips on the real California Zephyr...more about that later!

So, I knew how to read them, Connie could read them, and Liz Liebfort - 10 1/2 year veteran Zephyrette - claimed she could read them. No one else, though. AND, once out of class, that didn't change. Few actually learned to use the numerous tariffs, either.

In the early days, Amtrak fares were constructed, using the tariffs of the member railroads. So to figure out a fare from San Francisco to Chicago, one used three tariffs. One was San Francisco/Oakland to Odgen UT on the Southern Pacific. Then Ogden to Omaha on the Union Pacific, and finally Omaha to Chicago on the Burlington Northern. It could be very tricky. We all sighed with relief when Amtrak came out with its consolidated national tariff! That made it much easier on everyone, so of course later we had to bring in Yield Management to confuse everyone again...another story.

After our week of "training," we were told to report Monday morning to the new Amtrak Reservation Bureau on the second floor of the Ferry Building. We had a wonderful view of the Embarcadero Freeway right outside our window. As we entered our new workplace, we were greeted by blank stares from the SP res agents, who were sitting around a bizarre multi-sided table with a big cylindrical section on top that had several big round pigeonhole files, one over the over. These round files turned independently, and the whole thing was called The Wheel. There were little cardboard booklets visible in each slot, each booklet representing a specific train on a specific day. When someone called to make a reservation, we pulled the booklet and used a pencil to put their name and origin/destination in little spaces representing seats or sleeper space. Each car in the consist had a separate page, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

The people, and The Wheel, made an impression on me. I really wondered why I had decided to work at Amtrak! This seemed like the 19th Century. Each position had a phone, too - a 20+ line Call Director. I had been quite a phone connoisseur prior to working at Amtrak (I still collect oddball phones), so I recognized the phones. In fact, it turned out I knew more about them than the local phone company guy, but again - another story or two! The problem with phones was that with all those blinking lights, just try to remember which one was your call - click, Mrs. Jones? I'm sorry, your agent will be with you shortly. Click, Mrs. Jones? I'm sorry, your agent will be with you shortly...

After cursory introduction, we were told to sit down and get to work. I remember all of us newbies looking at each other when the phone rang. The old-timers (SP folks) looked at us. Finally we started picking up phones, most of the newbies terrified. I seemed, for some reason, to take it in stride. I guess I've always been a fast learner. So by the end of the day, while taking my own calls, I was listening to the other newbies and trying to help them give out correct information. I ended up as a sort of trainer for the newly-trained, something I continue to this day!

That was how it started. I have LOTS of stories about the interesting personalities in what we always called the Res Bureau, and will share them in later posts.