Participant in an alcoholic chapter in The Century saga was Spencer Tracy, an actor and man of bounce whose fondness for the stuff that comes in bottles itself became legendary over the years and was never for a moment denied by Tracy himself who shunned the sanctimonious postures of fellow professionals and proclaimed it from the rooftops when he tied one on.
At the time, Tracy, under contract to Metro Goldwyn Mayer, had just finished a nonesuch in the company’s Hollywood studios and headed for New York for the express purpose of relaxing in P.J. Moriarty’s and other highly regarded outposts of Sunset Boulevard. No sooner had Tracy begun to sample things in Manhattan than the studio found to its dismay that retakes were necessary on several scenes in the recently completed film. Tracy was at length located in company with a brother of Matt McHugh, a fellow actor of convivial habit, who happened to be an employee of Lowe’s, Inc., the theater chain. MGM got McHugh on long distance and intimated that it would be most grateful if he could persuade Tracy to return on the first available section of The Century and, knowing that it would be difficult, placed at McHugh’s disposal the resources of their New York office.
And endproduct of those resources was a bottle of Jack Daniels from which a judicious amount of the dew of Tennessee had been removed and a liberal sleeping potion of chloral hydrate inserted in its place. It was to be given to Tracy at the train gate to insure his getting all the way to Chicago where other agents of Metro would take over. The studio wanted to take no chances that Tracy might remember friends at Albany or Buffalo. The plan worked in perfection in every detail save one: Tracy insisted that McHugh join him in his stateroom on Car 250 in an attack on the bottle before train time, where the accomplice, in the full knowledge that he too was being drugged, was forced to keep pace, drink for drink, with his intended victim. As The Century pulled out McHugh tottered toward Vanderbilt Avenue, only pausing to sit down on the wide marble steps for a nap. The station police took a dim view of this departure from decorum and when Tracy arrived in Los Angeles refreshed and rested, McHugh was in the tank on the Island working off a five-day drunk sentence.
“For many years the New York Central’s mainline, improbably enough, ran through town right down the main street of Syracuse in upper New York. The westbound train was scheduled to go through in the middle of the evening about time dinner was being served and patrons of the diner and club car could and did raise glasses to the equally affable patrons of the town’s saloons visible through the windows and engaged in mutually satisfactory occupations at their respective oases. Now and then a Syracusan more than ordinarily in wine would attempt to climb aboard the observation platform as the train progressed at a snail’s pace down the thouroughfare and a brakeman was stationed there against this contingency. Part of the charm of the trip vanished when the Central’s tracks were rerouted around the town.”—Lucius Beebe, “Twentieth Century Limited”
To begin with our dream boy has been strongly conditioned to all his life to despise trash and is hence allergic to nine-tenths of all the commodities and many of the services which compose the great American consumer market. He was brought up by well-to-do but extremely prudent parents whose every property ant attitude was solid, conservative, and durable.
Their house in which he was born was built something over a century before by a celebrated New England architect around a core of Dutch brick and Federal facade and, barring accidents of chance, would be around several centuries longer. The family motor cars like the carriages which had preceded them were solid, enduring Packards and Pierce-Arrows of an age that had never heard of planned obsolescence. They lasted for years and were kept in meticulous repair.
His clothes, like those of his father before him, were tailored of sixteen- and eighteen-ounce hard worsteds and sharkskins by London and New York tailors and had a life expectancy roughly that of their owner. His bootmaker would have cut his own throat if any of his shoes failed to last a decade of constant use. He shaved with straight razors which could easily outlast his own lifetime. The books in his library were those he expected to reread every few years and there were, therefore, no paperbacks or best sellers and very little fiction.
Now in the fullness of his years and with the means to gratify any reasonable whim of possession, our hero is more than ever inclined to take a dim view of high pressure salesmanship. There is neither radio nor television in his home and he will purchase no trade product that he believes to be advertised on these media.
His motor cars are of English manufacture that owners generally feel to be nicely broken in after 100,000 miles. His cupidity for material possessions is difficult to arouse, although he is a recognized collector in certain restricted fields of historic interest and takes stock only in merchandise and services advertised in newspapers and coated paper periodicals. He hasn’t seen a motion picture film in five years.
In his home the plumbing is copper, the hardware fittings are bronze, the kitchen equipment copper, the table service is sterling and the linen is linen. He discharged a servant who served paper napkins with the cocktails and there is almost no plastic in the establishment. Music is provided by a long-playing device of the sort used in public auditoriums and will probably last a lifetime without replacement of more than minor components.
