Train Food

Jul 1, 2020

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

On April the first, in 1980, a federal judge ordered the liquidation of the great Rock Island Lines. Local citizens who had long since stopped traveling by rail flocked like vultures to bid on odds and ends of memorabilia for basement bars.

A railroad buff friend bought a collection of plates, cups, silverware, and napkins from the Rock Island Rocket diner, and now pretends to serve train meals at home.

It won't wash. It's like visitors from Montana who take home small bottles of river water and claim it's the Mississippi.

The train itself was a part of the meal.

I was six when I first accompanied my parents to the dining car for breakfast on a trip to Chicago. Our table was covered with a thick white tablecloth under a silver vase with a single flower, and at each place were more spoons and forks than I had ever seen for one person. For a boy used to drinking out of store-bought jelly glasses, this was being in a fairy tale. Momentarily, I changed from a restless child into a perfect young gentleman.

Do you remember those dining car waiters in stiff white uniforms? I still don’t know how they were able to pick up the slips on which we had written what kind of eggs we wanted, set the plates down perfectly, pour coffee into bouncing cups from a foot up and whisk the plates away at the end, all the while staring straight ahead in some other direction as if their arms were not connected to their heads.  Were we being treated as if we were rich and not to be looked at directly, or as poor people beneath notice?

The cups and plates, the silverware and linens, the candlesticks and marmalade bowls that once graced the Rock Island Lines dining cars are now scattered among scavengers. The dining cars themselves are torched to scrap; a few may still sit on narrow city lots as short order restaurants, embarrassed to be there.

When the last dining car serves the last meal on the final run of the last American railroad, a special grace, a certain elegance, will have disappeared from the lives of the common people. Sic transit; gloria mundi. So passes away a glory from this world.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.