Riding the Coast Starlight With Veronica


Image 8-15-17 at 10.50 AM

The Coast Starlight is the only Amtrak line with a Parlor Car. Made by Budd in the 1940’s, they are classic examples of the streamline era, beautiful constructed of stainless steel and handcrafted mahogany. Veronica was the attendant on this trip. A dark-haired Latina with a constant smile and comfortable manner beyond her young years, she seemed vaguely familiar. But I had not travelled by train for a couple of years, the last trip cloaked in tragedy, and so we spoke only briefly between meal orders and her other duties.

After a while, I asked if William was still working the Parlor Cars. William is a most distinguished gentleman with a basso profundo James Earl Jones voice, an aristocratic manner, and a vast knowledge of railroading, all prominently contrasting with his Rastafarian dreadlocks and Bob Marley knit cap. The Parlor Car offers wine and cheese tastings every afternoon, and passengers would hang on William’s every word as he described in glorious detail each tasting. And if you could spark his sense of humor, he would beam and bellow with deep, rumbling laughter. Veronica brightened when I said his name. “Yes! He’s still working the Parlor Car. And he’s my best friend. In fact, we’re going to be working together in a few days.” I asked her to give William my best, and she took a selfie of the two of us so she could show him.

She said I looked familiar, had we perhaps travelled the Coast Starlight together before? I told her I’d travelled it many times, but that it had taken a couple of years to be ready to take a train trip again. The last time I was aboard, I related, we were pulling out of the San Luis Obispo station and within a mile the emergency brakes were triggered. Even at 30 mph, a trainset of only 8 cars and 2 locomotives takes a long time to come to a stop, by which time our car was at the RR crossing the locomotive had already crossed. Looking out the windows of the Parlor Car I saw a young man sitting on a bike, looking at the train, looking down, shaking his head, looking back, looking down, shaking. All activity had come to a stop. No one was moving outside. Just looking at the train. It was hushed in the Parlor Car. No more clatter of rails, no more horn blaring, no conversation, and then someone looked out the other side of the Parlor Car and gasped. A young man lay lifeless, wrapped around a steel post, half of his clothing ripped from his body, his backpack sprawled nearby, his headphones still hanging across his neck, and the ground below his head growing increasingly red.

The first person who jumped out of the train to help was a young Amtrak employee who stayed there with him, gently placing towels where he was bleeding, covering his partially naked body, and simply being there, doing what little she could do until Fire and Rescue came and took over. After a long but fruitless lifesaving effort, his body was taken away and the train backed up the mile to the San Luis station where we waited for a replacement operating crew.

“I was on that train!” she said. “Now I remember you. I was the dining car manager and served you. When the accident happened that night, I was the first one on the scene.” She told me the young man’s name. He had been walking with friends on the railroad right of way, on their way to a birthday party. He was leading the way down the tracks, with his headphones on, and never heard the train’s blaring horn. His friends yelled out at him. He did not hear them either.

“That was my first” she said somberly, it being obvious that it will not be her last. It is an inevitable part of railroading – pedestrians walk in the right of way, and cars and trucks ignore warning lights and crossing guards. She now has over 4 years as a railroad woman, and will no doubt continue for a while. On this trip, the dining car manager, the conductor, and of course Veronica the Parlor Car attendant were women. Having two daughters and five grand-daughters, I was pleased. Perhaps the crew in the locomotive were women too.

This trip ended with no drama. I will travel Amtrak again, hoping to see William and enjoy his Parlor Car discourse, and perhaps finding that Veronica will be the conductor. Or maybe even the engineer. And despite the odds, I am hoping that her first will be her last.

[This was one of my first posts, when few were following this blog. I am re-publishing it now for those who did not see it the first time.]

2 thoughts on “Riding the Coast Starlight With Veronica

  1. I was mesmerized by this post, first by your rich descriptions, then because you brought these people to life for me and finally, remembering the tragedy and the impact it had on you. Such sensitive, wonderful writing, Ken!


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