I WORK ON THE RAILROAD -- AND HOW!
By Nellie O'Grady as told to Frank J. Taylor
As a transcontinental stewardess, the author handles newlyweds, children, wolves and characters you wouldn't believe . . .
Originally appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, December 31, 1955; text and images courtesy of the Burlington Railroad Historical Society.
You ought to see the look in their faces when I tell people how I make a living. "I am a Zephyrette," I say.
"What's that?" they ask.
"A gentle breeze wafting through a train," I explain.
That's what one of our passengers called me. For nearly seven years I have been wafting through a train called the California Zephyr, that runs between San Francisco and Chicago. During that time I have wafted over 1,000,000 miles by rail.
For a time I wore a pedometer to count my steps. After I had walked 100 miles on three round trips, I took the thing off. It told me that in seven years I have walked as far as from Chicago to San Francisco and back. Just thinking about it made me tired.
On these wafts, or walks, whichever you want to call them, I have never had to worry about getting lonesome, because I have the company of 300 passengers. In over 400 trips I have Zephyred 120,000 travelers across the country. From a crowd like that you learn about people, especially when you are at their call from seven A.M. to 10:30 P.M., with two hours out for rest.
|A Zephyrette is equipped with a
first-aid kit, a screw driver and answere to most of the passengers' questions.
--12/31/55 Saturday Evening Post Photo - BRHS Collection
On the California Zephyr everybody has time to relax. It is a leisurely transcontinental train operated by the Western Pacific, the Denver & Rio Grande Western, and the Burlington railroads jointly. Six of its silvery cars have enclosed upper decks from which passengers feast their eyes on mountain tops, stars, forests, rivers, cliffs or countryside, as we glide through the Sierra Nevada, the Rockies, or across valleys, deserts or prairies. All of which adds up to plenty of work for the Zephyrette.
During my day I answer hundreds of questions, send telegrams, mail letters and post cards, put flowers in the dining-car refrigerator, watch out for youngsters traveling alone, make dinner reservations, order birthday cakes, interpret the Railway Guide, give soda mints, baby-sit and dog-sit, bend an ear to the talkers. People on a transcontinental train are floating for the time being out of this world. They loosen up with the most surprising confidences.
Before the trains pull out, I stand by the rear car, greeting and sizing up the passengers as they board. It's like being hostess to a house party of 300 self-invited guests whom you don't know. I think I can pick the big shippers, the lounge lizards, the know-it-alls, the busybodies, the gadgeteers, the honeymooners, the tipsters and the card hounds. But sometimes I get fooled.
Sometimes I think the president of our railroad has more friends than the President of the United States. Usually the passengers who know him are big shots who want something special in the way of service or a bedroom on the train's shady side. If we can't give them what they want, they promise to speak to the president about it the next time they see him.
On a recent trip when one of these important people was tossing his weight around, I told him, "Why, the president is up in the next car. Do you want me to take your card to him?"
"Oh, no; don't bother him now," the big shot replied. "I'll catch him in the diner."
He didn't, though. I saw him and the boss sitting across the aisle from each other in the diner. Neither of them seemed to recognize the other.
We also carry a good many "big shippers" who threaten to pull their business off the railroad if their whims are not satisfied. Luckily most of them are shippers only in their imagination or we'd be out of business. What they don't know is that the freight department tips us off when we have a genuine big shipper aboard.
This has its amusing side too. On one trip we were tipped about a big cereal maker, so we stocked the diner with his products. At least we thought we did. The first breakfast out he ordered his favorite cereal, and the waiter went beaming to get it, then came back crestfallen. He had asked for the only one of his breakfast foods the dining-car steward had overlooked.
Another time the freight department advised us that we had a big meat packer aboard. This time we loaded the pantry with his canned chicken, canned ham, corned beef-everything. Alas, when he ordered his meals he paid no attention whatsoever to brands.
One day the owner of a ketchup works got to talking about his product so glowingly that I told the dining-car steward about it. He wired ahead to have some bottles of that particular brand put aboard at the next stop. During meals, the waiters made a point of carrying bottles of the ketchup on their trays. They put bottles on the tables around our VIP whether the customers asked for it or not. This paid off big. Rolling through the Sierra Nevada and the Rockies, we see some wonderful scenery out the windows of our diners, but none of it delighted our passenger so much as those bottles of ketchup.
