Railfan Vignettes of the LIRR  by Dave Keller  

1970's LIRR Special Services

Back in the 1970s, The Long Island Rail Road had a summer program for college students.  You could either work during the summer as an extra ticket clerk or as a Special Services Attendant.  This was under the assumption that you were to return to college in the fall. As a Special Services Attendant, you worked the summer-only parlor car trains and filled in as relief attendants on the bar cars and bar-carts used on commuter runs for regular employees who were on vacation.  

My first summer, 1972, was spent as an extra ticket clerk, but was not as much fun to me as riding the trains would have been, so, the following summer I opted for the Special Services Department in which I worked during my next 2 summers. This department was originally run by Walter McNamara, but was now under the control of Willie Wilson after Mr. McNamara’s retirement.  Willie was an ex-Pullman Porter and one of the original members of the Special Services Department.

As a Special Services Attendant, I worked as a relief summer bartender on the bar cars, manhandled the push-type bar-carts on commuter cars and worked as an attendant/bartender/porter on the parlor car trains to Montauk and (sometimes) to Greenport. This was also accompanied by stints working as stock boy in the four commissaries: Jamaica, Richmond Hill, Long Island City and Penn Station. These commissaries kept the bar cars, bar-carts and parlor cars supplied with beverages and snacks.  Photo courtesy of Paul Kennedy, Ronkonkoma c. 1975

 

Parlor-Asharoken-MTK-1974.jpg (59040 bytes)
Closed end observation car “Asharoken” at Montauk 1974 Photo: Dave Keller
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Lightweight parlor cars heading west from Montauk behind C420 #229.  Engineer Tom Rome is highballing it through Great River during a hot summer’s late afternoon in 1968 Photo: J. P. Krzenski

 Another thing I didn’t much care for as a ticket clerk, was that I had to get to the railroad stations very early in the morning, usually prior to any trains providing service there.  As a result, my employee pass served no purpose as I had to drive my car to the stations where I was assigned, unless I worked Jamaica or Pennsylvania Station.

As Special Services Attendant, I would be able to use my pass to take the LIRR into one of the four commissaries, and start my run.

Every day you had to call in to work or “shape up” as it was called, to see if there was any work for you the next day.  If you were a good worker, and didn’t miss any time, you usually were assigned work regularly.  If you missed a lot of time, the dispatcher would conveniently have no work for you that day.

     On one of those days, I was told to report to the Long Island City commissary to pick up my train.  I was to work as the second bartender on a bar car which originated from the LIC yard, then ambled its way over to  nearby Hunterspoint Avenue, picked up passengers, and headed east.  The bar car to which I was assigned was scheduled to operate out to Montauk.

 

I was to report to the LIC commissary.  Here I was to check in, get my car assignment, pick up my keys to the liquor locker on the bar car and go on board to check my inventory and count my stock.  If I needed any more olives, maraschino cherries, lemons, limes, snacks, soda, beer or liquor I had to request the additional amounts from the commissary, then carry it to my car and load it up.  Also necessary was enough ice for the trip.  If you ran out of ice, you were dead in the water.  No one would buy warm drinks.  No drinks, no sales.  No sales, no tips.  (And you did pretty nicely on tips on these runs, I might add!  One commuter run, on a bar-cart to Babylon, I worked an “off” night, when most of the commuters were on vacation and I raked in $60.00 in tips.  Quite a haul for the early ‘70s when beer sold on the train for $.50 and mixed drinks for about $1.25!)

So, I did as I usually did.  I took the train in to the commissary.  Long Island City, however, was hard to get to by train. Driving was out of the question, as my father wouldn’t allow the car to be tied up for all those hours while I was on a run.  I found it was easier to take the LIRR into Penn Station, take the subway shuttle to Grand Central Station, then the subway out to Queens and get off at the Vernon-Jackson stop.  A short walk up the block from the station and I was at the LIC passenger yard.

I had done it many times before and it always worked out just fine.

Things, however, don’t always work out fine.  This one time I was delayed somehow.  I can’t remember what happened, but the long and short of it resulted in my getting to the commissary very late.  My train, I was told, had already left the yard and was headed towards Hunterspoint Avenue.  Wearing my uniform jacket, trainman’s hat with “Special Services Attendant” badge affixed (more on that later), and carrying my satchel with personal items, employee timetable and my lunch/supper, I high-tailed it by foot after the train. 

Let me tell you . . . it’s one heck of a trot from the LIC passenger yard to the Hunterspoint Avenue station, running between the rails, watching out for trains, carrying all your stuff and sweating up a storm in the heat of another wonderful Long Island August day!

