An Oral History of a Lynching
“The Case of Rupert Steele,” a short story by Charlie Schneider
AN INTRODUCTION BY BRANDON TAYLOR
The last few weeks have been some of the most difficult, bitter weeks in what has been a most difficult, bitter year. As our political, emotional, and even physical realities become ever more complex, the questions that we pose our art become more complicated, more demanding, and more personal. We demand that our art be political and brutal and sweet and honest and raw and tender. What a great joy and pleasure then to come across a story like Charlie Schneider’s “The Case of Rupert Steele.”
Charlie has conjured a trio of voices to tell the story of Rupert Steele, a black railway porter who is accused of assaulting a passenger, dismissed from his job, and later killed via lynching in New Mexico. Rather than focusing on Rupert’s death directly, the story moves toward it at an oblique. We hear about the events leading up to the accusation from a former coworker, the woman who accused him, and the supervisor who made the decision to remove him from the train. It is a story about the difficulty of resolving the faceless dead into sharp relief, of excavating our histories when they are mired in blood and obscured by systems that perpetuate violence against our bodies. And so it is fitting that the man at the heart of this engaging, moving story only comes into focus briefly before flitting out again — it can be that way when you only have the words of others from which to construct a life.
Schneider is interested in a kind of radical empathy.
The story offers a fascinating look at the way white guilt functions, the way seemingly small acts of racism are just manifestations of a larger, more ingrained network of evils. In other hands, the story might have rehabilitated the characters whose carelessness led to a man’s death, or would have allowed them the solace of distance from their act. But Charlie Schneider is no ordinary writer. He holds the full complexity in his hands. He holds the characters accountable. He makes them sit in their pain, their discomfort, but he does not withhold their humanity. Take this moment of bitter regret from Dolly, the accuser: “…if I’d said something better, that boy’s night would have ended differently. I can’t help but believe that. It didn’t happen with any of the other porters in my time spotting. I still don’t know what else I could have said, but I know I have to live with that.”
Schneider isn’t interested in absolution. Schneider is interested in a kind of radical empathy and tries to deliver on the page the double consciousness that comes with knowing you’ve done something awful and have gotten away with it.
I’m so pleased to share Charlie’s first published story with you. And I’m damned happy that it’s this story at this moment.
Associate Editor, Recommended Reading
An Oral History of a Lynching
“The Case of Rupert Steele”
by Charlie Schneider
Rupert Steele, a porter for the Pullman Company, was eighteen years old when he died in Raton, New Mexico on December 15, 1958. After being kicked off a Los Angeles-bound Phoenix Line train for alleged sexual assault of a passenger, Steele was brought to the jail cell of the Raton City Police Department, where he was subsequently beaten by a mob and shot four times in the chest. His was one of the last recorded lynchings of a black man in the 1950’s, one of the few in the West in total. The lynching itself has been extensively investigated (see Aaronson on contemporary accounts, Klein on the Pullman memoranda, Urbina on archival photographs). These interviews aim to elucidate the circumstances leading to Steele’s dismissal from his workplace on the night in question. The following interviewees are the only remaining Pullman eyewitnesses. Gaylord Reese, the other porter on duty that night, died in 1967. Transcripts condensed and edited for clarity.
Edgar Fortuyns, b. June 1916. Pullman Buffet, Lounge, and Sleeper Car Attendant on the Phoenix Line 1937–1959, on the Cascades Line 1959–1961. At home in Los Angeles, June 1978.
Twenty-odd years on the Phoenix Line, that’s right, and I did everything. I was most at home in the buffet car, though. I did my plates up with doilies and doodles like no passenger was seeing anywhere else. Little daisies, curlicues, chocolate smiles for the kids. It became standard practice company-wide. I made myself useful. That’s the secret: you have to be irreplaceable, but the secret behind that is, even then you’re probably replaceable. There was always another black man looking to wear the white gloves.
The Case of Rupert Steele (Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading Book 282)
Rupert Steele knew how to get tips. He was the passengers’ favorite. He wasn’t even a porter for that long, but I liked him, too. Young guy. Grew up in west Compton when you had black families starting to come around in the 40’s. Joker type, grin on his face all the time. They didn’t let him go to his graduation because he’d somehow walked a cow to the second floor of his high school, and if you didn’t know this already, cows aren’t built to walk down stairs. So his school had to either take out some windows and get a crane in there, or slaughter the cow in the hallway. He never said which one they did. So instead of going to his graduation, he went to the Union Station office and got himself a job on the Phoenix.
The Phoenix didn’t pass through Phoenix. We went through Flagstaff going from LA to Chicago, 36 hours one way. I didn’t really look at the Grand Canyon till six months on the job. Flagstaff was a big stop, lots of bags to load and unload, passengers to wake up and de-board, compartments to turn over. The Pullman conductor, Oelschlager, he’d have knocked you silly if you stopped working, and then he’d have told you to get back up, get back to the job, and don’t bleed on Mrs. FitzSimmons’s or whoever’s handbag. That’s the kind of man he was. Some conductors protected their porters, got chummy, called them their boys even when they did something. Oelschlager didn’t.
In 1958 I would’ve been somewhere around 40. Near the end of the sunny days of me and Martha Washington. She was a white lady passenger, a constant friend of mine from 1953 to 1959, just before they shut down the Phoenix Line. I was married to my first wife Tamara at the time, but I was out maybe twenty-five days a month. She said, you’re gone for most of the marriage, you get home stinking like you fell into a still, and I know you’ve got someone on the side. She wasn’t wrong about any of those things, I can admit that. She did accuse me of having a bunch of little Edgar Fortuyns running around in Missouri or wherever, and of course that wasn’t true. Tamara and I already had two of our own, two strong boys, Martin and Anton.