The click of the wheels on the rails seems to loosen up inhibitions and make people act naturally-or maybe I should say unnaturally. The party boys and playgirls, most of them of indeterminate age, are trying to recapture lost years in two or three days away from home, families, telephones and time clocks. Following an affectionate farewell from his family, the party boy quickly makes himself known by announcing, as soon as we get rolling, "Well, I've got to check the train."
"Don't bother, sir," I tell him. "I've already checked it."
I always do that to spot the doctors aboard, in case of emergency, and passengers who may be able to interpret for bewildered foreigners riding the train. But our gay blade does his own checking just the same, peering into bedrooms and compartments, sizing up the coaches as well as the Pullman cars. Then he usually tells me, "Well, there's no one on this train but newlyweds or nearly-deads," or makes some other keen observation.
Even so, back in the buffet car or up in the upper decks, he usually finds a playgirl who has removed her wedding ring for the trip. She isn't too newlywed to join him for lunch or dinner. Sometimes he wants an assist from me. When I am taking reservations, he whispers, "Put me at the table with the dish over there, will you?": Chances are the "dish" is just waiting for a meal ticket. I waste no sympathy when he complains later that "she was a dud."
Quite often, when he is checking the train, our party boy discovers an empty drawing room, which he needs for a few hours to finish some work. "I am snowed under," he says, patting a fat brief case.
Occasionally an obliging Pullman conductor lets him have the room until the passenger who reserved it boards at a station up ahead. This usually winds up in a hassle. Forgetting about work, the playboy has ordered drinks, invited in new-found friends and is in the middle of a very big time. He doesn't want to move out when the rightful occupant boards. He promises to report the outrageous treatment to his friend, our president.
Recently one of these middle-aged playboys was the life of the party all the way to Chicago. He had a gay luncheon with one woman, a very lively dinner with another, kept open house with plenty of drinks in his compartment. He told me his life story, in snatches, when I had a moment to listen, called me "Nellie" and asked me to call him "Joe." He knew so much about everything and everybody and was so interesting that I thought, when we said good-by, What a wonderful man to know. I hope I have him on my train again.
Three weeks later I had him. But on this trip he was accompanied by his wife and twins. He was quiet, aloof, a doting husband and father. He didn't call me "Nellie," so I didn't call him "Joe.'' In fact, he didn't seem to recognize me. I guess he was just a dual personality.
There is something about a club car that not only loosens tongues but releases imaginations. You'd think that some of our club-car squatters were in training for a whoppers' convention. I think I've listened to some of the biggest lies ever told. And believed them. One man, who knew everybody worth knowing, charmed. the entire car with his fund of geology lore as we rolled through the Rockies. But when we got to Denver the police grabbed him. He was a rubber-check passer, not a geologist. Another voluntary lecturer told everybody how the holes in the rocks of the canyon walls were made by birds. This jinxed my story, which was that they were worn by rushing waters. That's one trainload of people who think Zephyrettes are liars.
Sometime I'd like to go to a convention and see what happens that changes men so much. We Zephyr a lot of conventioneers to Chicago. They get aboard out West with cases of liquor, take over a car, joking and roaring with laughter, talking up their products. They're all pepped-up personality-plus boys. They eat big steak dinners and party all the way to Chicago. Money means nothing to them. "It's all on the expense account," I hear them say.
A few days later, when we Zephyr them back home, they're different characters. They're fagged. They can't eat. They don't drink. They don't know any jokes. They stay in bed most of the day. They're not interested in dinner reservations. If one of them notices me, he remarks, "Oh, we've got that same Zephyrette again!"
In my book, I distinguish between party boys, lounge lizards and wolves. The party boy is just trying to recapture lost youth. The lounge lizard never lost it, he is a show-off who plants himself in the club car, then begins to make coins or cards disappear until he attracts an audience. In the diner he stops at tables and asks someone to pull a card out of his deck, so he can identify it, sight unseen. He is just out to entertain his fellow passengers. Some of them are bored, but I'm not I'm a pushover for card or coin tricks anyway.
|"After a few drinks, Mr. Wolf isn't shy any
more. One wolf told me I reminded him of his fourth wife."
--12/31/55 Saturday Evening Post Photo - BRHS Collection
The wolves are something else again. They start operations in the buffet car too. Most of them start out timidly, but you, recognize them by their roving eyes. They don't miss anything. After a few drinks Mr. Wolf isn't shy any more. He wants something explained-that odd formation on the landscape or a gadget in the roomette that he doesn't understand. You begin to remind him of his wife. One wolf told me I reminded him of his fourth wife. Another Zephyrette reminded a wolf so much of his wife that he chased her through the cars and into the dining-car kitchen.
