Dec 9, 2019

Amtrak Dining

By Ed Goldman
I have a very distinct memory of Amtrak’s dining car, which the company says it plans to abolish—the dining car, not my memory. (“No, no, they caaaan’t take that away from me…” Oh, for God’s sake, younger readers. Download “Shall We Dance,” 1937, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers.)

Maybe Amtrak is hoping that local food trucks will fill the gap by meeting the trains at selected depots along their routes. Man, you haven’t lived until you’ve bitten into an eggroll in Alburquerque.

Actually, I have two memories of the dining car. But the first is pretty vague and precedes the establishment of the system now known as Amtrak, which was established by Congress in 1971—13 years after my dad retired from the New York City Fire Department and he and my mom decided to move our family of five to California.

My dad was just 42 years old, my mom not quite 41. My brother Jerry was 18, my brother Stuart was almost 12 and I was a few months shy of turning 8.

Back then, El Capitan was the popular train to take cross-country on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. “Santa Fe/All the Way” went the memorable jingle. I seem to recall that the animated character who sang it was the stereotype of a Native American boy, complete with making a woo-woo gesture in front of his mouth with his hand.

We rode and slept for three days in our coach-class seats; a retired firefighter doesn’t have the ways and means to afford Pullman cars or couchettes for his family. And frankly, at that age, I could fall asleep anywhere at any time, if told to— e.g., “Stop talking and go to sleep now, Edward.” ”Okay, Ma.”

The trip was fairly monotonous. What they didn’t tell you about going “cross-country” by train in those days, if they even do now, was that the tracks were usually situated in less desirable parts of the cities and towns through which you choo-chooed. As a result, instead of seeing the surprisingly modern architecture of downtown Dallas, for example, you saw the backyards and clotheslines of clapboard houses in the city’s exurbs. These were interrupted by hours and hours of passing amber waves of grain with nary a purple mountain’s majesty in sight to disrupt the tedium. To a kid not quite eight years old, living within an unintended documentary on farming in the United States can be akin to dropping into one of Dante’s circles of flame.

We rode and slept for three days in our coach-class seats

But I do remember that, three times a day, we got to shake off the shackles of ennui by going to the dining car, where you were seated at beautifully appointed tables of (wait for it) no more than four. This meant one of the Goldman party needed to take his meals elsewhere. My eldest brother, Jerry, always volunteered to vacate the mobile nest. He was 18, for Heaven’s sake. He was into being cool, 1950s style: pompadour, doowop music, Chinos, penny loafers. He was the ginchiest—and didn’t want to be seen sitting with the New York Jewish version of a Norman Rockwell painting. So he found a table with three sailors traveling west, played poker with them and proceeded in the next three days to lose every cent he’d saved in his life.

The food on the dining car was plentiful, which was enough to make it seem great. I recall that you were served loads of carbs (pasta, bread, potatoes) and even dessert as part of every meal, including breakfast (I’m not kidding). I think the railroad knew that a torpid passenger was a happy one.

My more vivid memory of traveling by rail and frequenting the dining car came when my daughter was about a year old, had just started walking, and her mother and I decided to reward her, ourselves and the rest of the customers in the car by telling her to not walk or run around while we were in transit. We were traveling by Amtrak from California to the Midwest to introduce her to my wife’s parents.

It was a two-day/two-night pilgrimage. But I was older now. Life had made it possible for me to be able to afford a private room for the three of us on the train. And I discovered that cocktails could be brought there from the dining car.

So as our little girl raced up and down the aisles of our car, Jane and I sipped our martinis and felt blessed to be watching our healthy, squealing-with-delight child frolicking just outside our door and those amber waves of grain rolling gently just outside our window. We pined for neither the purple mountains nor their majesty. 

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Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).