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Bar cars

An article from yesterday’s Times by Michael M. Grynbaum laments the likely demise of one of New York’s last bastions of libatious civility: the bar car. Bar cars were a staple of the tri-state area’s commuter rails back in the Don Draper era, but today only one line retains them: the Metro-North service to Connecticut.

The story has a certain resonance with me because I have always been a bit fascinated by the bar car. The article in the Times mentions that smoking was banned in these cars on Metro-North commuter trains “in the 1980s.” That’s true, but it was in the late 80s, 1988 to be exact. The bill that banned smoking on Metro-North trains (save for a provision that allowed smoking in the bar car of a New Haven bound train only between Greenwich and New Haven) can be found here if such things interest you. I vividly recall barely making a train to the country, accompanied by my father, as a child. We were encouraged to enter the rear of the train at the first accessible door as the train was just about to pull out of the station. As it rumbled forth, dad and I walked up the aisle to the front of the train where seating was more readily available. Opening one door we were confronted by a haze of cigarette smoke so thick one could barely see through it. My eyes stung as we hustled through to the relative purity of the cars ahead.

I can’t recall as precisely when the bar cars disappeared from Westchester-bound Metro-North trains, but I can recall the terrible jealousy I felt towards those who had summer homes in Connecticut or attended boarding school there. Those travellers retained their bar cars while those of us, more often found skirting the east side of the Hudson River as we sped north, had none. Oh, the injustice!

But lately it seems as though even my friends from Connecticut, now all grown up and drinking in crummy walkups on the Lower East Side, will lose a bit of their shared history as well. The bar car is on its way out. Shed a tear.

I have a special fondness for the bar car not chiefly for its tri-state ties, however, but for one fascinating evening. As a senior in high school I was lucky enough to be admitted to a couple of pretty decent colleges. I wanted to visit Northwestern but a lack of planning and a slim budget made air travel out of the question. I booked a ticket on an Amtrak train from New York Penn Station to Chicago Union Station. The Lakeshore Limited departed New York at 3:45pm and arrived at 9:45 the next morning. That worked quite nicely for my schedule. Plus, the train’s name evoked a grandeur I thought fitting for a young man’s visit to one of the Midwest’s vaunted institutions of higher learning.

A sleeper was costly and out of the question but, no matter, I was young and flexible and had no qualms about plopping into a well-padded seat and drifting off to thoughts of the windy city.

Upon boarding the train I plopped down indeed. I read. Made some notes in a couple of books. The late 90s had not yet burdened me with text messages on cell phones or BlackBerries (nor other people’s incessant conversations on those devices) so the beginnings of the journey were relaxed and contemplative. But as night fell and the other passengers drifted off, I found myself unable to quiet my thoughts. I was going on a college visit, on my own, and I was pretty darn excited about it. Antsy, I took a walk up the aisle to stretch my legs.

I walked through several cars before I came upon it: the bar car. Finding a place, I sat down on a stool, ordered a vodka soda (some things rarely change, folks) and took a few glances at the people around me. As the bartender put down my drink in front of me (why so few bartenders carded me as a youngster while so many do now remains a mystery to me) I looked over my right shoulder to see an attractive man in his 20s sitting next to me. I turned back to my drink, made quick work of it, and ordered another. Surely a couple of glasses would bring some quietus to this restless mind and allow me to return to my seat and nod off. But as I worked my way through the second I couldn’t help but notice the attractive man’s gaze fixed upon me. He introduced himself (I’ve long since forgotten his name), I followed suit, and we got down to the fine art of conversing. As the train rumbled through Pennsylvania and then Ohio the skies outside darkened to the black of coal. The remaining guests in the bar car shuffled back to their places and I was left alone with my new friend and a barman who served us drink after drink in the intervals between worrying his racing sheet. We spoke of many things and he told me what amounted to, in essence, his entire life story. An unhappy childhood, drug addiction, a career in gay pornography, rock bottom, and his climb out of the depths. He was abandoning Boston and heading to Chicago to start a new life in a vibrant city full of strangers.

We parted ways without exchanging information. He had no phone or permanent address, I thought the idea of a former gay porn actor calling my parents’ home a bit distasteful. So off we went, in opposite directions, into the blazing morning sun.

Northwestern seduced me on that trip and it was there I matriculated several months later. Now, years later, I suspect my chance encounter on that overnight train may have played a pivotal role in my decision to attend my alma mater. My travelling companion wanted only to escape something ugly and to redefine himself on his own terms. He was excited to start over in Chicago. And so, I now realize, was I.



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  1. Brendan
    April 21st, 2010 at 17:07 | #1


    I believe that you have just written your finest post. Can’t wait to see you on Friday!


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