My Initiation into the Breakfast Club of Bluxome Alley
...there's a punch line, eventually
SP Pages
San Francisco
SPINS Books
Grab Bag

Lost Generations of Railroaders...
When a generation of people passes, much of their daily lives disappears with them. For instance, how many of us know what constituted a typical workday for our parents, let alone our grandparents? If we are lucky, we know what their jobs were, and where they worked, but few of us know much about the small details of their daily routine. But if a parent was, say, a railroad engineer, he had two families: blood relatives and fellow rails. Particularly in the older times of sixteen hour, seven-days-per-week jobs, the engineer's railroad brethren generally knew more about him than his wife and children.

"Spot time" and "beans" (break and meal periods), along with layover time, were the most important part of the social life of many railroaders in the operating crafts, often more-so than what took place at home, for these often lengthy periods were times of fraternization: joking, swapping war stories and lies, playing railroad pinocle, and most of all, engaging in the average railroader's favorite activities: gossiping and complaining.

Old Home Week...
In July 1992, Amtrak took over the operation of Caltrain commute trains on the San Francisco Peninsula from the Southern Pacific, using mostly ex SP employees. I went to work for Amtrak/Caltrain in San Jose about two months later, after being away from the Peninsula for eight years. My return was like old home week, with the trainmen anyway, and I soon found out that many of my peers on layover in San Francisco congregated at Lee's Chinese Restaurant at the corner of Fourth Street and Bluxome Alley* for breakfast. The engineers usually sat by themselves (although senior trainmen were tolerated) and even had an informal name for the morning gatherings: the Breakfast Club. I had no idea how long this had been going on, but suspected that, like the Garden Club (which hadn't actually tended a garden since the Mission Bay Roundhouse was torn down three decades prior), the Breakfast Club dated back into antiquity.

*
Although it was officially named a "Street", everyone seemed to call it an "Alley", perhaps a legacy of Jack Keroac (see box at right).


Bluxome Alley (ST.): In 1966, when this SPINS map apparently was drawn for an earlier PICL map, Bluxome was a busy place. In 1992, the tracks were long unused, but still there. An old head switchmen described them as complicated to switch, and given the random distribution of facing and trailing point switches, it is easy to see why. Lee's restaurant was located in the little triangle formed below where the 607 and 613 tracks crossed, a block away from the depot at Fourth and Townsend Streets. The Lee's retired about 2000, and the building, greatly remodeled, became an upscale sandwich shop that was too pricey for the cheapskate railroad employee trade. The tracks were finally yanked out not long after. See page bottom for the customers corresponding to the SPINS numbers.

Not your average five star restaurant...
Lee's was about as seedy a place as one could have found, but it's owners, George and May Lee were wonderful people, and very accommodating. One morning, one of the Club complained about the cockroaches which frequented the crevasses around the meal tables, and lo, the very next day we found insecticide powder sprinkled everywhere, including on the tables. Now that was service! Beyond this, the place was convenient (one block from the depot), cheap, and George was one great cook - my standard breakfast was vegetable chow mein, but this was too expensive for some of my fellow tightwads, who stuck to the cheaper pancakes.

New home week and a dastardly deed...
I was treated like a new guy amongst the engineers, given I was a switchman/brakeman until I went firing at Dunsmuir in 1984, and almost none of the engineers that I knew back then had stayed-on to work for Amtrak. Further, I was still in-training to run commute engines, thus at the bottom of the social construct. Accordingly, I mostly was ignored at these breakfast encounters, until one certain day when, with the egging-on of my training engineer, Mike Mendoza (who previously had thrown firecrackers under my seat in the dark of a tunnel), I did a dastardly deed. I put our train into San Mateo station ahead of engineer Tommy Grace's opposing train, forcing him to wait outside of the platform until our train departed. Tommy had a well-earned reputation of, frankly, lying about his location if an opposing engineer radioed him. He would often claim to be a mile or more ahead of his actual location, because he absolutely hated to be aced out of a station. Technically, I should have held-out for Tommy, because he was running a superior northbound Fleet (rush hour) train, with another on his tail.

The morning after...
The next morning when I sat down at the Club table, Tommy was beet red and demanded to know why I had taken the station ahead of a "senior engineer", a rather curious interpretation of the rules regarding the superiority of trains that evoked chuckles from the other half-dozen engineers. Realizing that I had a golden opportunity to pull the chain of a guy who blatantly was taking himself much too seriously, I bit my lip and straight-faced inquired as to what seniority had to do with anything. Tommy, who at less than six feet weighed in at about 300 pounds, immediately squealed that he had the right to enter the depot first, because, "I am the Fleet!" Mike, darn near fell out of his chair laughing and a couple of others nearly hyperventilated themselves into unconsciousness. Poor Tommy immediately tried to amend his words, but nobody would let him off of the hook. I held back with further comments, because, although I realized that a I had successfully passed my initiation as one of the boys, I was still a very junior boy who needed to shut up.