Since he regards drinking as a serious matter, his bar embraces no bartender’s aprons with cute mottoes, no cocktail mixers that play “How Dry I Am” when activated and there are no frivolous or patented hors d’oeuvres from Japan or Hawaii. His guests are served a plate of anchovies or sardines with English water biscuit. He has never been in a supermarket and sneers diligently at most of the achievements of the packaging industry.
He carries no single credit card, pays cash on the barrel whenever possible and, where charge accounts are essential to convenience, pays the bills the day they come in. By the third of each month he owes no money to anyone.
Our boy, in a word, is proof against the blandishments that have built a precarious national economy on the purchasing of merchandised trash. No sales pitch can unload on him properties which, after a calculated minimum lifetime, will wear out, evaporate, disintegrate, decompose, collapse or require replacement if he can help it. Such matters as light bulbs which burn out after a minimal usefulness are beyond his capacity to eliminate, but he makes their existence a virtue on the basis that they constitute a warning against fallible merchandise in other categories.
This discouraging character evoked for purposes of dismay to hucksters generally is not, as it turns out, so fictional as an economist of the planned obsolescence school might like to imagine. It is, in fact, I, the writer of this horror story and probably a subversive of important dimensions.
Probably it’s a good thing that there aren’t many like him. The American economy is insecure enough already.
If, in the sixty years between 1902 and 1958, you wished to travel from New York to Chicago or vice versa, the very fastest and most luxurious way to do so was onboard the New York Central Railroad’s TWENTIETH CENTURY LIMITED, the undisputably greatest train of all time. Only Pullman cars were on this train- no coaches. There were club cars and smoking lounges, barbers and manicurists, and, until train speeds started kicking up ballast in the slipstream, an outdoor observation car platform on the rear. In the age before refrigeration only fresh local foods from either end were served onboard, and the quality was a fine as could be found in any of the most notable restaurants of the age. In fact, the Twentieth Century Limited was considered to be an extension of the exclusive clubs, bars, hotels, transatlantic cruise ships, and restaurants of the age. Previously the introduction of the double-bunk sleeper car was the subject of endless vaudeville comedies about climbing into the wrong berth, and the Limited represented a train where you could travel with no question whatsoever of your respectability. In fact, for many it was the only brush with greatness they ever had, never staying at the Ritz-Carlton or being admitted to the New York Yacht Club, and some people considered the extra fare an investment into one’s social status.
On a menu from the train’s diner in 1931, the $1.35 special is advertised as tenderloin of beef saute, fresh mushrooms and grilled spanish onion, new green peas with mint, potatoes fondante, and a choice of rice custard with whipped cream, apple or mince pie, steamed plum pudding with hard sauce, imported cheddar cheese from Cheddar on toasted buscuits, and tea, coffee, or milk. The menu also offers dozens of other dishes such as twelve kinds of eggs, sugar-cured ham, saddle of lamb, prime beef ribs, canape of caviar, oyster soup or clam bouillon, artichoke hearts in olive oil, celery hearts demi glaze, and potatoes boiled, fried, mashed, au gratin, or hashed browned. Before the diners started making the whole trip, they went back and forth on sections of the track and offered an even more localized menu. One from the Lake Shore offers young roast duck, applesauce, sweetbread croquettes, & peach fritters with the 1927 Century diner listing planked fillet of lake trout, broiled calves’ sweetbreads, chicken pot pie; in 1935 Russian caviar on toast, roast prime ribs, heavy beef, fresh shad roe, asparagus in drawn butter; in 1939 poached eggs Benedict, roast baby spring lamb, and princess salad; in 1937 veloute of spinach, royal squab grilled on toast, and ice cream. A group of women traveling together might be offered individual strawberry shortcakes. The menu goes on and on but I’m getting too hungry to list it all.
Lucius Beebe, if not the foremost touter of the train’s virtues during its run (for it had many), was the most nostalgic author after its unfortunate demise. You can pick up his book “20th Century” and read page after page of the luxuries the train offered, anecdotes of the rich and famous who traveled aboard, and the millions of dollars in deals conducted on the train as well as transported in its mail cars which were, at the time, the fastest way to get a letter from New York to Chicago and taken very seriously. It is from this book that I found endless lists of the food.