But, yes indeed, there was Martha Washington. When I met her she’d booked a sleeper for herself and another one for her three big duffels and her incidental bags, which were filled up with toy cars for her nephews, pretty pink bows for her nieces. When she got on in Gallup, I had to make three separate trips from the platform, but don’t think I’m complaining. Pullman advertised like it paid us big, but it was those tips we lived on. High maintenance meant high pay. More bags, more needs, more money. That’s the way it was with tipping then. It was understood.
Well, you had to anticipate needs. That was number one. You couldn’t act like you wanted it too badly, but you could never let the passengers think you were doing them a favor, either. It had to be natural. Like if they had an empty glass or missing luggage or a hangnail, something was wrong with your world and you wouldn’t rest until you made it right. Rupert had it by instinct, that sense of proportion. His line: not at all, ma’am, not at all — I want to take care of this. They ate it up. Marilyn Monroe even asked for him by name once. You can imagine, Gaylord Reese and I never let that one go. Great service all the way across the nation, a never-stopper, Rupert, pouring tea and breaking hearts. And so on. Rupert smiled and told us we were just jealous. He was right.
I did have Martha, though, and I still see her smile in my dreams: white teeth between two lips red as the mints they had at the Helen Moorefield Lodge in LA where I used to take her. We had a good six years, and then she got married, I got re-married. We’ve exchanged a few letters. Her son’s name is Harold.
Attempted rape. That’s what they called it. They said Rupert got caught loitering inside a white lady’s compartment, which I know not to be true from the first, and then they called that loitering attempted rape. It was a lie on a lie. Was he leaning on the doorframe just a little, telling the lady she had a nice dress on or something? Sure. We all did that once in a while. It was part of the job. Not a punishable offense normally, but it was enough for Oelschlager that time. He had it in for Rupert, and with the lady being a spotter, I guess he took his shot. Pullman hired the spotters to monitor the workers, take notes, report abuses. To entrap us, or try.
With a male passenger, you could tell whether he was going to be a devil or the gentleman clerk of the county. You could read him right away. A certain slouch of the shoulders, or if he said thank you too many times and too loudly, if the first thing he said was that the air in the car was too cold, the seats uncomfortable, the train late. If he called you George. Many passengers called us George, after George Pullman himself. Many called us boy or worse. Some porters smiled. Some even laughed. Some went to the kitchen and kicked the stove and took a shot of something. But they all kept working. In the end you figure, call me boy all you want, I’m still getting your money.
That’s the issue, you never were quite sure who was a spotter. A man with a newspaper and a glare could be one, or just a tight-ass. A man who pulls out his album of photos of his children and wants to share a drink with you when the buffet car’s empty could be a spotter, or he could be a lonely widower. And with a single white woman you had to be especially careful. She might have been traveling alone for real, like Martha was, or she might have been a Pullman-certified bounty hunter. That’s a thin tight-rope, and lots of men couldn’t keep their balance — a white lady gets her own sleeper, asks you to help her with some small things, like reaching a bag, or pouring her tea. And then she says, won’t you shut the door.
If you were smart, you resisted. And Rupert was smart. That’s one more reason I know he didn’t do anything. He’d never fallen for it before, so why that time? I’d told him right when he got the job — white ladies are nice and hot to trot, but all it takes is the one who’s not. So keep your distance.
Well, with Martha, I kept my feet outside her door and said I’d see her in Chicago. Of course, I still served her tea and such for 16 hours, but she got the message. Save it either for the exit platform or the grave. On the platform, we did it quiet and dignified. She slipped me her phone number inside a rolled-up twenty-dollar bill. I protected myself.
Many men didn’t have the good sense to do it this way, and I saw them suffer for it. I remember all the ones who shut the door in my tenure — Danny Buck, Babe Henderson, Samuel Freeman, Robert K. Mitchell, Robert K. Wilson, Gary Winters, Willie Travers. They heard Oelschlager’s two knocks on the door, saw his mustache looking down on them, heard him ask them for the time right to the second, almost casual, like he was having a laugh. It was so they’d know exactly when they lost their jobs, just to hammer it home. The strange thing about it was that usually he had such a harsh voice, but when he asked them what time it was, it became courteous. While he did that, the ladies sat quiet on the bed, looking at their nails like they did nothing wrong, maybe feeling a little pleased. I wondered if maybe they weren’t a little disappointed, too.
And usually those men worked the rest of their rides for no pay, even if they were a day out from the destination. The union had only a few thousand members by then, not like it was in the forties. Lines kept closing. If you protested, spoke up as a member of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, you might find yourself losing shifts due to sudden personnel changes. Pullman would take any excuse to get rid of you.
Oelschlager chewed Rupert out all the time. Small things, like making him re-wash dishes and glasses after they’d already been washed, or making him fetch something he could have reached out and grabbed himself. The man’s favorite accusation was to say he smelled alcohol on your breath. When he first saw Rupert back there in the kitchen, he told him to keep his head down and be good and stay away from the bottles. Rupert just smiled and told him yes, sir. Oelschlager eyed me up and said he’d been watching me, too, and that he’d find my flask eventually. Nothing to find, I said, but of course I did have a flask, and Gaylord had one, too. Very common. We all had them, and many conductors did as well. I kept mine underneath all the extra bed sheets in one of the back compartments. Gaylord never let on where he kept his. Those trips got long for all of us, especially around the holidays. You have to cope. I suspect Oelschlager might have behaved differently if he’d had a way to unwind. He saw Rupert clowning with us porters — pulling my comb out from his sleeve, switching the contents of our shaving kits — and pleasing the passengers without cheapening himself. He had the charm, but he kept his spine. Oelschlager didn’t like this.
