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Ever wanted to be Cary Grant in North by Northwest? Now you can.
April 13, 2014 10:04 AM   Subscribe

Pullman rail cars: A detour back through time

Right now, they go from Chicago to New Orleans. And they expect to be in NYC by next year.
posted by valkane (27 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
And the sons of Pullman porters
And the sons of engineers
Ride their father's magic carpets made of steel.

posted by octothorpe at 10:16 AM on April 13 [4 favorites]


And when on the train you must do as Thornhill and order a Gibson which is one of the most perfect drinks ever invented.
posted by three blind mice at 10:21 AM on April 13 [1 favorite]


I didn't see anything about getting to run through cornfields, being chased by cropdusters...
posted by nushustu at 10:32 AM on April 13 [3 favorites]


can i be cary grant in "to catch a thief" instead? because, grace kelly.
posted by bruce at 10:44 AM on April 13 [1 favorite]


I haven't booked via the Pullman company, but I have booked trips on Amtrak with a sleeper many times.

Even with a more generic Amtrak experience, I can still say that it was far superior to the indignities one has to go through fly. Meals are included with the ticket, you have privacy when you want and there is a certain kinship you get with other riders. If you have the time to travel in a reserved room on a train (as opposed to flying), it is a terrific experience.

Sure, there are downsides One is that the trains don't always run on time as Amtrak is subject to delays caused by freight traffic.

When Pullman Rail Journeys starts it's CHI-NYC service, I am sure I will book a trip.
posted by lampshade at 10:51 AM on April 13 [5 favorites]


We should all be in a position to turn our noses up at pulling Eva Marie Saint.
posted by biffa at 11:07 AM on April 13 [4 favorites]


Related, the U.S. is looking at turning Historic Pullman into a national park. Pullman was Pullman's all-everything company town for the factory workers who built the Pullman cars. It's famous for the Pullman strike of 1894, featuring a nationwide rail shutdown, Eugene V. Debs, Clarence Darrow, Grover Cleveland calling in the army to break the strike, 30 union deaths, $80 million in property damage, and the creation of Labor Day as a sop to the unions. It's also the site of a major African-American unionization, by the porters, who I believe were the first black union recognized by the AFL. Pullman was annexed to Chicago around 1900 and is now a neighborhood on the South Side.

The National Parks Reconnaissance Study is interesting and worth reading. It would be a new sort of national park, more along the lines of Colonial Williamsburg, since most of the neighborhood is private housing. My husband's been providing some professional assistance to various organizations exploring national-park-ization, so I've learned a lot about Pullman in the last couple years. It's really interesting!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:36 AM on April 13 [6 favorites]


What, nobody wants to be Farley Granger?
posted by dhartung at 12:35 PM on April 13 [2 favorites]


"That's exactly what it is. It's a time machine. And we see it as a time machine."

I assume that "a fine dinner served on linens by very attentive...server-people," will mean smiling, attentive black men? A big part of the Pullman mystique was the attentive service. George Pullman hired former slaves as his car attendants. It became popular for people to address them as "George."

From Wikipedia,

According to historian Greg LeRoy, "A Pullman Porter was really kind of a glorified hotel maid and bellhop in what Pullman called a hotel on wheels. The Pullman Company just thought of the porters as a piece of equipment, just like another button on a panel - the same as a light switch or a fan switch."[8] Porters worked 400 hours a month or 11,000 miles, sometimes as much as 20 hours at a stretch. They were expected to arrive at work several hours early to prepare their car, on their own time; they were charged whenever their passengers stole a towel or a water pitcher. On overnight trips, they were allocated only three to four hours of sleep—and that was deducted from their pay.[8] "It didn't pay a livable wage, but they made a living with the tips that they got, because the salary was nothing," says Lyn Hughes of the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum.[9] The porters were expected to pay for their own meals and uniforms and the company required them to pay for the shoe polish used to shine passengers' shoes daily.[9] There was little job security, and the Pullman Company inspectors were known for suspending porters for trivial reasons.[8]

I'm sure that this new service is only selling the good memories and the romance of train travel doesn't have to be inherently racist, but it's worth remembering what went into making the Pullman experience what it was.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 12:53 PM on April 13 [5 favorites]


I found myself watching the noir-ish 1945 melodrama Leave Her To Heaven with Gene Tierney and Cornel Wilde a while back; it's enjoyable in its own right but for me the big star of the film was this club car, which is exactly the kind of thing that makes me feel like I was born in the wrong era.
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:23 PM on April 13 [1 favorite]


Unfortunately, I suspect the absence of mountains on the Chicago-New Orleans corridor results in the absence of innuendo.
posted by droro at 2:06 PM on April 13 [4 favorites]


Knowing what a crappy job it was for the porters makes me feel less nostalgic about the experience. I would like to wear a suit like that though. My preference for movie would be Charade however.
posted by Bee'sWing at 2:33 PM on April 13 [1 favorite]


my dad was in the airplane during that famous scene! (not flying it, but in the copilot seat.) he also helped build the cornfield. true story.
posted by changeling at 2:56 PM on April 13 [5 favorites]


droro: "Unfortunately, I suspect the absence of mountains on the Chicago-New Orleans corridor results in the absence of innuendo."

