My parents put me aboard the Panama Limited from Urbana-Champaign to Chicago. It was my first train trip alone. I had a new tweed sport coat, a tie that was choking me, and a $20 bill in my wallet. I would be met by my cousins Blanche and Ethel Doyle and taken to visit my Aunt Ida. I was to buy myself breakfast on the train. I rushed to the diner, was greeted as “young man,” and assigned a table for two. The other seat was soon occupied by a passenger from further front on the train. This meant he was from below Cairo, because from New Orleans to Cairo the train was all Pullman, and then they added day coaches for the people from Illinois who were making the trip to Chicago—around two hours in my case.
In those days you filled out your own Guest Check. This news seemed to subtly alarm my new companion. There was a sturdy pewter pencil holder with one of those stubby golf card pencils. I carefully printed out: “Pancakes and coffee.” The waiter picked up my order. He asked my companion, “What will you-all be havin’ this mornin, sir?” He replied, “I think I’ll have the same thing my friend here is having.” He could not have seen my order. He could not read or write.
Our orders arrived. Before me sat arrayed a majestic assortment of heavy pewter containers, which would not spill if the train rocked. Water. Coffee. Maple syrup. Cream. Half and Half. Sugar. I carefully poured syrup over my pancakes, and coffee into my cup. This was a big deal: The first cup of coffee in my life. I was king of the world. I dug into my pancakes. Something was wrong. They tasted bitter. I looked again at the table. If the coffee was on my pancakes, then where was the maple syrup? I blushed bright red. I was never going to admit my mistake to the waiter. Trying to make the best of a bad situation, I picked up my coffee cup and poured it over the pancakes. My friend studied this, and then poured his own coffee over his pancakes.