Friday Flashback #126

I’m never sure when it will happen. But certain “06880” posts elicit dozens of comments. Naturally, some of them wander far from the original topic.

A recent post on commuter train etiquette is a great example. One reader cited a 1975 New York Times story about a private railroad car “serving about 65 top NY business executives on daily trips from Southport, Conn, to Grand Central.” The price was quite a bit higher than the regular commuter fare.

In 1949, Life magazine showed Westport commuters enjoying a card game, in an elite railroad club car.

That brought a reaction from another reader. He said:

The New Haven/Penn Central provided several club cars for private membership-only groups who leased them. They featured more spacious seating and had a private attendant serving food and drinks. The cars were discontinued when the state took over in the early 70’s and bought new equipment that was incompatible with the existing club cars and declined to configure new equipment for new club cars, though the Southport Club members offered to pay “any price” for a new car.

And that brought an email from Bonnie Bradley. The Westport native and longtime resident now lives upstate. But she recalls the Southport Car well.

Many Westporters rode it — including her grandfather, James P. Bradley.

He started as a clerk at the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. Fifty years later, he retired as secretary of the entire firm. Bonnie writes:

“Every workday from the early 1930s through the early ’50s he rode the Southport Club Car (which stopped in Westport). He and his cronies, including Fred Bedford, played poker every day in the Southport Club Car.

Bonnie sends 2 photos. Here, her grandfather is the handsome man in the center:

Here are the cards he held on December 3, 1956, when he won a hand with a once-in-a-lifetime event. His poker mates took the cards, signed their names, and had them framed for him.

Does anyone play cards on the train anymore?

Does anyone talk to anyone else, in fact — beyond someone Very Important on the other end of a cell phone?

Why should they? We’ve got podcasts, Spotify, laptops and tablets. There’s work to be done, or so many ways to entertain ourselves.

We’ve come a long way since 1956.

Or have we?

24 responses to “Friday Flashback #126

  1. Celeste Champagne

    What an interesting article and thanks for posting. Though my days daily on the train to NY are over, when I do ride the atmosphere as noted here is very different. I don’t even see the card games anymore when the posters behind the seats became the table on which the card games took place. Maybe they now take place in the iPhones?

  2. Obviously there are many pluses to modern technology but there was also something to be said for having a block of time without any interruptions where one relaxed with a group of friends on the way home from work.

    My dad died suddenly of an apparent heart attack while playing poker on a commuter train home to Westport. While it was a shock and naturally very painful for our family, ultimately there was some comfort in knowing it was quick and painless for him and that he died while doing something he enjoyed.

  3. I can still remember the black porters in white jackets welcoming the men and placing the small wooden step stools at each door. My father and some of his friends took me to a Yankee game on the car probably in the late 50’s early 60’s. The game went extra innings, as I slept on the way home all the guys signed a baseball with the yankee’s names. I didn’t know it was a fake until I was about 14. LOL

  4. Eileen Lavigne Flug

    I love the fact that it was a royal flush in clubs! Perfect for the Club Car.

  5. Were there ever any women in those exclusive club cars? Also I suppose at least 60% of the men were smoking. I wonder how the rest felt being in that much smoke. We’ve come a long way!

  6. When I commuted in the seventies, if I was lucky, I would get the 5:02, as the first stop was Westport (“and Saugatuck” as the conductors would shout out). Next best train was the 5:20. The Southport Club Car was the last car of that train. The “regular commuters” would board at the second to last car or further up the platform.
    One evening, the 5:20 was just starting to pull out. This was the time frame of the open entranceways at each end of the car. I really didn’t want to wait for the next train (about 6:00) so I jumped on the entranceway of the Club Car. I knew it wasn’t my space but I quietly made my way through the car trying to not bother the execs there. Since this was 45 years ago, I had long hair and was in jeans and probably a t-shirt (I worked in a recording studio, so my attire was a bit more casual than the Club Car’s style). I’m sure my presence was not appreciated, but I knew to get to the next car was the right move. It did look nice in there.
    Smoking was common on most trains except for one car. That ratio changed to the reverse and then to no smoking. I still have the sign that was at the top of each center aisle that had a sliding panel to cover up the “no.” I do not remember seeing any women in the car. The Harvard and Yale Clubs were still all male environments.