I love that ending. You feel like the script (or an earlier draft) probably had fifteen minutes of scenes in the middle there detailing the rescue and wrapping things up but Hickcock just said, "fuck it, the movie's too long as it is, I'll just jump cut right to the honeymoon scene".
posted by octothorpe at 3:12 PM on April 13 [1 favorite]


I'm sure that this new service is only selling the good memories and the romance of train travel doesn't have to be inherently racist, but it's worth remembering what went into making the Pullman experience what it was.

You coulda gone a little further back and wikied the Chinese who built the railroad.

Knowing what a crappy job it was for the porters makes me feel less nostalgic about the experience.

Yes, but do you reflect on Amercan slaves when you slip into a cotton garment?
posted by valkane at 3:59 PM on April 13


Yes, but do you reflect on Amercan slaves when you slip into a cotton garment?

If the company that made my shirt explicitly played on nostalgia for the old plantation, then yes, I probably would.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 4:31 PM on April 13


If the company that made my shirt explicitly played on nostalgia for the old plantation, then yes, I probably would.

Is that what is happening here?
posted by valkane at 6:07 PM on April 13


I recently took an overnight train in India, I was hoping for a kinda post-colonial pullman-esque experience, it wasn't.

What it was however was simultaneously the greatest travel experience in my life and the worst, in a weird duality. Quite an achievement and ridiculously fun. I have now hung out the door of an Indian train speeding through paddies and tea plantations at four AM.
posted by Keith Talent at 6:13 PM on April 13


Is that what is happening here?

Not exactly. Fault of analogies. Pullman cars obviously weren't the crime plantations were. But the Pullman company is marketing a trip on its cars as a trip back in time, and the actual history they're whitewashing bears remembering.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 7:11 PM on April 13 [2 favorites]


Wow, that looks really cool. One more thing for my bucket list.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 7:18 PM on April 13


You coulda gone a little further back and wikied the Chinese who built the railroad.

But that's not really what I was talking about. These are beautiful train cars and it looks like they've done a nice job restoring them. I don't think that anyone should feel bad about wanting to ride in one of these sleeper cars. I would love to take an overnight trip in one of them. But they are not just selling idea of fancy train travel, or they would just have built new first class cars. They are selling the nostalgia of the Pullman brand specifically. George Pullman hired former house slaves because they had the right kind of training and attitude. That's not who will be working on these trains now and it's fine to feel like Cary Grant, but when these guys in the video are talking about a "time machine" it's worth remembering that it wasn't all glamorous.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 7:57 PM on April 13


these guys in the video are talking about a "time machine" it's worth remembering that it wasn't all glamorous.

I hear ya and it is a very valid point, but I don't see that the owners of this new service invalidating that history by promoting the service. The video clip was a quick-shot on CBS Sunday and is going to be more like a travelogue than an indictment of the culture in the late 1800s to mid 1900s. Sure there will be a group of people who view it with rose colored glasses and deny anyone was anything but happy. However, there are equally as many - if not more - who are acutely aware of the indignities suffered by persons working the railroads at that time.

I don’t think this company is selling a whitewashed past. I doubt that is possible to sell to most thinking people. What they are selling is the better part of the service in the accommodations. I doubt that, if asked (and if CBS chose to not edit it out), those owners of the company would deny that African Americans were screwed by the Pullman Company during its run.
posted by lampshade at 9:00 PM on April 13


I thought it was a little weird that the guy was like "Some of them even have showers!" when, you know, the normal Amtrak sleepers also have showers (in the nicer sleeping compartments anyway).

Anyway, seeing this is bringing back a bunch of memories of my grandfather, who loved trains and would have booked a trip on one of these things pretty much the second they became available (if he could have afforded it, anyway). We took a long train trip together when I was a kid, him and my grandmother and me, from WV to Chicago and then down on the Southwest Chief to Flagstaff and LA, and then back through the Rockies, sleepers the whole way, an extravagance that must've absolutely broken the bank for them but which I didn't know enough to appreciate at the time. (It was my first time on a train of any kind, and one of my keenest memories is of arriving in our cabin to find a gift basket with -- gasp -- a tiny bottle of wine in it! No one in my family drank, and somehow seeing that bottle was like a little tantalizing glimpse of adulthood and glamor and sophistication.)