When you begin to look glamorous to a wolf, even in your uniform, and he undertakes to pull you into his roomette for a drink, that's the time to explain, "Sorry, I have a sick baby that needs a bottle, up in one of the coaches." The gallant wolf already has his bottle, so he can't do anything but let you go to the sick baby.
I wouldn't want to leave the impression that a Zephyrette's days are full of odd characters. Most of the seats are occupied by normal people, but even they have their idiosyncrasies. Once we pull out of the station, we're in a Shangri-La on wheels. Gossip gets about fast. Everybody wants to check rumors. People want to know my duties, what are my wages, where I stay away from home, who pays for my room, does the railroad buy my uniform? Several passengers always make it their business to double-check me and see that I'm on the job all the time.
One of my duties is to watch for people who are not eating. I've had first-aid training, and if they are train sick I can help them sometimes, although the only pills I am allowed to dispense are soda mints. You'd be surprised what a lot of ailments soda mints can help. If a passenger is without funds, I report it to the conductor, who is authorized to sign chits in the diner for anyone who is hungry. Sometimes it takes some tact to find out if a passenger really needs help. Recently a man pointed out an attractive young woman to me in his car.
"I have been watching her," he said. "She hasn't eaten since she got aboard yesterday." When she didn't make a dinner reservation, he really was excited. "Everybody is worried," he told me. "We want to buy her some food. Find out if she is broke."
It is a slightly delicate operation to walk up and ask a well-dressed woman if she is penniless, but this busy-body passenger badgered me about it until I finally did tell her it was part of my duty to help anybody short of funds, and could I do anything for her? At first she flushed angrily; then she thanked me and said, "I've been so thrilled with the scenery I just wasn't hungry." Next day she flagged me as I made my morning round of the train and said, "If it will make you feel better, I'd like to report that I went into the diner and ate a large breakfast."
After that I confined my activities to seeing that children traveling alone got to the diner and ordered nourishing meals. Among my other chores, I usually have to mother as many as half a dozen youngsters traveling alone. They are invariably better passengers than the spoiled brats whose parents let them run wild. Often, when I have been hustling to make the dinner reservations for a trainload of passengers, I have had to stand for ten minutes listening to some little prima donna argue whether the family should eat at the first, second or third sitting.
Although I try to see that children traveling alone order adequate meals, get to bed on time and don't miss the train at station stops, baby-sitting is not one of my duties. I do it now and then in my off hours for mothers tied to their seats with babies. On one trip some parents, going to the diner, asked me to check their bedroom, where their children were sleeping. I checked just once. When I opened the door a huge sign greeted me. It read: LOOK: OUT. DOG BITES.
|Nellie O'Grady walks a
passenger's dog during a stop
at Burlington, Iowa.
--12/31/55 Saturday Evening
Post Photo - BRHS Collection
Often Zephyrettes are asked to dog-sit while Fido's owners are having meals. I decline firmly, explaining that I have urgent work in the coaches-although I would rather sit with most dogs than with some children. On a recent trip a woman passenger called for me and said, in commanding tones, "Zephyrette, I'll need you to walk the dog when we stop in Ottumwa." I explained that I would be off duty when we reached Ottumwa. She said that she would be in the diner at the Ottumwa stop, and that the dog had to be walked. She was quite miffed when I suggested that she eat at another sitting, so that she could do her own dog walking at Ottumwa.
Pet lovers are a page in my book. When you ring the bell of a compartment or a bedroom to make a dinner reservation, you can expect anything to leap out at you. One day I opened the door of a bedroom that was full of parakeets flying about.
"That's O.K.; they'll stay with me," called the woman occupant. But I hurriedly closed the door before the birds could get out. I could see myself chasing parakeets all afternoon.
Another day a man sent for me to see if I could bring some fresh hamburger for "Jake." I looked around the compartment for Jake. He finally peeked out from under a chair. He was a pet turtle.
On another trip I was slightly annoyed by a wolf whistle whenever I passed the open door of a bedroom. I couldn't very well go back to see who was whistling at me, so I asked the porter who was in that room.
"Just a lady, ma'am," he replied.
"Somebody in there is whistling at me," I said.
He said he would see who it was. In a minute he called me to come. When I entered the room, the woman occupant said, "This is Miss O'Grady. What do you say, boys?" Instantly six myna birds in cages began whistling. The woman asked them how they liked me.
"Prettee-ee! Prettee-ee!" they chorused, and repeated the wolf whistle.
