Pullman Porters Helped Others Reach Their Destination – washingtonpost.com

So much cultural meaning is packed into the figure of the Pullman porter — racial pride and racial guilt, the faded glory of the American railroad, a level of customer service now extinct — that it seems beyond mere mortals to inhabit the myth.

Three avatars of the age did just fine yesterday, nevertheless. They were the best-dressed gentlemen in Union Station: Not in the starched white jacket, bow tie, pressed trousers and blue caps of their old profession, but in sharp business suits, each man displaying — and they did not plan this — a colorful pocket handkerchief.

But then, of course. A Pullman veteran knows everything there is to know about self-presentation, about working a room, about coming out on top in the daily status wars — maintaining one’s self-respect without threatening the status of those who think they are superior.

“A certain profile of man was successful out there as a sleeping car porter,” says E. Donald Hughes II, 53, who put himself through the University of Maryland making beds and shining shoes on the railroad. “We could think on our feet, and we could turn things around to our advantage very quickly and make you think that you were in control when in fact, you weren’t in control.”

My dad worked for several railroad companies throughout his career. As family, we did most of our travel by train. I didn’t realize how lucky I was until I was a teen since none of my friends ever traveled this way.

My favorite memory is having my 7th birthday on the train while we were traveling from Baltimore to Montana. We were having dinner on the train (full service with lots of linen and silver) and I was a little grumpy that I wouldn’t be home with the cake and presents. Just before we were to order dessert, the waiter brought out a lovely birthday cake. I’m certain my parents asked what could be done and at a previous stop, someone went and bought a cake for me. Everyone sang Happy Birthday and I felt so special.

My parents always taught us to be respectful to the porters and waiters. They were not babysitters or playmates – they had work to do and we should respect that. We always said called them “Sir” and said “please” and “thank you” when they helped us.

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