             

So . . I got to the station platform, pulled myself up onto the train (traps were down on the non-platform side) and found the bar car.  The head bartender and my supervisor had the liquor locker open and the bartender was counting the inventory and reading it off to my supervisor.  When the supervisor saw me, he tore into me like there was no tomorrow!  (Mind you, this was the first time something like this had ever happened in all my time spent on the LIRR.)

As the train was scheduled to pull out shortly, there was no time for me to re-count everything, so I was told to sign the inventory listing.  As a stupid “kid” with no prior experience, I figured my boss wouldn’t “screw” me so I signed off on the list.

Well . . we worked our tails off on that train.  Both the main bartender and I never stopped all the way out to the Hamptons.  I was raking in tips like there was no tomorrow. 

After that $60.00 commuter run, I figured I should be seeing $80- to $100 that night when all was said and done!  When we got to Montauk, I counted down my liquor locker and figured the sales.  When I counted my money, and figured what was owed the company I was left with $20.00 in tips.

It was then that I realized what had happened back at the start of my run and that the main bartender had cheated me out of my tips by fudging the figures and transferring liquor from my locker to his (next door to mine) which he obviously sold for full profit at my expense.

Never again did I ever sign for someone else counting my inventory and never again did I ever allow myself to arrive that late to a job.

We worked the newer, light-class fleet of parlor cars that arrived in recent years from other roads.  I never worked an old heavyweight car.  Some of the cars were fine, others were perpetually filthy (and we just recently acquired them!!).  Some smelled really bad because each of the compartments had their own toilets and they were screwed shut and sealed, but were never pumped!  I mentioned this one time to Willie Wilson about an exceptionally “ripe” roomette.  He walked into the compartment, puffed his ever-present cigar a bunch of times in there,  shut the door quickly, then said to me “that oughta be OK!”

As a result of my Long Island City “missed-train” experience I was assigned a parlor car out of the Richmond Hill Storage Yard and commissary and was determined to get there early.   I got there hours ahead of time, found my car, stocked it up, then pulled a sleeping berth down and snoozed. There was no power in the car, so I died in the heat.  I was stripped to my underwear and tried to get some shut-eye.  I must have fallen asleep, because the next thing I know, I’m freezing to death, as the car electrician had walked through and put the power on some time earlier and all my sweat chilled me.  I got a nice summer-type cold as a result of that experience.

As for my earlier mention of the “Special Services Attendant” cap badge, these badges were worn along with the gray trainman’s uniform in the early days of the Special Services Department (early 1960s).  Over the years, it was determined that the men didn’t have a need for regular uniforms as such, so they had to provide their own black pants, black shoes, white shirt and the company provided a ratty, blue, 2-buttoned cotton jacket with NO IDENTIFICATION whatsoever of the railroad affixed thereon.

When we worked the parlor car trains out to the Hamptons and Montauk, as well as to Greenport, part of our job and tip income came from carrying the luggage both on and off the train for the passengers.  When they got off the train, you only carried for your own car’s passengers, but when they were boarding, the passengers of the entire train were fair game to all interested porters.  A lot of the summer guys felt it was beneath them to carry bags so refused to make the effort.  These same guys used to bitch and moan that they never made any tips.  Go figure!  Poor babies!

Well, we all know how suspicious New Yorkers are about strangers approaching them.  Well, here’s a passenger loaded down with baggage, and some young guy walks up to them without any identifying markings on his clothing that show he works for the Long Island Rail Road, and attempts to take their baggage from them.

This didn’t go over well in many instances. There were a number of arguments and disagreements.

There was one old timer who worked in the department and was a former Pullman Porter.  He worked for the LIRR as an attendant for many years.  He still wore the gray uniform and the trainman’s hat with “Special Services Attendant” badge.  He got ALL the tips.  He carried ALL the bags he ever needed to carry.  People walked up to him and handed him their bags without asking.

I asked him where he got the badge and he referred me to Willie Wilson. I went to see Willie and he gave me a badge.  My good friend Jeff Skinner, a retired LIRR conductor and contributor to the railroad’s employee newsletter “Metrolines” (he wrote the retirees’ column), managed to finagle me one of the new, blue hats that were just coming into use.

Well, I have to tell you. . . I got a lot of laughs and ridicule from my peers, but what did I care?  I was a railfan, I was proud to wear the cap, I was happy as a pig in you-know-what,  just to be working on the railroad, and I got a huge increase of tips.  People saw the LIRR hat, and immediately allowed me to carry their bags, no questions asked.