After that I believed anything. I even believed the tipsters who ride on our train. En route through the Utah and Colorado uranium belt, we make a special stop at Thompson, Utah, where prospectors and promoters are always getting off and on. A lot of fortunes in uranium are made in our club car by these hopeful characters who are invariably loaded with hot tips on the right penny stocks to buy. I thought these fortunes were largely imaginary until one of our porters bought some six-cent shares and sold them for seventy cents. After that I was a believer and even bought some myself. But instead of going up, mine went down. They even went clear off the board. Later I learned that the promoter who let me in on something because I'd been so helpful to him, as he put it, was really unloading when he advised me to load up.
The card hounds are one group that have me baffled. Most travelers go into rhapsodies about the mountain and desert scenery they feast on, but the card fiends never see any of it. Almost before we leave the terminal at Oakland or Chicago, someone is asking, "Do you know anyone who would like to play bridge?" Or poker? Or canasta? One group boasted they played 4000 hands of gin rummy between San Francisco and Chicago. I have to be careful about finding partners for games, because if I innocently introduce a greenhorn to a group of card sharks, the railroad gets the blame for his losses.
The gadgeteers who ride on our trains fascinate me, especially the compass carriers, who have to check every so often which way the train is going. They evidently don't trust our rails. And the barometric-altimeter fans who have to know the altitude without consulting the timetable. A lot of passengers get aboard staggering under loads of field glasses, cameras and light meters. Sometimes it seems as though the gadgeteers carry their equipment mainly for conversation openers in the club car.
|Oakland, California: The Zephyr is
ready to roll, Charles Tidwell tells Miss O'Grady.
--12/31/55 Saturday Evening Post Photo - BRHS Collection
At night the star gazers give me a bad time because they get into arguments as to which star is this and which is that. And I'm supposed to know the answer. Fortunately we always have walking encyclopedias aboard who know the answers to everything. All you have to do is to plant one of these know-it-alls in the proper place and then get out, so you won't get caught in the cross fire of stupid questions and brilliant answers.
The most argumentative of all are the railroad fans, who know more about the train than the trainmen. They know all about all trains, carry scores of timetables, have ridden every railroad that carries passengers and most of them that don't. They quiz me about the weight of the engine, the horsepower, the size of the wheels. One day one of them gleefully asked, "What do you call that sweeping light on the locomotive?"
"I don't know, but I'll find out," I replied.
"Don't bother it's a Mars lamp," he said. '
"Why did you ask me if you knew already?" I asked him.
"Oh, I just wanted to see if our little Zephyrette knew her train," he answered, with a happy grin at the other passengers.
I finally found a way to cope with the railroad bugs' questions. The company provided me with blueprints of our train. When the barrage starts, I give the amateur railroaders a blueprint. "Take it," I say. " It's too complicated for a Zephyrette."
These pseudo railroaders always want to ride in the cab of the diesel engine. They are hurt when you explain that it is against the rules.
"The Santa Fe lets me do it," one of them grumbles. You know that on the Santa Fe he boasts that the Western Pacific always invites him to ride with the engineer.
The old saying that it takes all kinds of people to make a world goes for our train. We have some passengers so finicky about germs that they wear gloves all the time they are aboard, even while eating in the diner. Other travelers can't ride backward without getting sick-so they tell the dining-car steward. Certain people can't eat unless they are sitting by the window. Some males who can't eat unless they have company insist that the Zephyrette dine with them. I have the healthiest appetite on the railroad. My "host" is usually a little taken aback when I order the most expensive items on the menu. You should see the look of relief when I explain that the railroad is picking up my check.
|"It's like being hostess to 300
self-invited guests," says Nellie, here being regaled by passengers who have been in
--12/31/55 Saturday Evening Post Photo - BRHS Collection
Our train is something of a Honeymoon Special, particularly for elderly newlyweds. Maybe we just don't spot the young ones, who try to act like old married couples. The old honeymooners are just the opposite. They hold hands and behave like young honeymooners. The old swains always refer to their wives as "my little bride." They want everybody to know. Even the occasional blind travelers, who "watch the scenery" by listening to what other passengers say about it, know they are riding with elderly brides and grooms.
Sometimes I think our train should be renamed the International Zephyr. We carry many foreign travelers, and they're the Zephyrette's special problem. I ring the bell, open the door and ask if they'd like a dinner reservation. They respond with blank stares and shrugs of their shoulders. I make like eating, try hand talk, drop in a few words of French, Italian, Spanish, all mixed. It's as clear as the inside of a tunnel, so I try to guess what nationality they are and scour the train for someone to interpret. What burns me up is to find these same travelers in the club car later, talking to other passengers in English!
