I catch four Amtrak trains a day: 640 from Exton to Philadelphia, then 180 from Philly to New York, and I make a similar switch on the way back. As a train pulls in, I look down the train to find the smooth steel plate behind the number sign that says “food service car.” Cafe cars have tables, blessed tables. I don’t care how loudly the drunk guys on the way back from the dentist’s convention are yelling, I don’t care if the ventilation isn’t working and the bathroom is emitting a pungent reek of disinfectant, I don’t care if the car is leaking drips of water on the foremost and rearmost seats in the car, the tables in the cafe car allow use of the mouse, which is the difference between cramped finger-twisting on the trackpad with elbows inboard, and glorious, elbow-swinging, pixel-pushing luxury. For luxurious room, the cafe car is where it’s at.
And, very occasionally, the cafe car holds an attendant selling food.
I’m not sure what position Amtrak cafe car attendants occupy on the rung of Amtrak jobs: the conductors (kings of the train) and flags (staff sergeants of the train) seem cordial to them, but a little stiff and formal, as if consciously observing a difference in rank. On the other hand, the attendants themselves are always polite, but also VERY dignified and they brook no nonsense. It’s like being served coffee by an airline pilot. Which is excellent, I want to point out: having an attendant say in a crisp voice “and how many half-and-halfs would you like, sir? Two? Three?” then fix you with a steely stare demanding that you make your mind up RIGHT NOW or risk wasting his time… well, it adds some excitement and importance to the trip. It’s like one of the last bastions of old-school etiquette.
Yesterday, I met the king of all the Amtrak attendants, who magically appeared in one of the rare operational cafe cars. I ordered the standard Amtrak breakfast-sandwich-in-a-plastic-bag, and first realized that something was up when he did not just throw it in the microwave and punch button number 4. Oh, no. He opened the bag and disassembled the sandwich into its component parts. He put the bagel in the convection oven, which, he told me, he had had specially repaired on that car so he could do so (most Amtrak cars have let their convection ovens fall into disrepair long ago.) He separated the cheese from the sausage using a sharp knife, then microwaved just the sausage and cheese. While doing so, he told me about how his father taught him that food is worth taking time over, and he personally hates it (now he was walking the bagel from the convection oven across to the microwave, since he could only get them to repair the oven across from the microwave, not the one next to it) when people don’t treat food as food, they treat it as just a time-saver. Now he was re-assembling the sandwich, letting the heat of the sausage and egg melt the cheese, and I looked over at the condiment bins and realized that he had individually organized the packets of condiments, so that they all stacked up at neat right angles, each relish pack resting neatly and precisely on top of the one under it.
I am not making this up. Keith finished assembling my sandwich, wrapped it in a napkin, and accepted both my thanks and my tip with a crisp nod. Then, as I left, he went back to doing pushups in the aisle. Again, not kidding. I walked back to my seat in the other end of the train, and asked the conductors Ron and Nick about Keith.
“Oh yeah, Keith!” said Nick (who is a semi-professional hapkido fighter, and rides a Victory motorcycle on the weekends.) “Man, he takes you forever to get a cup of coffee! ‘Would you like cream with that, sir? Let me milk the cow!’” Nick started pantomiming plunging a butter churn up and down. “‘Would you like butter, sir? Here, let me churn the cream for you!’” I got off the train with Nick still jumping up and down and laughing.