The Tzar of the Sleeping Car

The Chautauquan Magazine—June, 1904


THE Pullman porter, along with the dude, the mother-in-law and the tramp, has served so long as material for infinite jest that, unconsciously, most of us have accepted the newspaper and comic paper concept of him and refuse to consider him altogether seriously, as we do the carpenter, grocer, lawyer or conductor. Porter tips; that is as far as most of us get, and, whether we travel little or travel much, the odds are that we know almost nothing of the real life of the tzar of the sleeping car.

Not long ago the writer, who is anything but a Sherlock Holmes, entered a crowded street-car, and without the least difficulty picked out one of the passengers as a Pullman porter. The man was not in uniform, but he was colored, he was immaculately clean and neat from his polished black shoes to his spotless white linen, and he was unobtrusive and yet entirely at his ease. Now all people with these attributes are not porters, nor, alas, are all porters possessed of these, attributes, but there was about this man a certain air of cosmopolitanism—a poise that comes only to those that travel the earth and come in daily contact with men and women from all ranks of life—and, withal, the air of one who, in his own sphere, carries both responsibility and authority.

Well, the man was really a porter, an acquaintance was struck, and the writer accepted an invitation to visit a place in the railway yards where porters congregate both officially and socially. Among others was a veteran who had served his thirty years and is now in charge of the check-room for the yards—a converted baggage car, comfortable and appropriate. It was not by any means the first chat with a Pullman porter off duty, but it was the first with one of such varied experience and extensive retrospect. Best of all, the veteran was also, broad enough to skip the usual string of anecdotes and isolated cases and give, instead, an intelligent survey of the field in general.

Roughly speaking, porters are of two kinds—Pullman porters and—porters. The latter find their vocation in diners, chair cars, library cars and so on, but the porter par excellence is the Pullman porter of ancient fame and abused reputation. Since the Pullman company absorbed its competitors a few years ago it has been the employer of nearly all sleeping car porters, the exceptions being found on the very few railroads that own their own sleepers (Pullman made) and on private cars.

Except occasionally on private cars, all Pullman porters are colored, probably for the same reason that nearly all policemen are Irish. When cars in which one could actually go to sleep for the night in a real bed were yet a nine days' wonder, things were otherwise and there were white porters in those days. But it was not long before the survival of the fittest, or some other general law by which we are in the habit of accounting for things no one understands, began to assert itself, and eventually established the colored guardian of sleeping travelers in undisputed sway. Today, unless one is fortunate enough to ride on private cars, one meets no white porters.

Nearly all porters are married men, generally with their families settled in the place where the nature of their "runs" gives them the most of their off hours. Fortunately for the traveling public as well as for himself, a porter is, so far as practicable, kept upon the same run. The more familiar he becomes with the schedule, towns and connections of a given run, the more reason there is for 'retaining him on it. Most important of all, he learns to know the regular passengers on that trip, their peculiar wants and how best to make them comfortable. The regulars feel more at home on their journey for the personal salutation of the tzar when they board the train.

But what of the fabulous tips? That is just the trouble—most of them are purely fabulous. To the porter himself, the comic paper jokes have all the added bitterness of irony. In the old days, when salaries were lower and most of the emoluments were expected to come from the pockets of the travelers, there was less irony and more fee, but now "the Company's'' policy is to pay enough to make tips less necessary, if always welcome. To be sure, they still form a very material portion of the month's earnings, but it is no longer only the rich that take sleepers, and familiarity has bred the feeling that the porter is, after all, like the conductor and the brakeman, and is paid by the company for his services. Often a run is finished without a single tip from the few thrifty passengers. A porter may take a party from New York to Mexico City and for all that time receive five or six dollars, or even less. It is a very quickly established principle that a short run is far more lucrative than a long one, for there are more trips in a given time—and people tip by the trip rather than by the length of time and service involved. Very unjust, but like a good many other unjust things, very true. However, the Pullman porter's salary ranges all the way to forty dollars a month, and, all in all, he does not fare at all badly in finances—better than his brethren of the chair car.

Certainly be earns what he gets. Seeing him going easily and quietly about his duties, one hardly realizes how various and exacting these same duties are. The porter is responsible for that car and for the comfort of the people in it. Ventilation, heat, light—each is a problem in itself. For it is not an entirely simple thing to adjust all the surprising vagaries of steam, heat, weather, draughts, sunlight, lamps, windows and ventilators to the still more surprising vagaries of the passengers under his care. There are screens and cinder shields, pillows, card tables and an infinite number of other comforts and conveniences which he must be ready to furnish at any moment. There are differences to be adjusted between his charges, there are rules of the road and car to be enforced among them; there are all the thousand and one things that any assemblage of the American public can think up when they haven't much else to do to kill time. If he is cornered, he will admit, very delicately (perhaps) that the world would be comparatively simple if there were no women in it. And it is more or less pertinent to this point that on some roads a sleeper has, in addition to the regular porter, a colored maid, or portress, whose sole duty it is to look after the needs and (what means much more) the wants of the women passengers.

