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!