I’ll illustrate. Take inventory. You could count on Pullman to be tight about it. Every dining car had around $20,000 worth of silver, and tons of those nice linen napkins. If anything went missing, the porter had to pay for it, which meant you were paying for something every trip. People seemed to think those napkins came with the price of the ticket. Same with the silverware.
So I was complaining about all of it once in the kitchen, saying to Rupert, there’s nothing you can do, you say something to the passenger, you’ll get reported. You talk to the top office, they won’t trust you for snitching. Plus you won’t get a tip either way. Rupert said, nah, just watch. So later on he notices a lady slip a napkin and a fork into her purse as she’s going to leave the car. Oelschlager’s chatting at some table ahead of her, and Rupert walks over to her and says, Ma’am, I’d hate to see you carrying all that extra weight. She turns around with her eyes all wide. I can tell she’s ready to blow her top that this boy porter thinks he can tell her something. But Rupert just points over toward Oelschlager. She sees him standing there talking, but she doesn’t do anything. She’s frozen. So Rupert says please, allow me, and he reaches right into that purse and takes out the stuff himself. Then he holds his hands up, smiles, and tells her, not at all, Ma’am, no trouble at all. The only words she utters the entire time? Thank you. Then she tips Rupert twenty dollars! That was his elegance. If I’d tried something like that, forget it.
I think Oelschlager must have seen Rupert get that tip, if not what led the lady to give it to him. Even seeing that would have been enough for him. Twenty dollars was a lot. Bing Crosby gave twenty dollars. Marilyn Monroe. But some lady? I don’t think that lady was rich. Oelschlager made good money, but that doesn’t mean he got that kind of respect.
Raton. Yes. It was a nothing little station right near the Colorado border. An empty ticket booth in the winter months, lots of scrub-land outside. I remember my own run-in with Oelschlager myself that night. I told him mid-car that some passengers were switching berths and making a mess of the manifest, and that he should probably go set them straight. He didn’t like this, that I said this in front of some passengers like I was giving him an order. He said — I remember this very clearly, because it was the only time I heard him use the word — “Edgar, I simply will not have a nigger tell me how to run my train car.” He stared at me a second longer before he walked away.
You heard the word from passengers from time to time, but never from Oelschlager. I mean, I figured he must have thought it. Of course we porters knew that. That was in the air of every train car we ever set foot on. But hearing it from the conductor’s mouth, that stung. It still does. Rupert’s death is on his hands, not mine, but he got to call me nigger.
You have two choices when it happens. Either you hit the man who said it and pay the consequences, which will surely be greater for you than for him, or you swallow it.
Say something back? Let’s say it goes to a complaint. Let’s say that complaint goes from Oelschlager to Murray, the supervisor. At best, Murray sits you down, skips the sympathy and goes straight to the warning, and out you go, back to work. You fuss enough, you end up the same as the men who shut the door. So what’s the point? What would you have done?
I think that’s the night I realized I wouldn’t die a Pullman porter. I never forget it could have been me in that jail cell.
I went and found my flask and took a good couple of swigs. Behind Oelschlager’s mustache was just another man made of bones that break the same as anybody else’s. He could boss me, fine, but he wasn’t going to call me anything other than my name. I went to find him and tell him this, and as I’m entering the sleeper car I see he’s actually not far ahead of me. Rupert’s standing with his elbow on the spotter’s doorframe — the door is wide open — and then all of a sudden Oelschlager’s got Rupert by the collar, and he’s yelling that Rupert won’t be terrorizing another woman on this train, and Rupert shoots me this surprised look like “This is part of the job?” Then Oelschlager tosses him in the bathroom and locks it with his conductor’s key as people with messy hair are poking their heads out of their sleepers. I told them everything was fine, which I didn’t believe, but I was a good Pullman employee. It’s a company exercise, I said, and a lady asked me for some tea, and I said yes, ma’am, right away, but not before asking if she’d like milk and sugar.
It’s that look I can’t stand to think about. That “why me?” kind of look. Like Rupert was surprised. His surprise surprised me. He knew it was part of the job. I guess we never think our own collar’s the one that will get grabbed. I asked him through the door how he was doing. I thought maybe I heard him crying in there. That’s when I remembered: he was just a kid. He was going home to his parents. I wanted to tell him, of course this is part of the job. It might as well be written in big, block letters on top of the papers you sign: YOU’RE ON OUR TIME. I told him to hang on, we’d get things sorted out. I told him I’d be right back as I had to see about some tea.
I made that tea in its silver pot and placed it on a silver tray with a silver spoon, and I ran the scenario over in my mind. I’m coming through the doors, Oelschlager’s barging ahead of me, Rupert’s leaning on the doorframe, smiling. Simple as that. Oelschlager had no case. So why, when I came back with the tea, did I ask Rupert through the bathroom door if he really hadn’t tried anything with that woman? I’d seen him myself, but I still asked him that, and I have asked myself why I did ever since. It wasn’t the last thing I said to him, but it feels like it was. The tea lady said to me, you forgot the sugar, sugar.
Rupert never answered, anyway. Oelschlager came back as we were pulling into Raton, unlocked the bathroom door, handed Rupert his bags, and told him to find his own way home. Wait, I said, kid’s barely got any hair on his lip. Oelschlager said he had enough and asked me, did you deliver that tea as requested, Mr. Fortuyns? I nodded to Oelschlager and gave Rupert what I had in my pocket, maybe $40, and told him to call his parents, told him to put them in contact with me. We porters had a telephone chain, so they were able to reach me a few days later, after Rupert didn’t come home. I sent them my wages from that trip.