  7. John F. (J-period) Wandres

    I recall now that one reason I was allowed to get my driving license when I turned 16 was my father discovered how nice it was to be picked up when the 5:31 rolled into Westport and there I was, waiting, with all the others in their station wagons. I also recall that it was not uncommon for the conductors to have to help several of the commuters down from the train because they were not sober enough to manage the step. Aah, yes: the Bar Car. The other thing I recall (but have no confirmation, thereof) is that my father “applied” to join one of the club cars, but was made to understand that he might not “fit in.” Translation: he looked Jewish. Which is a real hoot in that so many business leaders and Madison Avenue executives WERE Jewish. O-Well?

  8. Great post – my father, who was also a senior executive at a life insurance company, rode the train starting in 1972 when we moved to Westport – but this was during the low-point of the NY, NH & H commuter train, as it was run by Penn Central at the time and then by Conrail – after the demise of the private club cars. (He wasn’t much of a country-club / “Southport car” kind of guy anyway.) He did regale me with stories about no or constantly broken air-conditioning, and also what he saw in the bar car – “don’t fall into the bar car habit” he said (!)

    During the 90’s when my own Metro North daily commute came to be, there were still card players using the cardboard taken from the adverts on the wall (dutifully replaced when finished), and it seems to me it was much more social then than now, certainly on the evening outbound trains.

    Since you ALWAYS got on the train in the morning at the same spot (knowing right where to position yourself for the train doors), during my train commuting days I ended up falling into a group that sat near the door I always used (they had gotten on the train in Fairfield and Southport) – an attractive early 40’s divorcee with 2 daughters we heard all about, a charming and handsome late 40’s gay guy (didn’t look a day over 35) who had his own PR firm and knew every restaurant between Fairfield and the tip of Manhattan, and a older (married) insurance company executive with a not very well-hidden fondness for the divorcee. We sat in the group of facing seats every morning, catching up in hushed tones (don’t break the rules!). Years later and long after I had stopped commuting into NYC, I took the same 7:20 am train, got on at my old spot in Westport, and sure enough I ran into one of them sitting in the old spot.

    Next stop Willoughby!

  9. Bonnie Bradley

    Thanks, Dan! My grandfather J.P. Bradley would have been thrilled to see these photos on your blog.

    Re the Comments:
    I really doubt that any women were members of the Club Car in the day. This was serious business with big stakes, definitely a guy thing…

    Women who were close relatives were “allowed” to ride in the Club Car.
    When I was a little girl my mother and I rode in the car to go shopping at Best & Co., Macy’s, etc. a number of times. We sat in club chairs and were served tea and cookies. I wore little white gloves and had to be on my best behavior. I remember those trips as being very exciting.

    As for smoking… I don’t remember any there. It probably would have caught my attention. Neither my grandfather nor parents were smokers.

    And, the so called (by poker players) “once-in-a-lifetime” Royal Flush shown here was actually my grandfather’s second at that table: in 1945 he held four cards: Ace, King, Jack, ten and drew one – the queen… in Hearts.
    I have that one framed too.

    Throughout his long life he was definitely a lucky man. I still miss him and think of him often.

  10. Bonnie, thanks for sharing the pics. Re the smoking: it looks like there is one man smoking a cigarette opposite your grandfather.

    My dad was a lifelong non-smoker too, but he definitely was sitting in a smoking car the night he died playing poker. I know because my mom was sitting in the car right behind—a non-smoking car.

    Also, my dad was never part of the private club cars but, as Celeste and Jack noted, there were card games in the regular train cars such as the one my dad played in where they temporarily used an advertising poster as their “table.”

  11. Nancy Powers Conklin

    My husband and I occasionally play cards when flying these days.

  12. At age 35 with a Wharton MBA and a Civil Engineering degree I found myself rushing to Westport in 1974 to find a home close to mid-town. I jumped in the last car on the 5:xx Westport-bound train, admired the linen covered tables and said to myself, “This will surely beat the Philly commute!”. I took a seat and ordered a Martini from the white jacketed steward as he passed by with fresh glasses and decks of playing cards. “I’m sorry Sir, this is the private Southport car. But there is a bar car just ahead. I hope you will find it acceptable” I didn’t. And the commute in Philly was better. But the rest of the ride has been GREAT!