On one trip I chaperoned a Chinese picture bride, loaded with notes reading "get dinner" or "take taxi to Dearborn Station," written in both Chinese and English. Money was clipped to each note. Someone had planned her trip down to the last detail. The only trouble was, we ran into bad weather, the train was late, and she was going to miss her connection in Chicago. We figured out how she could make it by changing trains at another junction. The conductor tried to explain the plan to her, I acted it out, then others in the car joined in the gesturing and talking. She was all smiles, shaking her head in bewilderment.
Then I remembered another Chinese up in the coach part of the train. I raced up to get him. Fortunately he spoke English. I dragged him back to explain the plot to the picture bride. He rattled off a cascade of Chinese. She replied with a flood of Chinese. He turned to me with a perplexed look on his face.
"Sorry, can't understand a word she say," he said, and stalked off in disgust. He spoke one kind of Chinese, she another. We finally got the idea over to her in hand talk, pictographs and a new note: "Take train to Minneapolis," where we prayed she found her picture bridegroom.
"What an easy way to earn a living!" people exclaim, especially women who envy me my life on the rails. After all, a Zephyrette is on duty only sixteen hours a day. After that she can rest in her room, which nobody is supposed to know about, but everybody does, so the bell may ring any hour of the day or night. Most of the sixty Zephyrettes who have worked on our trains have quit after about two years. I have stayed seven years because I like people.
I was in the first group of nine girls who were given a one-month Zephyrette training course in Chicago. First we listened to lectures daily by heads of departments of the railroad, so we would know the answers to all the questions about how to run the railroad. We were issued first-aid kits and even screw drivers, so we could fix anybody and anything. Then we were sent to charm school for a week, so we would know how to act and walk like models. I'd like to see any model walk like that down the narrow corridor of a weaving train. Finally we spent a day in each railroad station in Chicago, studying schedules, so we could help people figure out connections. When we finished, we were so completely exhausted by our training that we could barely report for work. The training course has since been canceled. Nowadays a new Zephyrette learns her trade by making two or three trips with a veteran like me.
You may wonder why I have stayed in uniform so long, in spite of the long hours, the hard work and the problem passengers. The answer is, the nice people I meet. I was counting up the cards that passengers have given me, inviting me to come and see them in their homes. I have over 400 of them. I have visited enough of these friends to know that they mean it.
How else could I ever have sat down and talked with President Eisenhower-when he was president of Columbia University- who helped me to plan a trip to Europe I made in 1950? What other work would have enabled me to chat with Bernard Baruch or Pierre Monteux, or Tokyo Rose, who was en route to prison? Where else could I have been whistled at by myna birds whose lives were insured for $50,000? Or have traveled with 165 marines, loaded with souvenirs from Korea? "You're in for a rough time," my superior said, but I wasn't. They were gentlemen, and I had the time of my life.
Probably the most unusual trip, though, was on which we carried four young prisoners being transferred from San Quentin to Sing Sing. It was when canasta was new, and one of my "guests," a charming young confidence man, said he'd like to learn the game. I told the guard I'd be willing to teach them in my rest periods. We got along famously, and soon the prisoners were in such a mellow mood that the guard felt he could safely remove the handcuffs. They told me all about life in San Quentin and the various jobs they had pulled that put them behind the bars. Their guard learned more about them in two days than a whole squad of detectives had uncovered in two years. The young confidence man boasted of the bad checks he had passed, literally hundreds of them, nearly always in antique shops. He always told his victims, with a disarming laugh, "This check is no good, you know." The checks were invariably accepted-or so he said. When we got to the end of the trip, he wanted to do something to show his appreciation for my time and interest. He said he'd like to write me a check.
I said, "Thanks, we never accept gratuities."
He replied, with his usual laugh, "The check wouldn't be any good, you know." As I say, Zephyrettes meet such interesting people.
Judging by the personal questions they ask, people find Zephyrettes interesting too. One thing they always want to know is what I do on my time off. I give them one guess. For my last full-length holiday I rounded up passes on twenty-two railroads. Then I rode the rails from Chicago to New York to Montreal to Quebec to Boston to Philadelphia to Washington, then down South and back north to Ohio and finally back to Chicago, where I caught the Zephyr and worked my way home to Palo Alto, California.
Sort of a Zephyrette's holiday, wasn't it?
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