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Jonesey’s Big Adventure: Part 6

Summer 1986 — The dining-car crew of Amtrak Train 6, the California Zephyr, graciously poses for a self-timer photo by the author at the West Oakland passenger yard, at the time still operated by Southern Pacific. From left to right: Cook Darren Cooper; the author; Waiter Dave Hubbell; and Waiter Andy “Blue” Peterson. “Blue” was known for his excellent singing and usually broke into Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler,” emphasizing the line “You never count your money, when you’re sittin’ at the table” at the end of the evening, when fellow waiters began counting their tips.

Jonesey’s Big Adventure: Part 6

2023-01by Mark W. Jones/photos by the author except as noted

After coming home from San Antonio, Texas, on Amtrak Train 22, the Eagle (see PTJ 2022-4), I was called for Train 48, the Lake Shore Limited, as Service Attendant (SA) “Assist” in the bar, meaning I would help the Lead Service Attendant (LSA) in the Amcafe on what promised to be a very heavy load from Chicago to New York City. Once again, I packed my bag but was a little nervous because I’d never worked this type of job and was hoping my LSA would be helpful and good company on the trip, too.

As I entered the Chicago crew base, the clerk, Glen, gave me my paperwork, looked up from the crew list, and said, “Star, I see you’re helping LSA Hutson out on 48.”

“Yes, I see that,” I replied, in a somewhat distracted manner, not sensing anything out of the ordinary. “Oh, you’re going to have a good run for sure”, the silver-haired, pasty-complexioned clerk said with a slight gleam in his eye, and then added, “He’s one of our real characters out here!”

Seeing Glen’s pleasure at trying to get a rise out of me, I shot back with, “Well, he’s just one of many — I’ve met quite a few already and they just seem to make the trip a little more interest-ing for the most part.” Glen chuckled and wished me a good run, along with “Be safe, Star” in the manner of sarcasm mixed with some ribbing that usually accompanies most railroaders’ remarks, especially clerks who have ample time to work on “their” material and enjoy some good rejoinders at your expense, too.

All kidding aside, I picked up my pace heading to Track 14 and swung onto the ex-U.S. Army 1400-class dorm car that I rode on my first student trip on trains 48/49 back in June. The car was dark and quiet inside, with no head-end power as the road power had not coupled on yet. In the darkness, as I fumbled for my room door, my Case pocketknife fell out of my pocket onto the floor. Stowing my bags in the room, I quickly returned to the hallway and somehow my knife, a boyhood gift from my dad, had vanished — gone in a matter of seconds! Another employee was right behind me, and when I questioned him, he said, “Oh, I found this here knife on the floor — didn’t know it was yours,” as he pulled it out of his pocket and handed it back to me. In the dim light I could see “Hutson” on his name badge. Oh great, I thought, here’s the man I’ll work under for three days on the round trip to New York City, already pocketing my pocketknife before we even get backed down to the depot.

He muttered back, “Are you my helper in the bar?”

“Yessir,” I replied. His look back suggested either apprehension or disdain, perhaps both, at having a new-hire work with him. I figured it would still be best to give him the benefit of the doubt as he said, “Okay, I’ll open up right when they board ’em up. Come on back then.” His voice trailed off down the hall with the sliding vestibule end door closing behind him in a resounding thud.

As soon as we stopped at the end bumper of Track 26 next to the glass house, I joined Mr. Hutson back in the Amcafe and immediately began filling the sink wells with ice, placing plastic cups behind the bar, and setting condiments out for service on the counter. While doing that, I noted a small grill that was built into our back bar area and asked, “Are we going to use that for the cheeseburgers and hot dogs, too?” Hutson shot back, “No, that’s way too much trouble, just microwave now — we haven’t used that in years!” I thought, well, so much for the B.S. “Better Service” that my old friend and instructor, Willie Holder, talked about. I could see a lot of passengers heading down the platform for boarding, while Mr. Hutson started brewing the coffee and instructed me to fill the ice wells with cans of beer. “I don’t make P.A. calls, they’ll find us soon enough — most folks want to get a drink right away after they settle in and I like to be open and ready for them.” Mr. Hutson wasn’t a congenial man, but had a sense of duty to his job which was noteworthy. His physical appearance suggested a tough life, with a snaggle front tooth prominently displayed and providing a very plausible explanation for his unsmiling expression. He definitely was one of “Amtrak’s characters” as the clerk, Glen, said, but I didn’t feel a threatening presence at all — more of a world-weary, longtime railroader who had seen a lot in his life, and just didn’t want to be bothered anymore…

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This article was posted on: February 8, 2023