AMTRAK has handled the black-porter/white-porter issue very deftly. Their logo — or at least the one that appears on the tissue covering the head rest — depicts a porter standing erect in his sharp uniform, half in strong light, half in shadow; half white, half black. The ebullient Charles from Chicago was in the latter category. I had changed trains in Portland — from the Coast Starlight to the Empire Builder. We were making our way up the Columbia River Gorge in late afternoon. It's one of the more scenic train rides in America, especially when the mists are hovering over the basalt cliffs. I was only going two stops, getting off in Bingen/White Salmon. But having blown 15,000 Guest Reward Points for a roomette from Davis to Portland, I figured, what the hell, why not ask for another roomette on the Empire Builder, even if I would only be using it for 90 minutes or so. It wouldn't cost any more. Now the Empire Builder, running between Portland and Chicago, isn't as large or as elegant (if the word “elegant” can be applied to AMTRAK at all) as the Starlight, but they do have one sleeper car at the end of the train. And I believe they add a dining car in Spokane. We had pulled out of Vancouver, USA, as they call it in Washington, on schedule and were heading into the Gorge on the north side of the Columbia River. Seated comfortably in my “first class” roomette, my stocking feet up on the opposing seat, I was idly speculating on whether I might score a small, welcome-aboard mini-bottle of champagne, as is the custom on the Starlight. (Francophiles would object to the term “champagne” for this product; it comes from Ceres or Manteca or some such place in the Central Valley.) I had just about given up when Charles stuck his grinning head into my compartment and said “Welcome aboard. Can I get you a complimentary bottle of apple juice or lemonade or perhaps champagne?” Without thinking things through, I said “A little champagne would be nice — it is my birthday.” His smile widened and he replied “Congratulations — what's your name.” Still without thinking, I said “Stewart.”
Big mistake! For a relatively small man, Charles had a remarkably big voice. “Hey, everybody,” he roared the length of the car, “It's Stewart's birthday! He's in compartment 13. Come on back and give him your best wishes.” That wasn't bad enough. He got on the PA system and announced to the entire train, “Hey, it's Stewy's birthday. Come on back to the sleeping car and wish him Happy Birthday.” Incredibly, several people did. One man even sat down on the opposing seat for a little conversation.
That's when I made my second serious mistake. “You know,” I told him gratuitously, “I hate that particular corruption of my name! I have only been called that once in my life, and that was from an airhead teeny bopper.” The next thing I knew, I overheard my departing visitor telling Charles, “He hates Stewy.” Charles went on the PA again. “Hey, everybody, let's show some enthusiasm for Stewy's birthday. Come on back and we'll all sing Happy Birthday to him.” I did finally get my tiny bottle of champagne. “Here you go, Stewy. Would like another one?” This went on pretty much continuously until my stop. And there was no place to hide. I'm sure people in the front half of the train wondered what-in-heck was going on behind them. I was the only one to get off in Bingen. Charles, in his crisp uniform, was hanging out the open door as the train pulled away yelling “Happy Birthday Stewy,” over and over until he was out of sight. Fortunately, my son was late in picking me up so he missed this performance. The only saving grace.