I primarily worked the parlor cars, which I preferred, because even though the tips weren’t as good as the commuter runs, you felt like a Pullman Porter.  You got to work an entire car yourself and you got to take those nice, long rides to the eastern end of LI, either serving drinks in the early evening or serving coffee on the way back in on the early morning runs westbound.  There was nothing like leaning out the vestibule Dutch doors, lower half closed, top half open, getting the wind in your face, smelling the diesel exhaust and looking at the scenery pass you by. (And ducking the occasional rock thrown at you!)

If you worked a train out of LIC or Richmond Hill, it was primarily parlor car or bar car service.  If you worked a train out of Jamaica or Penn Station, it was bar-cart service.

On occasion I drew a bar car, which was kind of OK to work, as you weren’t limited to your movement, but you didn’t get to see much scenery and it was very smokey.  What really was lousy, but made lots of tips, were the bar-carts.  These stainless steel, wheeled contraptions held several bags of ice, several cases of beer, several cases of soda, lots of little individual bottles of liquor, plus snacks, lemons, limes, olives and cherries.  Fill one of those things up and you had one heck of a cart to push!

After you filled your cart up at the commissary, you then had to get it to the train.  If you worked out of Jamaica, the commissary was on the east side of Sutphin Boulevard, below the platforms and alongside the street itself.  You rolled your cart to the individual freight elevators that are visible at the eastern end of the Jamaica platforms, took the elevators to platform level, then pushed them along the platform and waited for your train.

 When the train arrived, (M1 electrics) you had to push your cart onto the car amongst all the commuters trying to get on, shove it into the corner to the inside of the double doors vestibule where there was the half-wide seat facing the full width seat, tie it off to a seat stanchion, and the vertical vestibule pole and start selling.  You immediately had a line as soon as you entered the train.  The regular commuters were OK.  They knew you had to lash the thing down and set up.  The occasional riders were the ones who gave you grief because you weren’t serving them fast enough.

If you got your train out of Jamaica, you were OK.  Penn Station was not so easy.  The commissary was located under the stairway accessing one of the LIRR platforms.  After you filled your bar-cart, you then had to proceed down to the western-most end of the platform and take one of the steam-powered freight elevators that went down to the “catacombs” of Penn Station.  There was a crossover tunnel down there that accessed all the platforms.  You then took a steam-powered elevator up to your platform. 

In theory this should work fine, however . . . There were water bugs down there that would put Florida bugs to shame! (Not to mention the rats!).  And, for good measure, on hot summer days when the draw on power was great, Con Edison would cut off steam power first, before cutting back on electricity.  If you were one of the lucky guys down in the “catacombs” when they cut steam power off, you were stranded down there.  Then, if and when the power was cut off, your lights went, too.

 There was a story of one attendant who got himself trapped down there.  He finally made his way up an escape ladder and popped a manhole cover off in the middle of the street by the U.S. Post Office facility behind Penn Station.

Another alternative was to find out from the dispatcher what train westbound into the yard, leaving your platform, became YOUR train eastbound out of the yard.  Then, you simply keyed your doors open with your “moon key” I believe it was called, and rolled your cart onto the empty train.  You rode it into the yard, then rode it back out onto your assigned track.  Piece of cake.

Except when you got the wrong information from the dispatcher, or there was a last-minute change of equipment.

I spent the night with my cart, in the yard, in a dark car, because of one such case if mis-information.  There was no way to lock the cart up and I wasn’t about to leave it unattended with hundreds of dollars of stock in it!!

I remember one trip I was to work a Port Washington train, but was told I must get off at Auburndale (high level platforms) and catch the next westbound train to Penn Station to return.  This I did, but no one told me that I would be standing alone, in the nighttime, on an empty, lit platform, a spotlighted sitting-duck, all alone, waiting for the next westbound train or gang of punks to come along.  And me with all that cash from a good commuter run!!!  That night I was lucky.

Another time, I was working a bar car to Montauk and the air conditioning was not working in the car.  Everyone was dying of the heat.  I had a bottle of seltzer sitting on top of the bar and it kept shaking and shaking and shaking with the movement of the train.  That, in conjunction with the extreme heat of the car (I guess) caused it to suddenly explode, cutting a young lady like flying shrapnel.  She wasn’t hurt badly, but it really could have been worse!