    • Tim, did you see a skinny, long haired kid, zip through the car? 🙂

      • Yea…a kid with long hair, dressed in a scruffy t-shirt and jeans with a Martin in his hand. How’d you get that?👍 Hope you’ve had a good ride too.
        All the best Matt😉

        • No martini for me in that car. I usually ducked into the deli on the Northeast corner of GCT (no longer there) and select a beer based on how cold it was (Schlitz, PBR, Bud, as long as it was cold). Much cheaper than beer in the train or at the cart at the start of platform. Commuting in that time was always an adventure.

          I chuckle when I hear people complaining about the trains these days. Timeliness was not the NHRR/Conrail’s strong suit. No internet or PA to advise us what was the delay. Walking a 1/4 of a mile west of the Greenwich station in snow to meet busses to get to Westport. The overhead wires had comedown shutting down the line. Or heading in and stopping just before crossing into Manhattan and which snow come down to a point of 3″ to 4″ on the bridge abutment. Or…. oh nevermind. 🙂

  13. Bonnie Bradley

    Fred, you’re absolutely right. Looking at the original photo, which is 8″ x 10, I can see that the man to J.P.B.’s right with the big ears, fingers on table and polka dot tie has a cigarette in his right hand – you can even see the smoke. It is less clear that the man with his back to us is smoking because of the angle of the presumed cigarette vs. his face. But, of course, he could be too.
    Strangely, on the original photo, at the far left. there is a full side view of another man’s face where his nose is almost touching the window… Why doesn’t that show on the photo I took with my iPad? No wonder some folks believe on ghosts – LOL.
    Good for you for sharp eyes!

  14. Robert Mitchell

    Interesting photo-in-the-photo of lower Manhattan pre-modern skyscrapers.

  15. Rachel Bassick

    Oh, absolutely people talk to each other on the train. And, they play cards. They use the advertising posters as tables. The early morning trains until 8:00 am out of courtesy are quiet on all cars. It’s a courtesy thing. I won’t converse unless others are doing so.
    But in my last 6-7 years of commuting I have met fascinating people and had wonderful conversations. Including an idea for a puzzle party.

  16. How old school and I love these photos! Nostalgia once again. I remember riding the train with my parents into NYC in the 60’s. Later, I became a daily young rider on the Philadelphia Main Line train runs, and then NYC to Philly as a young adult. East coast is the train culture of our nation. I miss the trains. Choo Choo!

  17. Just wondering–who shuffled the deck?
    Great pics!

  18. Bonnie Bradley

    LOVE your comment, Mark 😂
    I’m laughing out loud – really – at the ungodly hour of 8:30 a.m. J.P.B. was a terrific, charismatic man with big-deal honesty & do-the- right-thing values, playing with the same smart men twice a day for years, all card sharks themselves… but who knows? He’s probably laughing in his grave right now, regardless.

  19. While we have come a long way in 50 years to ipads and wifi everywhere except the metro north trains, the MTA is possibly the single worst run organization. We would be better off if we turned over leadership to my 10yr olds school class. I was on the 4:48am train a couple weeks ago and stood there til 5:15 before a digital message that the train was 47 minutes late due to signal failure! Traffic buildup at 4am on train tracks gets fierce! They cant even apologize efficiently. Now we have more delays coming. They should fire all management and let the conductors do everything. They are the only solid individuals. I would pay double for something reliable. They should bring back the bar car at least, because at a minimum while the trains keep getting worse, if everybody is drunk just maybe less people would notice how bad the MTA is.

  20. James H. Gray

    I had the rare pleasure of riding the Southport Car once. I was young and dressed for a job interview in NYC. I waited at the station and when the train stopped a porter put down the portable steps and hastened me to enter the car. I was offered a beverage but settled for water. I expected to be asked to leave at any moment but it never happened and so I enjoyed one of the best train rides of my life.
    I have since wondered if I really looked like a top executive at the ripe old age of 25.