Even when the Twentieth Century Limited received its highest traffic on record, running in five sections to accommodate travelers to the 1922 Automobile Show in Grand Central Palace, New York, the writing was beginning to show on the wall. The development of an interstate highway enabled automakers to pitch the individual freedom of travel by car, and the arrival of the jet age was the final nail in the coffin for our nation’s rail service.
And yet, it seems like there should be a market for traveling by train. After a very brief era when flying was the exclusive domain of the rich, air travel quickly became a series of flying cattle cars, with first-class service basically consisting of a cattle car with legroom. Getting there quick took precedence over getting there in style, and nobody has ever flown in a jet just for the food, scenery, or company.
The Greyhound bus has long wallowed in the gutter of travel, not really through any fault of its own, but mainly because they stop in small, out-of-the-way towns and many prisons give you a ticket upon your release. You are therefore traveling with a large percentage of recently-released prisoners, and if you’ve ever taken Greyhound, you know that the rest are only out of jail by pure luck of the draw. It doesn’t help that cities like San Francisco will give any homeless person a free Greyhound ticket out of town in a sort of national shuffling of the destitute from one town to the next.
Traveling by train is the only way to travel and retain your diginity. Nobody will grab your junk boarding a train. Nobody will use x-rays to look at you naked. You can still get a private cabin if you wish to be separated from the snot-nosed screaming children. After 9/11 Amtrak instituted a policy barring “club-like devices” from your hand luggage, but there is a full-sized fire axe in a glass case at the end of every car! Nevertheless, a terrorist who commandeered a train and demanded it be driven where they wished would find themselves at the mercy of the switching system and would not get very far. If a hijacking were to occurr, the switchmen would throw switches under the train and derail it rather than allow it to crash into a station or another train. Heck, even if your train were to stall, it would merely come to a stop, instead of plummeting out of the sky in a deadly fireball. Sensational derailments notwithstanding, travel by train is statistically safer than travel by plane, which is in itself dramatically safer than travel by automobile. Automobile accidents were the nation’s first cause of accidental death before the prescription drug explosion, and remain classified by the World Health Organization as an ‘epidemic’. Plus, you can’t sit at a bar and get drunk while you’re driving a car. Maybe if those drunks took the train, there wouldn’t be so many damnned car accidents.
When you take the train, you arrive right smack downtown in every major city, often in a Union Station of glorious construction. No city’s airport is closer than an hour away from downtown, and in fact, for train trips less than six hours you will likely get there quicker if you count the time you take getting to and from the airports, going through security, and so on. I have in my personal experience entered Chicago’s Union Station no more than one hundred and eighty seconds before the train’s departure time and still been comfortably settled in my seat when the train pulled away. So why, then, does the Amtrak have such a bad reputation? Why don’t more people take the train? Why aren’t there private rail companies offering luxury travel by train anymore? The answer is a shocking tale of looting and bailout followed by three decades of lackluster government inefficiency.
PENN CENTRAL AND THE FED
By the 1960’s, the one-two punch of a national interstate system and the cheapening of airline travel had taken its toll on American passenger rail service. Unlike Europe and Japan, where travel by rail remains a viable option, the U.S. is very large and flying is disproportionately appealing for time’s sake. A trip from New York to L.A. on Amtrak today will take you at least four days, with an overnight stay in Chicago- and that’s if it’s on time! Amtrak itself considers “on time” to be anything less than four hours late. Compare this to a flight from New York to L.A., which might take eight hours, and which would infuriate people if it were four hours late. Fate was not kind to passenger rail service in America.
By 1970, Penn Central was the nation’s largest railroad and became the biggest bankruptcy in history. It had 96,000 employees and a payroll of $20 million a week. Rather than cut costs and becoming a streamlined financial operation- the normal mandate that would be expected of a company in a free market- it had borrowed money from anybody who would lend it money, and as a result was largely controlled by directors of major banks which also held large chunks of stock in the company. Major management decisions were made by the board of directors, which was made up of representatives from the banks- they weren’t facing a loss because of poor management, they WERE the poor management. On May 21st, 1970, the CFO of Penn Central privately informed these banks that the company needed a bailout from the government or it would fold. The very next day, Chase Bank sold 134,300 shares. The public (and other shareholders) weren’t informed until May 28th, when Chase sold another 128,000 shares. David Rockefeller, chairman of Chase Bank, denied that they had acted on the basis of insider information. It was later revealed in a Congressional investigation that those banks had loaned millions of dollars to the railroad to pay dividends to the stockholders, keeping the stock inflated long enough for the banks to dump it on the public. In this way, they received dividends on worthless stock, earned interest on the loans, and unloaded 1.8 million shares of stock at unrealistically high prices- and then the government gave them money for their actions, in the form of a bailout!