Good morning, Portagee...
Those were the days when 'proper' radio procedure was egregiously ignored. Every morning, Tommy would salute Mike - his good friend - with "Good morning, Portagee!", to which Mike responded, "Good morning Cowboy!" The first time that Mike and I met Tommy's train after our Breakfast Club encounter, Mike grabbed the radio handset and crooned, "Good morning cowboy! We're laying back for the Fleet!", which caused a good number of engineers in both directions to chime in, "I'm holding out for the Fleet too, Tommy!" Word of Tommy's faux pas had travelled fast.

For many years afterward, succeeding generations of road foremen implored upon Tommy to stop calling Mike " The Portagee" on the radio, but to no avail. I judge that today, with the nazification of the railroads, Tommy certainly would be fired (given a few days off) for this insensitive breach of radio etiquette. Were he still with us in this world, I'm sure that Mike Mendoza would make the same assessment, as he choaked himself with laughter.

----------------------

The original "members" who came directly from SP:

They were something special. Tommy, the de facto chairman of the Club, was a redneck with a heart of gold who still turns horses into swaybacks at his San Joaquin Valley ranch. You'll find a fantastic portrait of him that says it all, as well as photos of Pat West (see below) and yours-truly in Hans Halberstadt's book, Modern Diesel Locomotives. Mike Mendoza, one of the most accomplished practitioners of dry humor that I ever met, and a truly decent human being, sadly passed away a few years ago, while still in middle age. Another regular was the engineer who taught me how to successfully hook-shot a raw egg out of a cab side-window onto the windshield of an opposing train, - Pat West, a sensitive and hilariously mischievous man, who died very young due to, what we friends concluded at the time, the lingering demons that came from a past horrific railroad accident. Other occasional attendees: The respected, late Bob Bonjiorno, an ex SP engineer who, as an Amtrak trainmaster, kept the company honest in its dealings with the employees, and who accrued 50 years seniority; the late Charlie Bowden, the funniest guy on the railroad - two sons and a daughter-in-law are all engineers, while another son works in the mechanical department; Darrel Jacobson, a guy whom I thought of as too nice to work for a railroad, and who likewise died way too soon in life. Other regular Amtrak members (all ex-SP) included Ken McCulloch, our Local Chairman for all of the 1990's; Glen King, the last engineer who hired out on steam; Kent "Superman" Clark; J.R. "Bob" Atchison; Jim Barry; Ernie Camarillo; Mike Cecconi. Quite a few other ex SP San Jose and San Francisco engineers occasionally showed up, I think: brothers, Mike and Jim "J.V" Gondron, generally regarded as our best two engineers; Greg "Doom" Welker, my personal hero who spent 20-odd thankless years as local secretary-treasurer; Vince Pando, still an ocean surfer after retirement; Steve "S.P" Grab, good friend and drinking buddy, radical foamer, and lightning-quick wit; Davy Dauchan, another self-descibed foamer; John Rice; Leonard "Lenny" Chavez; Rich Botus; Charlie Brown; Adam Hwa; ; Gary Ellison; and maybe, once or twice: the late Benny Romano, number one in seniority, the only truly ancient "old head" to continue on as an engineer for Amtrak.

As far as I know, only Charlie Brown, Adam Hwa, Gary Ellison, Davy Dauchan and Mike Cecconi are still on the active list.

- E.O. Gibson, 6-2012



Jack Keroac on Bluxome Alley
from the opening paragraphs of October in the Railroad Earth

There was a little alley in San Francisco back of the Southern
Pacific station at Third and Townsend in redbrick of drowsy lazy
afternoons with everybody at work in offices in the air you feel
the impending rush of their commuter frenzy as soon they’ll be
charging en masse from Market and Sansome buildings on foot
and in buses and all well-dressed thru workingman Frisco of
Walkup ?? truck drivers and even the poor grime-bemarked Third
Street of lost bums even Negros so hopeless and long left East
and meanings of responsibility and try that now all they do is
stand there spitting in the broken glass sometimes fifty in one
afternoon against one wall at Third and Howard and here’s all
these Millbrae and San Carlos neat-necktied producers and
commuters of America and Steel civilization rushing by with San
Francisco Chronicles and green Call-Bulletins not even enough
time to be disdainful, they’ve got to catch 130, 132, 134, 136 all
the way up to 146 till the time of evening supper in homes of the
railroad earth when high in the sky the magic stars ride above
the following hotshot freight trains--it’s all in California, it’s all a
sea, I swim out of it in afternoons of sun hot meditation in my
jeans with head on handkerchief on brakeman’s lantern or (if not
working) on book, I look up at blue sky of perfect lostpurity and
feel the warp of wood of old America beneath me and I* have
insane conversations with Negroes in second*-story windows
above and everything is pouring in, the switching moves of
boxcars in that little alley which is so much like the alleys of
Lowell and I hear far off in the sense of coming night that engine
calling our mountains.

But it was that beautiful cut of clouds I could always see above
the little S.P. alley, puffs floating by from Oakland or the Gate of
Marin to the north or San Jose south, the clarity of Cal to break
your heart. It was the fantastic drowse and drum hum of lum
mum afternoon nathin’ to do, ole Frisco with end of land
sadness--the people--the alley full of trucks and cars of
businesses nearabouts and nobody knew or far from cared who I
was all my life three thousand five hundred miles from birth-O
opened up and at last belonged to me in Great America.