A Requiem for the Commuter Train Bar Car

Slate's Culture Blog
May 9 2014 4:00 PM

A Requiem for the Commuter Train Bar Car

Pour one out for Metro-North's bar car.

Photo by PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/GettyImages

Did you feel a mild disturbance in the force this week? As if millions of voices cried out “cheers” and were suddenly silenced? Yeah, it’s centered on the Northeast Corridor: The Metro-North train leaving Grand Central for New Haven at 7:07 this evening will be the last commuter run in the country to include a bar car. Technological progress dictates the demise of these rolling saloons; a minor American institution disappears into the sepia mists of Americana; we plot another data point along a line diverging from the nation’s old idea of itself.

Lushes have nothing to worry about (beyond the usual worries that, being lushes, they try to drink away): It is still permissible to drink alcohol on a Metro-North train, and vendors at Grand Central will continue to do a brisk business serving tallboys to anyone with a halfway convincing ID. But there is a difference in kind between having a solitary beer in one's seat and piling into a dedicated hangout to gab and flirt and hustle, and it roughly approximates the difference between belonging to a tenpin league and bowling alone, to invoke the title of Robert B. Putnam's book about “the changing character of American society.” Obviously, some of the developments intrinsic to the decades-long decline of the bar car are cheerful: Its energy was, once, that of a boys’ club, and it is generally for the best that gender roles aren’t what they used to be. Still, one greets the news of its passing with a reflexive sigh for the erosion of the old form of civic association.


Should you be nostalgic the bar car’s standards of service and presentation? Depends: Does a tender tear come to your eye at the thought of sucking red wine through a swizzle straw poking from the plastic lid atop a clear Solo cup? In my modest experience, the bar car’s most magnetic qualities are direct expressions of its generally repellent vibe. I do believe that City Journal's Matthew Hennessey had it right, last year, in describing the bar car as “a charmless steel canister”: “The bartenders, if they can be called such, carry themselves in the brusque manner of unionized public employees. The whole experience is cheap and transactional.” It is no wonder that—here I judge by a scan of Internet insta-elegies—many bar-car nostalgists have never been inside a bar car. This is one of those arenas where sentimentality rests most comfortably on a foundation of ignorance.

The bar car is by its nature a vehicle for wistful longing. The cars going out of service this week, built in 1973, hit a perfect note of faded glory in attempting to replicate mid-century swank; I direct you to a New York Times correction from 2010: “An article last Wednesday about the uncertain future of the bar cars on the Metro-North Railroad referred erroneously to their interiors. They are decorated with wallpaper designed to look like wood paneling; they do not have actual wood paneling.” But how swank was an old-school wood-paneled bar car anyway? How usefully does today’s AP story quote the bar-car regular who says, “It is a very Mad Men vibe”? Well, to judge by the most substantial New Journalism report on the scene—written by Gail Sheehy for New York magazine in 1968—the source is onto something with the Madison Avenue reference: “The talk is ad copy, not conversation,” Sheehy wrote of bar-car chatter. “The men jingle each other because they’re always thinking of leaving their jobs. They jingle the young girls ... because the girls smile back adoringly.”

Well, what about the 1950s? Was that the golden age? If we are talking about the bar car’s deployment as a literary symbol (and liquor-serving symptom) of suburban alienation, then yes. In the novel Rally ’Round the Flag, Boys!, a 1957 satire by Max Shulman, hero Harry Bannerman credits the railroad executive who installed bar cars on the New Haven line with keeping the peace in his corner of Connecticut: “every wife in Fairfield County ought to get down on her knees and thank him for every night.... Do you think us poor slobs could face what’s waiting for us at home if we had to get off this train sober?” Here is Paul Newman’s entrance, as Bannerman, in Leo McCarey’s 1958 film adaptation. He looks like the soul of grey-flannel futility as he bobs up and down, begging for a Scotch-and-soda and, it seems, any other release from the drab reality represented by his commute.

Tellingly, the writer most associated with the bar car is John Cheever. He’s a natural fit for the the role of its poet laureate, but it is very difficult to find references to in-commute boozing in his work. (I can locate only one quick mention, in “The Sorrows of Gin”: “Except when there was a heavy fog or a snowstorm, the club car that her father traveled on seemed to have the gloss and the monotony of the rest of his life.”) You are much more likely to discover Cheever characters drinking on inter-city rail services, as in “The Summer Farmer,” which happens to feature a line directly relevant to an evening suffused with bar-car reminiscences: “Memory is often more appealing than fact.”

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.



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