Enter the bailout. Congress is told that the railroad is too big to fail, and that if it were allowed to collapse, it would endanger the nation’s economy (is any of this sounding familiar?). The railroad was kept afloat just long enough to let the banks dump their stock so that any bankruptcy would result in a liquidation that paid off the debtors first, and the stockholders last. By 1971, Penn Central was nationalized and owned by the government. Its passenger rail service was called Amtrak, was funded by the Department of Transportation, and to this day has never, ever been profitable. Its equipment was all built in the 70s and that’s why when you ride it you feel like you’ve stepped into a sitcom from TV Land. However, Penn’s freight services were consolidated into CONRAIL (the Consolidated Rail Corporation) and went public in 1987. Since assuming private control, CONRAIL has become profitable, and pays taxes rather than is funded by them.
I was reminded of these sorts of shenannigans during Greece’s insolvency. At the time, the Greek national railroad had annual revenues of 100 million Euros against 400 million Euros in wages and 300 million Euros in expenses. The average state railroad employee earned 65,000 Euros per year. As the nation’s Minister of Finance pointed out, it would have been cheaper just to put all of the nation’s rail passengers in cabs.
In 2006, President Bush tried to cancel the Amtrak subsidy, but critics pointed out that the $1.2 billion the taxpayer spends each year keeping it afloat is dwarfed by the massive $70.5 billion Highway Administration subsidy and the $18.78 billion Aviation Administration subsidy.
Why keep passenger rail alive at all? Well, my personal opinion is that America looks at Europe and Japan and their shiny bullet trains and feels like high-speed rail is an indicator of a modern, prosperous country, and if we didn’t have any at all, we’d look like chumps. I also think that there’s a feeling that one day we will have some of those shiny trains too. On the east coast, cities are close enough together and do enough business that there is a high-speed rail service, sorta, called Acela. Each state has the option of taking over its passenger rail, and California has done so, and the result is that there is a very nice train called the Coast Starlight that features the only private first-class lounge car in the entire network and samplings of local Napa Valley wines and cheese and some Pacific Northwest local microbrews on board. The national Rails to Trails program has turned some of the old rights-of-way into bike paths, but this is only intended to keep that land out of private hands until we need it again- expect those paths to go bye-bye as soon as somebody wants a railroad again. On the west coast, a massive boondoggle to build high-speed rail between San Francisco and L.A. has managed to spend $3 billion in taxpayer dollars before- get this- breaking ground! THREE BILLION. That’s three thousand million dollars. What the hell did they spend it on? “Designs and plans” was the answer. The project was originally slated at $33 billion and is currently projected at $68 billion. Sixty-eight-thousand-million dollars! These are plans coming from a state that is bankrupt.
I’m a huge fan of passenger rail service and even I can see why this is a bad idea. The problem is, no matter how fast your train goes, if you still have to stop at every dinky town along the way, you’re not getting there any faster. But if you bypass those towns and only stop at either end, it’s hard to convince the public to pay for it, especially if this train is going to be thundering past them at 200 mph. For someone in the Central Valley, they’d have to drive three hours in the other direction to catch a train.
There was another boondoggle being tossed around to build a high-speed railroad that would whisk you from L.A. to Vegas in 45 minutes. How horrible an idea is this? Imagine the next time it’s four in the morning and your coked-up buddy says, “Hey, I know, let’s go to Vegas!” and you can be there in less than an hour? Vegas being far away is like the fact that they don’t sell booze after 2 AM. Think of all the times you’ve run out of booze after hours, and what would have happened if you could have run out and gotten some. Listen, there’s two types of regret: The kind that says, “I wish I had…” and the kind that says, “Ohhhh, I wish I hadn’t…” The first kind of regret is the good kind.
I have a feeling, given the way this high-speed rail project is going, that I’m feeling the first kind of regret, “I wish there was first-class passenger rail service”, and that after it falls apart mid-construction with tens of billions spent and nothing to show for it, people are going to be feeling the second kind, “Ohhh, I wish we didn’t try and build a first-class passenger rail service.”