IT BECOMES plain to all who pass through Grand Central Terminal in New York that the very keenest minds in American railroading have been making certain changes, not altogether successful, in the problem of redcaps — porters, the men the inexperienced traveler expects to carry his luggage to or from the train. The more experienced, who knows his way around Grand Central, of course expects no such thing; his luggage will be mounted on casters and he will drag it along himself, unless he has chosen to wear it on his back, with a shoulder harness and tumpline as if on safari in the north woods. But these stratagems are not for the elderly, the asthmatics, and the females, who must wonder occasionally what the great railroad executives have in mind for the luggage situation at their famous terminals.
Successors to the empire builders who spanned the continent, here are leaders alert to the faintest flutter of an equipment trust certificate, the creak of a sagging debenture, the telltale clatter of an overheated proxy; men who can foretell interest rates well into the next millennium, who number their employees in scores of thousands. Wherein could such men improve Grand Central, already a showpiece among terminals? In it one can buy anything from German cutlery to a Bikini bathing suit, bakery goods, cameras, potted plants; one can even buy — unless he has had the wit to get them from the hotel porter instead — tickets entitling him to ride on Grand Central’s trains. Where, amid such comprehensiveness, could failure reside?
The answer can be found at any rush hour when taxis are unloading at Grand Central’s Vanderbilt Avenue platform. The traffic itself is a mess, since the platform was laid out in less congested days; there is much shouting and whistle-blowing as a halfdozen cabs try to pull in where a halfdozen others are trying to pull out. Wild scrambling by the drivers and nimble footwork by the passengers serve to keep the mess more or less in motion, and vast piles of luggage accumulate.
Picking their way through the confusion and occasionally stowing a few bags on a truck are a handful of redcaps — sometimes one or two, possibly none for long intervals. They are elderly, morose, and overworked. Although the passenger is charged a quarter for every item of luggage they carry, the redcaps manage to convey the impression that they are grossly underpaid — as, for all the passenger knows, they may be. Whatever the reason, they are extremely selective about whose luggage they will deign to carry, and because no system of any sort controls this, the passenger who makes the most noise and hands out the most money is the next to receive their gloomy favors. The traveler who refuses to proclaim his self-importance and generosity can be hung up for 45 minutes or more right where the taxi left him. (It is sometimes worse at Pennsylvania Station, where one can lose an equal amount of time waiting for the taxi to reach the unloading point.)
It is no exaggeration to say that any rush-hour departure, especially if weekend or holiday travel is heavy, can require as much as an hour at the terminal simply to get the luggage from taxi to train.
The explanations one hears fur the inadequacy of the redcap service are various. Some believe that the redcaps themselves prefer to keep their numbers small, so that each man’s share of the takings will be larger. One hears that redcaps are still dependent on tips, and that the 25-cent fee has reduced their income from this source too heavily. Others say that with the disappearance of the “servant class” — not that one ever existed here — it is no longer possible to find people willing to do the dirty work, although this theory ignores the fact that every factory and mine usually has far dirtier jobs to fill than the redcaps’ task of trundling luggage about in Grand Central. Still others have been told that the carriers and terminal companies cannot afford to maintain enough redcaps to meet rush-hour needs without supporting them in idleness for the rest of the day.
Of course none of these explanations makes any sense. Neither does deficiency of redcap service make sense. Passengers are not expected to eke out the engineers’ wages with tips, nor is it suggested that they should chip in for the ticket sellers or the men in the information booth. (A few more ticket sellers wouldn’t do any harm either, while we’re on the subject.) Everything costs money, whether it’s a porterhouse steak, the weekly quota of brass polish, or a few more platoons of redcaps, and here then is the solution of the redcap problem: Let the railroads hire enough able-bodied redcaps and pay them enough money to move the luggage along. If extra crews are needed at rush hours and weekend peaks, part-time employment — long since lamiliar to other businesses dealing with the public in large numbers — could be arranged.
Surely when New York Central converted a six months operating deficit of $6.7 million in ‘54 into a profit of $26.5 in ‘55, not all the gain came from cutting down on the redcaps. But that’s about the way it looks around Grand Central nowadays, especially at the rush hours.