It’s not a phone call I want to talk about.
A policeman was waiting for Rupert at the platform in Raton. Oelschlager must have radioed ahead. As our train pulled away, the policeman gripped Rupert by the back of his jacket and made a big spidery crease in it. Didn’t even grip him by the arm. The back of the jacket, like you would a child. I’ve always wondered what story Oelschlager told on the radio, whether he knew what they’d do to him.
I was looking up at down for a while after that, as they say. I stayed on the Phoenix Line for a few months, but I couldn’t meet Oelschlager’s eye. I could barely take orders from him. He never said a word about the incident. One time after Rupert was killed I found a small kitchen knife in my jacket pocket during a shift. I didn’t remember putting it there, but no one else could have. I went to the kitchen, turned the knife over in my hands, tested the sharpness. Just let it sit there for a full minute as I stood alone in the kitchen. When that shift ended, I applied for a transfer to the Cascades Line, where I stayed for another few years until I got sick of it. By then, Pullman was hemorrhaging porters as the big passenger railways died off. They begged me to stay.
Despite everything, I felt the loss, when they shut the Phoenix Line down in 1960. I’d spent so much time moving like a bullet through those big American landscapes. Standing on solid ground gave me the jitters. I couldn’t stay still and look at anything. The San Gabriels out there, or even the nice palms swaying in the breeze over here? The world only looked real when I was moving. But I got married again, had a couple more sons. I took up speed-walking. I started a party supply business in 1962, and that’s what I’ve been doing since. Chairs, plates, tables for dinner parties in Baldwin Hills, that sort of thing. It’s okay. Martin and Anton do the deliveries, I do the inventory and run the office. We do okay.
Dolly Greenfield, b. 1930. Spotter for the Pullman Company 1958–1960. At the Milwaukee Women’s Shelter, August 1978.
No, naïve is generous. I was stupid. I had nothing against them, which is even worse. It was only after that job, with the 60’s, that I started waking up.
That first boy is the one I remember best. That was the boy you asked about. That porter, yes. So young. I still remember his name from the radio. He couldn’t have been more than 20. It was my first ride, Chicago to Los Angeles, winter of ’58. Beginner’s luck, I guess.
I took the job because my husband Paul got drunk and fell asleep at the controls in the train yard that year, and two cars almost collided. He got bumped down to half-time. I never resented Pullman for it. What company wants a drunk at the controls? I said to myself, half-time, that’s easy math: half his normal wages plus our savings equals five, maybe six more months in the townhouse and then Paul, little Lucius and I are hitching rides on freight trains. We had eloped after the war, so there was no point in going to our parents. Of course I took the job. An hourly wage, and a $2,000 check for every porter you catch.
The Pullman man — he had one sideburn longer than the other, I remember — said I was to be alert to infractions of any kind, to any suggestion that the porters or conductors were stealing, to any unwanted advances toward myself or anyone else. I would remain anonymous, note the infractions, and the offenders would be justly punished, usually with a fine. That was it, he said, except it wasn’t it. He told me to wear one of those gingham dresses so popular then. Respectable, but tight in the right places, with just enough leg, he said. I didn’t like wearing them. They looked like tablecloths. I’m not a picnic table, I told the man. He nodded, but I could tell he didn’t know what I meant. He said, what could be so bad? You get to see the country. I didn’t have a reply to that at the time.
Don’t get me wrong, I was excited. I’d spent my life around Chicago, which I still believe is a wonderful city. It’s just not the only one.
Paul and I met through a high school friend in 1946, eloped to Door County in 1947. Those were good days, years. Paul at the train yard, our baby Lucius, whom I basically raised myself. I knew what it took to make me happy then, because I had everything I was supposed to have. I had my husband and his hands, his sturdy arms. I had his steady job at the Pullman yards. I had a roof in McKinley Park. I had a Chambers stove, a portable dishwasher, and my Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who I can’t believe I loved. And there was our Lucius. I tutored him in arithmetic at the kitchen table every weekend. After a while we called it the multiplication table. He was a slow study then, but now he’s 25, in Chicago, a CPA. No wife. I call him sometimes and ask him what seven times eight is, and he still has to think about it. There’s math and there’s arithmetic, I guess.
Tennyson’s god-awful. So starchy and stodgy, another man who liked the sound of his own voice, but that’s what I thought was good. There is one line that sticks with me, because I remember I quoted it to that young porter: And though we are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are. And now I think, what is that, Lord Alfred? Tell me, what is it that I am?
Tennyson did keep me company on the trains. I took him to my room, to the buffet car. I was the single lady in gingham, with the blonde curls and the book in her hands and her wedding ring tucked in her pocket.
In my memory I’m sitting there all alone in the buffet car, but if you asked me in the 50’s, I’m sure I’d have said it was lively and full of smoke and people rushing around. I can’t picture the people anymore, but the sounds haven’t gone away, I suppose. I still hear the glass clink, the whisper of a table cloth from when the porters changed it up, and if I’m quiet I can still call up their footfalls. They wore those thick black shoes. I hear a man’s sneeze — someone who put extra pepper on his halibut, maybe — a newspaper’s crackle, the metal snap of a lighter. A jazz drummer’s fingers doing a number on the ridge of a table. It was a lively place. I do miss it sometimes. I’ve never traveled better.