Me and another bartender worked a bar car to Speonk.  The head bartender, an old-timer, was well experienced in this run, and had us begin closing up shop after Patchogue.  The idea was to start counting everything down and locking up so we could jump off the train at Mastic-Shirley and take the Road-n-Rail bus (which stopped on Montauk Highway about in line with the depot) back to Patchogue where we picked up a train.  The alternative was a several hour wait at lonely Speonk at night for the next westbound train.  That was an experience.  It went well and he was a big help but I found that the Road-n-Rail bus DID NOT honor your employee pass, so I had to pay the fare.

Once, we had finished our run to Montauk and were deadheading an equipment train back to Jamaica.  The entire train was dark and carried only the returning crews.  This was my first dead-head run, so I got into the dark, last car of the train and snoozed.  All the others were in the lighted head car, talking, drinking, smoking and playing cards.

Well . . we approached Jamaica.  My clue was the rough crossovers at Union Hall Street which would always wake me up and advise me we were getting close.  I gathered my bag, opened the side door and waited for the station stop.  I was told that the train would make an employee stop at Jamaica for us to get off.

We stopped all right.  The engineer spotted the head car at the very eastern-most edge of the Jamaica platform and I watched everybody exit the head vestibule.  This was about a 15-car train and there was no way in hell I could run from the rear car to the head car in time. I started to run to get closer, but didn’t make it. The train started to move and I had this wonderful feeling of spending the night in the LIC passenger yard.  The train began to pick up speed, so I chose a door and opened it.  By the time my door was at the platform the train was making good speed.  I took a breath, leaned in the direction opposite of my movement and hit the platform running.  I swear to this day, I must have run ¾ of the Jamaica station platform before I could stop.  But I never tripped and fell!!

On the next dead-head run, I was up front in the head car watching the guys play cards, smoke and drink beer.

There were three ways to get to the Richmond Hill storage yard and commissary from the Jamaica station.  One was to walk along Jamaica Avenue and risk being mugged.  Another was to walk to the western-most end of the Jamaica station platform at track 8, go down the steps and walk between the electrified tracks, over the Van Wyck Expressway overpass, pass the old freight/express/mail building, the old Richmond Hill turntable and the trainmen’s building with cupola tower, then onto the commissary.  Believe it or not, this was a rather quick route and very safe if you were careful. And you could do it at night without getting attacked!!

The other way was to get on a Flatbush Avenue-bound train, ask the conductor to advise the motorman to make an employee stop at Morris Park Shops, then, key the door open and get out on the tiny one-door-wide steel platform there.  Then, walk around the blacksmith shop,  past the diner, and up the north-south road that ran between the facility’s fence and the first set of car repair buildings.  You would wind you way along, cross under the Montauk branch and . . voila . . you were in the Richmond Hill Storage Yard.

On one such jaunt, I got on the Flatbush Avenue train, asked the conductor to make the stop at Morris Park Shops and he said OK.  By the time we reached Morris Park, we were going much too fast for a stop.  I ran up to the conductor who said “Oops, I forgot to tell the motorman!”  Well . . I got off at Woodhaven (which was still a stop at the time), crossed over, and waited for an eastbound train back.

Lots of fun.  Lots of lousy stuff (like the rotten supervisor or the mile-long walk into Montauk Village to get something to eat, then the mile-long walk back to the yard!!!), but lots of good memories that I wouldn’t give up for anything!  

BAR CARS

All the bar cars I ever worked were the converted B&M cars. The bar ran nearly the full-length of the cars.  Locker at one end in which the liquor stock, beer and snacks were kept.

NO seats if I recall correctly (S.R.O.) and poles with little round trays around them.  The trays were to rest drinks on and the poles were to hang onto after you've had too many drinks!  And were those cars PACKED like sardines!

And there were quite a few lushes that I served . . but they were VERY good tippers.

One night in a bar car, and an off-night at that (the regular car attendants timed their vacations to the slow period of liquor sales so they wouldn't be missing too much in tips), I earned $60 in tips . .. This was 1973 or 1974 and beer was $.50 and mixed drinks $1.25 . . . so you can see how generous most people were.  And you see how many drinks got served . . and I was one of two bartenders!

I remember one extremely hot day (the cars were not air-conditioned) I had a quart bottle of tonic water on the bar top.  This was back when the bottles were glass.  Well that bottle was shaking and shaking and shaking with the movement of the train and, combined with the intense heat, exploded atop the bar sending glass shrapnel everywhere. 

I'd never ever seen anything like that before or since AND . . . praise God . . . NOBODY was hurt whatsoever!

