Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Sex on the trains: anecdotes from Henry Kisor's "Zephyr"

At the conclusion of Alfred Hitchcock's 1959 film, North by Northwest, Americans were shown the romance of making love on a train. (Immediately after the scene pictured above, where Cary Grant hoists Eva Marie Saint onto the upper berth of a Pullman compartment, Hitchcock cuts to the train going through a tunnel, just to make sure the audience knew what would happen next.) In earlier days before private compartments were common, the lore of the Nights Behind the Green Curtains” enticed many young couples to book a Pullman section, where only the heavy curtains separated them from other passengers traversing the train. The Pullman honeymoon was a grand American tradition.

There are still honeymooners who ride the sleeping cars. (The Pullman Company got out of the sleeping car business in the late Sixties, though older passengers sometimes refer to “Pullmans.”) Of course, it's not just honeymooners and other married couples who make love on the train. And not just in the sleeping cars.

Sex on the train has surely been happening ever since there were trains going any distance. A friend, now in her eighties, recalled seeing a couple have sex in the coaches (under blankets) in the 1940s. I've been reading Zephyr: Tracking a Dream Across America by Henry Kisor (New York: Times Books, 1994), and he has a section about sex on the trains. Here are a a few choice passages:

“Each Superliner sleeper compartment fronts onto the aisle with large glass windows and doors covered by curtains not always drawn completely in the couples' eagerness to get down to business. 'You wouldn't believe the the nonchalance of some of those people!' attendants often say. Casual as they may be about the morality of consenting adults, they're fiercely protective of the sensibilities of the other passengers. To Amtrak crew, sex is not a spectator sport.”

“Very late at night, when the entire train is sleeping except for the conductors huddled in their table far up in the dorm-coach, youngsters for whom nocturnal groping is too tame will tiptoe down to the lower level of their coaches and disport themselves inside the tiny bathrooms. To do so requires an athleticism sometimes defeating to those for whom the bloom of youth has disappeared. A favorite place of assignation therefore is the much larger handicapped bathroom—much to the irritation of wheelchair passengers who need to relieve themselves in the middle of the night.”

(Rather than occupy the accessible restroom, amorous couples could take advantage of the larger dressing room in the lower level of the Superliner coach. It has quite a bit more room than the little cubicle toilet compartments, though not the floor space of the accessible room.--SCW)

...the Starlight had stopped one evening in Sacramento, and [Conductor Glen] Sullivan was offloading passengers from a Superliner coach with a large baggage room on the lower level, separated from the vestibule by a sliding door with a large window. As he helped passengers down onto the stepbox, he said, 'I hear this familiar murmur. People are saying, as they always do when they get off, “Where's my bag, Martha?” and “Joe, have you seen the grip?” But there's a funny gasping in the middle of the murmuring. I didn't think about it at first, but after we got the detraining passengers and we're getting the new ones on, the gasping starts up again. I realize there's something going on here, and look through that window to the baggage room. There they are, completely nude, just having a ball in front of everybody. They were just totally oblivious to what's going on the other side of the door. And I said, “Oh my God.”

'After we hustled everybody upstairs, I went back downstairs and opened the door, and said, “C'mon, folks. You know everyone's been watching you!” The girl said, real enthusiastically and with a big smile, “Yeah.” So I said, “Are you going to be long?” She said, “All night.” I said, “Oh, Jesus.” I went and got one of our plastic trash can liners and taped it over the window on the inside. I don't care what people do so long as nobody sees them. And they said, “Thank you very much.” 'Nice folks,' he added with heavy irony.”

Kisor has several more anecdotes about sex on the trains, and I suspect conductors, trainmen, and on board service personnel on Amtrak and its predecessor railroads can recall thousands more. But such stories surely do not compare with the mystery of Nights Behind the Green Curtains, or the romance of the Pullman honeymoon.

Kisor's book is available as an e-book through and Barnes and Noble, and as a used book in hardback and paperback editions.