I remember at the time there was also a train called the American Orient Express, an all-sleeper train that was supposedly the height of luxury on rails. We pulled into Chicago at night, and that train was on the track adjacent to us, parked, lights ablaze and curtains open. Some of the passengers were having dinner, and their linens and china and wine glasses seemed like a mirage. I stared and stared.
posted by chalkbored at 2:47 AM on April 14 [2 favorites]


"It didn't pay a livable wage, but they made a living with the tips that they got, because the salary was nothing," [...] The porters were expected to pay for their own meals and uniforms [...] There was little job security, and the Pullman Company inspectors were known for suspending porters for trivial reasons.

Good thing we don't do anything like that anymore.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:09 AM on April 14


I'm not being funny, America, but how much of your country was either built by slaves, or built on the work of slaves? Really, riding a train is the least of your worries in this regard, although it is nice to have the comment here about what life was really like for, um, those from the wrong side of the tracks.
posted by marienbad at 9:03 AM on April 14


America, but how much of your country was either built by slaves, or built on the work of slaves?

Coming from the land of our imperial management at the time, I suppose you can toss that off. A great number of nations benefited from the tragedy of slavery in general and American slavery in particular and its unfortunate we do not give enough economic credit to its victims. The point marginally holds: its rather impossible to be nostalgic for any point in history without a lurking spectre in the corner of some sort. We're still not past some group deservedly calling offense. Still, get some history: Pullman porters were in theory free men. I know its pressing the point and you only meant "oh, so much in our common countries was bootstrapped by slave traffic," but the ripples that went out from that are still rather central to present ethnic relations in the United States.

I had my own moment of conflict about this one Christmas past while enjoying the middle class joys of a Christmas Express extravaganza performed on my local historical rolling stock. We sat in old timey coaches and out came the tapdancing waiters in cheflike outfits. That they were two black people in the 21st century was a tangible reminder that this was about all dominant culture saw them fit for on the very conveyance it occurred on, all while Tom Hanks did a nasal "HOT HOT HOT, HOT CHOCOLATE."

It was easier to like when it was two zaftig white girls.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 2:01 PM on April 14


how much of your country was either built by slaves, or built on the work of slaves?

Ta-Nehisi Coates touched on that towards the end of his blog-debate with Jonathan Chait by quoting James Baldwin:
The record is there for all to read. It resounds all over the world. It might as well be written in the sky. One wishes that–Americans—white Americans—would read, for their own sakes, this record and stop defending themselves against it. Only then will they be enabled to change their lives. The fact that they have not yet been able to do this—to face their history to change their lives—hideously menaces this country. Indeed, it menaces the entire world.

TNC went on to point out by way of a link that only in 2012 did we acknowledge that the US Capitol was, at least in part, built with slave labor.

But I think you're correct in that we can't just brush it away or sweep away everything connected. Are we to build a new Capitol? I mean, I remember going to see the Jefferson Memorial as a teen and needing to proclaim out loud the quotations inscribed therein about liberty, and realizing years later how hollow those words must sound to the descendants of slaves (Jefferson himself having owned slaves). I can come up with a white defense of Jefferson, but on the other hand I don't hear anyone in the black community calling for the memorial to be torn down, either.

But I don't think that riding a restored Pullman car is in any tangible way for the passengers about recreating a time of gross racial inequality, anymore than watching Mad Men is about pining away for a time before "women's lib". It's about riding a train, for pity's sake. Most of these people weren't alive then and developed their love for trains by ... riding trains, mostly Amtrak. It's about the excursion, it's about train technology, it's about the visual aesthetics of the train cars. The end result here seems to be a business model that, at least in the short term, is preserving and restoring these hulks which would otherwise sit and rust away on a dusty siding (if they're lucky that dusty siding is in a protected area such as a museum).

In any event, I think there's an overreaction to the history of the Pullman porters in that at the time it was a comparatively good, stable job open to African-Americans and it has an important part of the history of unionization in this country. I don't believe most of the porters at the time considered it a demeaning occupation. So to have this take now that something awful is being "whitewashed" is ... I don't know. It's like objecting to Pride and Prejudice because of the societal constraints on 19th century women.
posted by dhartung at 2:36 PM on April 14


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