I have to say . . the job may have sucked but it was an outstanding experience for a young guy!

WORKING THE BAR CARTS

Yes, I worked the bar carts and what a hump-breaking experience THAT was!

First of all, we were NOT allowed to sell on any platform.  With that said, many of the regular guys (not extras like us summer help) sold on the platform and took the chance of getting caught.  I never attempted that.  Didn't want to lose my railroad job.  It was hard enough to get in the first place!  They wanted to make extra tips from riders who weren't going on a train that had cart service.

We'd set the cart up in the M1 cars in the immediate seat inside the center doors.  There was one short seat against the plexiglass divider and one long seat, both facing each other.  The cart would be set into that offset and tied off onto the pole supporting the plexiglass divider.

Many regulars knew that was where the cart would be set up and they'd actually hold the seat for you, chasing others away who tried to sit there!  I thought that was kind of neat.

The stainless steel cart was a bear.  You loaded several cases of beer, a case of soda, numerous boxes of single-serving liquor bottles, jars of olives, fresh lemons, fresh limes, a bunch of snack packages and several bags of ice. 

Try moving THAT around!

You'd try to take advantage of other trains at terminals, for example in Penn station, if your train was on, say, track 17 and you were on track 19 and a train arrived on track 18, you'd try to push your cart through the train that was between where you were standing and where you had to be.

Many times it didn't work that way and you had to use the elevators.  Jamaica had elevators at the east end of each platform with a street-level passage under all the tracks.  That wasn't too bad, as the commissary was there under the tracks as well.  Penn station, on the other hand, had steam-powered elevators at the west end of each platform which went down to an even further subterranean level passage under the tracks.  This was originally for the use of transporting the U. S. Mail from the terminal to the GPO behind it.  It was loaded with rats the size of cats and water bugs the size of coffee cups.  You did NOT want to go down there if you had any choice and you also faced the problem of getting stuck down there.

As these elevators were steam-powered, Con Ed would cut the steam power before cutting the electrical power during heavy summer usage so if you were down there when the steam was cut, you were stranded indefinitely.  Then, when they cut the electricity, you were in the dungeon . . . .  I knew one attendant who got caught down there in the dark and was down there for hours while he felt his way along the slimy walls and fortunately located a ladder which took him up through a manhole cover into the middle of the street between the terminal and the GPO!!!

Another way to get your cart to another track was to ask the usher if the train on your platform was heading into the yard behind the terminal and coming out as the train you've been assigned to work.  So if you had to serve on, say, train 24 eastbound, and you found out that the train on your platform was train 23 westbound and that it was going into the yard and coming back out as train 24, then you got on train 23, rode into the yard and set up your cart.  Then your train came back out as train 24 on some other platform and you were ready to serve the boarding passengers!

In theory.

I tried this once . . . and got stranded in the yard because there was either a change of scheduled trains or the usher was screwing around with me.  I couldn't get off the train because that would mean leaving all that beer and liquor unattended and I'd be responsible for anything missing (stolen).  So I just stayed put and hoped the train wasn't scheduled to go out the next morning.  Luckily it went out sometime later and I still managed to make my run.  I never did that again and used the steam elevators as necessary, taking my chances.

You also had to start packing up your cart some stops before you got to your terminal so you had a chance to get out and catch the next train back.  Sometimes, you had to jump ship early so as to get the train back to Jamaica, or Penn Station and not have to wait 4 hours at the terminal for the next train back, by which time the commissary was closed and you had to stay with your cart, unattended, until the commissary opened the next day!  Jamaica station and/or Penn station got quite empty of people after 11:00 pm. . . .

I worked a Port Washington train once.  I had to get off at Auburndale, so as to catch the westbound from Port Wash back to Penn Station.  Auburndale at that time was a slum ghetto and I'm standing completely alone on the elevated platform in full view of any potential mugger, with a cart loaded with beer and liquor and me carrying the run's cash receipts, no other passengers around, evening beginning to get darker by the minute, waiting for that westbound to arrive.  I made it back safely, praise God!

Another time I worked a bar car to Speonk with a regular attendant.  We locked up our stock after leaving Patchogue, then jumped ship at Mastic-Shirley, walked from the station to Montauk Hwy, carrying our cash and sitting on a bus stop bench, waiting to take the LIRR's Road n' Rail bus back to Babylon.  The bus did NOT accept our employee passes so we had to pay a fare.  The alternative was to get to Speonk and sit there for 3 hours for the next westbound.

Lots of "fun" but a great batch of experiences!