I didn’t see much stealing, not on the part of the Pullman workers. Passengers, sure. They’d have stolen the wheels if they could have. I saw mothers instructing their little boys to stuff butter knives and sugar spoons into the pockets of their overalls, but I couldn’t write them up. I wrote up porters and conductors for things like dropped dishes or mishandled luggage, for language, for failure to rouse passengers at their stops, or for seating mix-ups and unchanged bedding.
I don’t know what the fines were, but I’ve invented terrible numbers in my head. I don’t think anyone was fired for a dropped dish.
About the other misconduct, another mother from Lucius’s school, Hetty Lundquist, had also done some spotting in her time, and she told me about tricks some women used, like asking for help with their luggage, asking for blankets, suggesting tea and conversation. Some plain took off their hosiery in their compartments, right there in front of the porters. Hetty told me about a desperate woman who would take the rest off, too, and invite the men in just like that. She said that woman set the record at twelve porters in one year. She was living high for a while, I’m sure.
The thing was you had to time it right. Not at the beginning or end of the train ride. There was too much arranging, re-arranging, getting people things. On a full car, you were less likely to get one into your quarters, especially in the daytime. They’re needed in too many places, and there isn’t time for that mid-ride lull.
When I took the job, I wondered what to put in my coat pocket to threaten the porters with when they got fresh. The Pullman man told me I had to protect myself. I found myself considering things like whether puncturing one of those nice dark blue uniforms with a screwdriver or bringing down a wrench on a porter’s cap would be more effective. Both seemed too violent. I chose our letter-opener with three pennies suspended in the glass handle. I never once had to use it.
I did wear the gingham dress. A big, green wool coat, too, to cover it up. I put on the dragonfly brooch Paul had given me when we got married: green and turquoise, its tail a little bent. If you looked closely, you saw the dragonfly’s body was actually a woman’s. Paul gave me that in Door County in 1947, where we rode bikes on Washington Island in the sunshine. I thought it’d make him happy if he knew I was wearing it, as he wasn’t thrilled I’d taken the job. The Negro isn’t to be trusted, he said, and I told him — I’m ashamed to say this — that that was the whole point, wasn’t it? That’s how it was going to be until he stopped drinking. And he shut up. At the time I didn’t realize that conversation shouldn’t have been so easy. If you can’t trust anyone, what does that say about you? It’s why I live in Harambee. I’m a minority there, so I know what it feels like. I laugh sometimes, wondering what Paul would say if he saw me these days.
For ten years now. At some point he’d become more barley than man. He tipped over a Coke machine. Drunk, of course. He started getting rages and it wasn’t safe and that’s all I’ll say. Lucius still sees him, but he’ll only tell me that Paul is making progress. He’s painting now, apparently. Lucius is loyal to him, the poor thing. Sons and their fathers.
Mainly I watched the fields roll by on that first trip. Even the Midwest is striking when it calls out your freedom mile after mile. The world was so enjoyable to look at alone, and I felt guilty, discovering this. The siloes in the distance, the endless rows of cut corn. It was like the whole landscape had gotten a buzz cut. I could almost hear the racket all the millions of crickets and birds would make out there during the summer. I imagined our little family getting out of the city for a picnic, and then I imagined myself out there all alone. I couldn’t remember when I’d last been alone somewhere just for my own sake. Isn’t that sad, thinking that at 28 years old? Certain things came to my mind: a bottle of cabernet sauvignon — a wine I never drank — camembert cheese, a checkered table cloth, a book laid out spine-up on the grass, a car parked at the edge of the sunlit field, waiting to take me anywhere from Saskatchewan to Galveston. I reminded myself to place Paul and Lucius back in the scene, like cardboard cut-outs.
I traveled on the Phoenix Line one or two more times before they closed it in 1960, and the views remained a pleasure: the Grand Canyon turned almost purple in the morning light, one little finger of the Mojave, the small part of the Santa Fe National Forest the line cut through. Part of me wished Lucius could have seen it, part of me didn’t. If he were there, I’d have been porter-proof, and we needed money. After that first trip, I sent him postcards whenever I got to my destination.
A knock. That’s how it started. I placed my coat over my legs and let my bare feet stick out. I told him to come in. I still remember his face. He had high cheekbones, no facial hair, and a curious look about him. He told me the dining car hours, the list of specials, and he said something else: I’m here for your pleasure, ma’am. It gave me a tickle. My pleasure. What was my pleasure? Nobody talked about my pleasure. I realized then that I wouldn’t tell Paul much of what I felt on the train. I had my secrets from him, anyway, like that he wasn’t my first. I told the porter thank you and to come back a little later. I think I even blushed.
I learned it from the radio, like I said. A beautiful name. I’ve said it in my prayers since then, even when I was still working for Pullman. Every day, I’ve said it.
Later on in the evening, the conductor knocked. He had a large mustache, deep blue eyes, and a soft voice. He asked straight out if I was a spotter, and I said yes. Good, he told me. I can often tell. He said, I’m sure I can arrange something for you. He was feeling generous, maybe, trying to keep me happy so I wouldn’t criticize, or maybe he didn’t like the boy, or…what? I still don’t know what he was after, frankly, but I didn’t question it because it made my job easier. I was relieved. I thanked him. He said he’d send the porter my way in a few minutes. I nodded and waited.
The porter found me leaning back on my headboard, with my coat still over my legs. I smiled at him and told him to sit down, but he said no thank you, ma’am, and asked what he could do for me. I couldn’t think of what to say. I stared at him until he asked me what I was reading, and I told him Tennyson.
I’ve never been much for poetry, he said. But I like the name. Sounds like a currency.
His voice was light, friendly. I asked him why a currency.