Above all, the interior of the car must be kept spotlessly clean—seats, window sills, floor, toilet rooms and appointments, everything. And the cleaning must be done without inconvenience to the passengers—at night, when they are at meals or in the smoker. There are shoes to be shined in the dark watches of the night.

And lucky is the porter whose train leaves at such an hour that he can make up the berths before the passengers begin to reach the station. It is not easy to pull down and push up those berths, nor to turn the mattresses and arrange the curtains and covers all from an awkward position on one side. For all its ingenious mechanism, a berth in its entirety is quite a problem for the housewifely faculties of our friend. Every time a berth is made up it receives, of course, a complete change of linen, which means that a sleeper must carry for the round trip, even on a one-night run, a large supply of sheets and pillowcases. For such a run the big hampers of clean linen that are delivered to the porter some time before his train pulls out will contain a hundred sheets and a like number of slips. Such of these as are not put into immediate service are stored, along with, say, one hundred and fifty towels, in one of the three lockers given over to supplies. The other two closets are used, respectively, for the porter's uniform and individual effects, and for supplies of diverse kinds—combs, brushes, soap, tools, and so on.

On the porter's shoulders rests a good deal more responsibility than is commonly realized by those who pass under his charge. The conductor is responsible for the train, the Pullman conductor for several sleepers, but the immediate care of each individual sleeper lies with its porter, and if things go wrong in it, he is held liable by the company. On a one-night run entire responsibility for the car and its occupants generally rests solely upon the porter for the entire journey and he does no sleeping. On longer runs he "spells" the time with the Pullman conductor and gets a turn of about five hours' sleep in his berth at the forward end of the forward coach after he has put his passengers to bed for the night. When he has had his nap, he once more goes on duty and wields the scepter of absolute monarchy in the intervals of answering night-bells, blacking shoes and a dozen other bits of work.

Of his responsibilities when on duty, two weigh especially heavy. The first is the fact that the company, being responsible to the passengers for valuables while they are in bed for the night, in turn holds the porter liable for such losses. While people are up and about they are supposed to be able to look after themselves, but as soon as they surrender themselves to the sleep advertised and sold by the company it becomes the company's duty to take care of them; and the porter is the man hired to do it. Consequently, he keeps his eyes open for mysterious movements of the berth curtains and for any other suspicious incidents or circumstances. If he is circumvented, it is money out of his pocket. Of course, he has an ally, often unknown to him, in the railway detective, and, of course, most passengers take ordinary precautions, but there are enough crooks on sleepers, as everywhere else, to make the task of protecting property no mere sinecure. It is something of a tribute to his watchfulness that most of the robberies that do occur, take place in the toilet rooms, where the passengers, not the porter, are the ones responsible.

The second nightmare of our friend the tzar is the fact that if he fails to wake a passenger at his destination, his position is forfeit. Such a failure is considered the height of incompetency, and the punishment is correspondingly severe. If a man sleeps past a town in which he has a business engagement, it may very well mean a loss of thousands of dollars. The company dares not allow the risk of such catastrophes: therefore it very naturally insists on short shrifts for careless porters. The historic porter who was heavily feed to wake a man for a certain town, and, since the man was hard to rouse and might protest and even resist, was to use force if necessary, probably failed to enjoy the humor of the final situation. It will be remembered that he did have to use force and a lot of it, and that several hours later, while he was still repairing damages to his person, he was paralyzed at seeing the man whom he thought he had thrown off. The man was cursing volubly because the porter had not waked him at his station. The porter stared with bulging eyes, and then burst out: "Fo' de lawd! I wondah who was de man I dun throw off dis train!"

The feeling of responsibility of all kinds is unpleasantly enhanced by the knowledge that in all probability some one of the passengers is a "spotter" employed to keep an eye on the way in which the porter fulfils his various duties. Very rarely does he learn the identity of a spotter, for these b^tes noirs are legion, their beats may extend from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and their schedules are chiefly remarkable for their irregularities. The same spotter may not be on a given car twice in several months or even longer, but there is always the uncomfortable assurance that one of his fellows is probably on duty in his stead.

And the Chronic Kicker! What better stamping-ground than a, sleeping car could the Chronic Kicker have? And the porter is his legitimate prey. There is the one consolation that the powers that be have learned to know the Chronic Kicker at sight and his complaints are doubly discounted. The only really good trait about the Chronic Kicker is that he is easily distinguished.

In general, the relations between the porter and his employers are most amiable and satisfactory. The employed feels that, all in all, he is sufficiently recompensed for his services and is not in the habit of paralyzing travel by going on strikes. Indeed, it is a remarkable fact that there is no porter union. They have their social societies and organizations, but they do not unite for professional purposes further than the promotion of good fellowship and mutual advantage and the insurance benefits that are a feature of most lodges and orders. If the business has its hardships, it has also its advantages—not the least of them being the stability of the status quo.

One can no more characterize porters as a class than one can assign invariable qualities to all doctors or masons or to those engaged in any other business or profession, but, take him altogether, the Pullman porter is generally a man who knows his business and a gentleman of the road into whose care it is both safe and comfortable to entrust one's self and one's belongings.

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