Pullman Porters Helped Others Reach Their Destination
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
So much cultural meaning is packed into the figure of the Pullman porter -- racial pride and racial guilt, the faded glory of the American railroad, a level of customer service now extinct -- that it seems beyond mere mortals to inhabit the myth.
Three avatars of the age did just fine yesterday, nevertheless. They were the best-dressed gentlemen in Union Station: Not in the starched white jacket, bow tie, pressed trousers and blue caps of their old profession, but in sharp business suits, each man displaying -- and they did not plan this -- a colorful pocket handkerchief.
But then, of course. A Pullman veteran knows everything there is to know about self-presentation, about working a room, about coming out on top in the daily status wars -- maintaining one's self-respect without threatening the status of those who think they are superior.
"A certain profile of man was successful out there as a sleeping car porter," says E. Donald Hughes II, 53, who put himself through the University of Maryland making beds and shining shoes on the railroad. "We could think on our feet, and we could turn things around to our advantage very quickly and make you think that you were in control when in fact, you weren't in control."
Hughes rode the Acela Express from Baltimore yesterday with William H. Costen, 60, a former "chair car" attendant. Amtrak picked up the cost of the trip. The railroad hosted a midday reception at the station for the pair and for former dining-car cook Thomas E. Dunn, 81, who lives in Washington. The occasion coincided with a congressional resolution introduced by Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) to honor A. Philip Randolph, founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
The three honorees were picked basically at random. The publicity firm producing the event found it easier said than done to stage a reunion of sleeping- and dining-car veterans. That world is receding fast. The Pullman porter era ended in the late '70s.
The passing of the porters reminds us how far we've come -- and how much we've lost.
People still bed down on trains, of course. Last year, 591,023 passengers traveled in Amtrak's sleeping cars. Tickets for sleepers still include dining car meals, served on linen tablecloths with linen napkins. But it's not the same.
Disposable utensils have replaced the fancy silverware, silver water pitchers, china plates. The sleeping car "attendants" (they're not porters anymore) don't shine shoes and don't offer quite the same level of personal service.
Hughes noticed the difference when he rode a sleeping car on Amtrak's Crescent to Atlanta last year. It was the same route he traveled as a porter on the old Southern Crescent from 1975 to '78. He thinks Amtrak does a good job. But that old Southern hospitality could not be replicated.
"I wanted to get in there!" he says. "I used to routinely walk through the car, making contact with passengers. That part was missing."
Also: How strange to see men -- and women -- of all races serving passengers. "It was a surreal experience," Hughes says.