I don’t know, he said, it just sounds nice. That’ll be twenty Tennysons and fifty cents, if you please.
The dark landscape rolled along outside my window as this young boy talked to me about my favorite poet, even if he was actually talking about money. Paul never talked about either. Paul barely talked. For lack of another idea, I asked the boy if he’d like to hear a poem. He said that would be a pleasant first for him as a porter. I remembered that this porter could mean our rent, our groceries, our taxes. I told him a reading would cost him, and he shrugged his shoulders, laughed, said he had a few Tennysons to spare. I had no reply to this, so I said the first thing that came into my head.
A calf massage, then.
He said that would be a second first. He kept one hand on the doorframe while the other stroked his bare chin. Not a no, I thought. And I wish — no. What good is a wish.
I knew nothing about poetry other than Tennyson, of course. I chose “Ulysses,” the one I quoted before. When I got to the line, yet all experience is an arch wherethrough gleams that untraveled world, the boy asked what he was talking about. I told him I didn’t know.
When I finished the poem, I told him to close the door and take a seat. He closed the door most of the way and sat on the chair opposite my bed. He looked at me like I might bite him. I told him to sit on the bed, and he did so, but only on the very edge. That made me laugh. He did that little shoulder shrug young men do when they’re trying not to look nervous. It’s okay, I said, and placed his hand on my calf, where it rested. He stared straight ahead. His face was bare, with some baby fat on it still. He should have been in college. I remembered to tell him to rub, and he did. When I took his hand and moved it up toward my knee, he stood up and said, I’ll need to go now, Mrs. Greenfield. He only looked at me when two loud knocks sounded into the cabin and a black shoe slid the door all the way open. A look of pain, like I’d hit him. I still don’t know if it was the knock or that look that startled me, but in any case, there in the doorframe was the conductor, head down and already writing on his notepad like he was making a prescription. I felt like I’d been caught doing something even though the conductor was the one who had talked to me beforehand. I wanted to apologize, but the boy began to speak, and the conductor held up his pen to silence him. Then I said the boy was there by my request, which we all knew wasn’t true. I couldn’t think of anything better to say. The conductor said a better porter wouldn’t have taken my request. He said, you’re a spotter, after all. You can file when we get to Los Angeles.
It’s this moment I come back to. Right here, if I’d said something better, that boy’s night would have ended differently. I can’t help but believe that. It didn’t happen with any of the other porters in my time spotting. I still don’t know what else I could have said, but I know I have to live with that.
The porter threw up his hands, said I asked for the massage, that he wasn’t going to do anything. I told the conductor the boy was right, but the conductor held up his pen to me this time. He spoke very sharply to the porter: get out.
Oh, and where am I going? asked the boy, and he took a step forward. That’s when the conductor put his notebook in his pocket and hauled the boy by the lapels out of my compartment. He slammed the door. I don’t know where they went, and I didn’t see the porter get off the train in Raton.
I only learned what happened to him when I heard the radio report in Los Angeles, where I also received my $2,000 check, which I sent overnight to Chicago. I got a telegram on the way home, in Walnut Ridge, Arkansas: DOLLY. YOU ARE DOING GOD’S WORK. YOU COME HOME SOON.
Fully closed. That’s how I remember it, anyway.
I said it was closed most of the way? I did, didn’t I. It’s possible. It’s possible he left it a little open. But whatever I said before, I remember it being closed.
Honestly, I don’t see how it matters. The point is, he came in and he said yes.
Well no, he didn’t actually say yes. But he sat down on my bed and put his hand on my calf.
When I think of him now I wish I could hold him. I wish I could tell him how sorry I am. I can honestly say I’d have gone in his place if I’d known the conductor would do that.
Throw him off, that the conductor would throw him off the train, yes, that’s what I’m saying. If he were being reasonable, he’d have just given him a fine and left it at that.
I never wore that dragonfly brooch again, and I didn’t get another porter for months afterwards. In the end, I got seven more fired in the two years I worked with Pullman, three of them right toward the end when the line was closing. Eight porters in all was $16,000 in 50’s money — a lot. But Paul had started gambling. I was a fool to stay as long as I did.
With Paul and Pullman. I really would do it all over again, from scratch.
But, some work of noble note may yet be done. That’s the Tennyson line I go back to. It’s what I’m doing at the shelter. It pays very little but I believe it’s noble. We work with women who have been left, women who have been beaten. Sometimes when I offer a blanket or a shoulder or a diaper for one of their kids, I want to ask, does that help? I would never actually ask that, though. They have other things on their minds.
Hermann Oelschlager, b. 1902. Pullman Conductor on the Phoenix Line 1946–1960, on the Union Pacific Line 1961–1968, and select Amtrak lines out of Chicago 1969–1973. In a café near the downtown branch of the Chicago Public Library, January 1979.
George Mortimer Pullman. That name owned a railway empire, hundreds of train cars, and a company town. And yet he died so hated that his family buried him at night, eight feet deep in a mahogany casket lined with lead, in a pit filled with asphalt and concrete. They said they feared the workers would dig him up, but I’ve wondered whether it wasn’t an act of good riddance. Soon after, the Pullman company sold its town and its name back to Chicago. That’s a life and a death, isn’t it? It’s your successes that end up costing you.
When I pulled a gun on my son Herman rather than let him bring his friend — his activist friend — into my apartment. That cost me. My son hasn’t been in the apartment for just about two decades. 1960, right when they closed the Phoenix Line down. He was in his early 20’s, with a fresh bachelor’s in sociology. He’d landed a fellowship at the Fair Employment and Housing Commission in Los Angeles. Better than the stockyards, I told him, though watch you don’t become a communist.
Now he’s lawyer in California, for some kind of labor organization. I have three grandkids I’ve never met. I know their names: Harriet, Theresa, and Marcus. The wife sent me pictures. She writes me the letters my son won’t. She’s a kind soul, though we’ve only met a few times. The last time was at a frigid dinner two winters ago in West Chicago — steak, peas, and glares. When I write to her, I tell her the kids are beautiful, that she and Herman made beautiful babies. Now they’re all somewhere in their 20’s. Marcus is a machinist, Harriet’s a law student, and Theresa is a painter.
The activist friend, well, I’ve suffered prejudice, too. You’ll recall that there was more than one time when Germans weren’t held in high esteem in this country. My last name never did me any favors. Children have thrown bricks at me during two different wars. I was born in Lincoln Square, right here in Chicago on the North Side. The Nord Seite. Sometimes that just didn’t matter. At the yards they called me the Sour Kraut. The Germans were the villains of this century, there’s no doubt about it.
My wife didn’t survive Herman’s birth. That was 1936. But she was a good woman. She liked horses. She’s the one who suggested I drop the second n in Herman. More American, she said. We were only together for a year before she died when we were 24, and I had this new son on my hands. He terrified me. They give you this screeching little thing and tell you it’s yours. I was spoon-feeding him cow’s milk for a week or two, but he started dying. I never knew a woman’s milk was any different from a cow’s. I had to hire a wet nurse, and I could barely afford her with my salary from the stockyards.
I was the shackler. I shackled the pigs by the hind leg to the Hurford wheel, also known as the killing wheel. The wheel brought them up to the rail, where they were stuck and bled. Eight hours a day with those shackles for years. You might think it was chaos and bloodshed, but it was really very orderly, even serene. It’s kinder than it sounds. The pigs never knew what was in store.
Anyway, the years passed, the wet nurse left, Herman attended school and never suffered. He became a reader like me. I took him to the library to look for books about baseball, about chemistry. The first book I remember getting him, I think, was The Kid from Tomkinsville. An orphan from Connecticut gets drafted to the Brooklyn Dodgers. I read it to Herman aloud: Courage is all life. Courage is all baseball.
1946, that’s when I got the Pullman job. I loved it immediately. I was out for days sometimes, but by that point Herman knew how to use a stove and work a lock. He was comfortable on his own.
The roles are simple and well-defined. A porter must handle the world, and he must smile as he does so. There is no question that’s good work, but a conductor must be all things to all men. He must be equal to everything. He must be methodical. He must check and triple-check. He must handle the money. He must merit Pullman’s trust.
I managed time slips and rest periods for the porters. Never forgot a slip, never lost a slip, never doctored a slip. I reassigned accommodations, collected cash for seat upgrades. I clipped Pullman tickets. But I also did many things I wasn’t paid for. I soothed a dislocated shoulder more than once. I fetched many children’s precious bracelets from the sink drain. More than once I distracted a magnanimous drunk a hair’s-breadth away from donating his entire bank account to his seat-mates. I juggled bottles of Nesbitt’s Orange Soda for a car full of Catholic women on their way to a convention. And so on.
You’ve got your facts right. The porters were black. There were many good ones. They had children and families. They unionized, and I understood.
Well, that was of a different order, Herman walking that black man through our doorway. Like they were brothers. That was beyond. I smiled and shook his hand, gave him some tea and told him I’d like to speak with my son in the kitchen if he didn’t mind.
Let me tell you why I started carrying a revolver, Herman, I said. You know what the Red Summer is? In July 1919, right when I was starting out at the yards, a black boy swam too far north on 29th Street Beach. White men threw rocks at him until he drowned. The whole South Side rioted. The sky was black from arson. Black gangs with baseball bats, hammers, knives, and wrenches stole furniture from houses on Pershing Road in broad daylight. I saw a white gang throw bricks through a black man’s windows and then throw the man himself down his own front stairs. I saw three blacks chasing a white woman who ran out of her burning apartment building. She only had one shoe on. This is what happens when you mix. You two can’t work together. You don’t have anything in common. He’ll make you feel guilty. There must be an order to things, Herman, I said. It’s nothing personal. There are clear lines. They keep everybody safe. You’re a good boy, and I don’t doubt your sincerity, but we have to respect the order of things. You’ll regret it if you don’t.
That’s more or less what I told him. I couldn’t not say it. It was my conscience. I told him this from love, do you understand? But he said I’d eat my words within a year, that Oelschlager might as well be a Nazi name. So I pulled the revolver from my ankle holster and laid it on the counter. That’s all I did, and he hasn’t dined at my table since. I always thought he’d have forgiven me by now. I raised him, alone. What more does he want?
So you spoke to Mr. Fortuyns, then. Of course I remember him. An efficient worker. Though he was always whispering in the corners with Mr. Reese. Who knows about what. Union business, I figured. The Porters called it the Brotherhood. If only George Pullman had lived to see it. He never counted on black men organizing, making their own picket lines. The Brotherhood made some trouble, but I kept my nose out of it so long as they did their jobs. They went the way of Pullman last year, I heard. Merged with another union. Like I said, it’s your successes that cost you.
I knew Fortuyns drank. I smelled a hint of it on his breath one too many times to doubt it, but I never could catch him in the act. The truth is I didn’t look too hard for where he stashed his bottle, because he was a good worker. I received very few complaints about him over the years we worked together. If I’d had any sense that alcohol affected his performance, he’d have been gone. Mr. Reese, the other regular porter, he didn’t drink. Of that I’m certain. With Mr. Fortuyns, you knew something else was going on behind the cordiality, but not Mr. Reese. I respected him. His wife was dead, too. We have to protect men like that.
I’m sorry to hear that he’s dead. He was a good man, a sincere man.
But Mr. Fortuyns is well, then? Party supply? A family business. Good, that’s good.
Mr. Steele, yes. I really didn’t know him well. Tall for his age, full of energy. Over-respectful — Yes, sir, Mr. Oelschlager, right away, sir, and On the double for you, sir, with a little grin. It wasn’t some game. But it’s a shame, what happened to him. He was the youngest porter I ever worked with. I rode him when I had to. In general, I found you had to discipline them at first.
Not a matter of respect. Respect was assumed. My uniform carried it. It’s that a disciplined porter is a loyal one. Which is not to say he won’t try to sneak things by you, but rather that he will not try to sneak too much by you. A porter, because of who he is, because of his position, because of what he is paid — which is very little — will always find short cuts a temptation. I saw this capacity in Mr. Steele immediately. And the young ones always have something to prove. I certainly did when I was at the yards. I couldn’t chain those hogs fast enough. I was the good German. Now, of course, nobody cares about my name.
I mentioned Mr. Steele’s capacity for shortcuts, and I am deliberate in using the word capacity. I’m not saying he took them. I’m saying he could have. A porter’s duties are many and various. There are many ways to skimp, and if you do, there is no doubt you’ll land in a spotter’s sights. And that, in turn, means the conductor will be held responsible. Mr. Steele was good with the passengers, and in my experience this is as much a curse as it is a blessing. You can get too comfortable. Smug, even. You can decide Pullman works for you.
Which, of course, is what happened to him. I regret it. It brought him to storm into a woman’s compartment with a wolfish look on his face. Not just any woman. She was a spotter. When he closed her compartment door behind him, he locked himself out of his job.
I’m sure I can arrange something for you? No, I never said that. What, you spoke to this woman? She’s clearly got a problem with guilt. There’s nothing for her to feel guilty about. Mr. Steele walked into that compartment barefoot and on his own. I couldn’t have arranged that if I’d tried. And I don’t know why I would try.
Mr. Fortuyns didn’t tell you that, about the shoes? See, there you go. He must have been protecting him. Or he might not have noticed. Why would he? He was a porter himself, he’d always have a sympathetic eye for another one. But for a conductor, a porter without shoes on is a signal that cuts through the air clear as a train whistle. It’s just damning. There’s no possible reason for a porter to take his shoes off during a trip, ever. I don’t care if you have bunions, flat feet, a doctor’s note, or whatever else, it is simply unquestionable. I escorted Mr. Steele to the bathroom, where I locked him in. Simple as that.
I knew the woman was a spotter the moment I came back to apologize on behalf of Pullman. It was the notebook in her hand. Still, she seemed shaken. Her very first ride, can you imagine? That’s what she said, though I suppose it could have been a ploy. She hid her bare legs under a green wool coat, but she showed just enough above the knee that weaker men would indeed have been tempted. She asked me what would happen to Mr. Steele and about payment. I said both Mr. Steele and her payment would be well taken care of.
I haven’t forgotten what followed, as it surprised me. She gestured to her bed and asked if I had a minute to sit down. She’d seemed shaken, as I said, but this simple gesture spoke to a surprising aggressiveness. I wondered about its source. I studied her face. A conductor has to be able to read faces. Hers looked a bit like the singer Connie Francis, with her beehive hair and dark brows, but she didn’t have her confidence. She looked like what would have happened if Connie Francis stayed at home for years and only thought about singing. When I saw that I knew the spotter was looking for her big moment. Catching a porter and a conductor in one night, that’s an achievement. She was eager. I had to be careful. No lingering in her compartment, feet firmly in the aisle.
Because conductors were the better catch for spotters. We were under more scrutiny from above, not less, because of our power and responsibilities. We held the purse on those rides. I’ve said our word was trusted, but that’s also why it was special if you nabbed one of us. You had to show spotters you knew their game and wouldn’t deign to play it.
I don’t know. The hat fit so well, I don’t think I could have done any other job. If not for Pullman, what, a commuter line? A different company? But that would have been so dull. In fact, it was dull — I worked Amtrak lines out of Chicago for four years before I retired. The Hoosier, Hiawatha, and Illinois. Nothing plush, nothing beautiful about an Amtrak. It’s a warehouse on wheels. It’s a shuttle. You punch tickets. No, when Pullman folded, so folded a special thing.
I looked at the spotter right in the eyes until she looked away. I’ve learned that people can’t argue with a cold stare, especially when it comes from a man in uniform. I told the woman I’d be back, though I had no intention of returning. I didn’t see her the rest of the trip. I assume she filed when we reached Los Angeles.
It’s possible she might have just liked to talk, of course, but I wasn’t going to take that chance.
I asked Mr. Steele the time through the bathroom door. It may have been around ten or eleven in the evening, I can’t remember now. He didn’t reply. I asked him again, and again once more, and he remained silent. A passenger leaned over and told me the time, whatever it was. I believe I delegated some tasks to Mr. Fortuyns while I radioed ahead to Raton.
I don’t remember exactly what I said, and it hardly matters. Think about it. What matters is that a spotter has no incentive to keep you on the job. She may even be paid per infraction. And Pullman, they didn’t ever want to see you sacrificing their bottom line. You had to be indispensible. If porters get unruly under your watch, that means fewer passengers. The porters could smell weakness. You have to send a message.
No, if the spotter woman hadn’t been there, I’d have just kept him in the bathroom.
I couldn’t tell you more than that.