The Pullman Porters


This is a story that an older gay man named “Sean” once told me about his father. It may be true. It may be bullshit. I took a few liberties with it:

Once upon a time, back in the days when Cab Calloway’s Band was the hottest thing and hep cats jitterbugged all night with their chicks at the Savoy in Harlem, a country boy named “Marvin” left his father’s tobacco farm in southern Virginia and came to Washington, D.C. to make his fortune.

Marvin was tall and fair-skinned, and lean and muscled from years plowing the fields behind his Daddy’s stubborn mule. He lucked up soon after coming to Washington — one of his Daddy’s cousins hooked him up with a Pullman Porter job on the railroad.

For a black man at the tail end of the Great Depression a job catering to the needs of white train travelers — shining shoes, serving up steaming cups of java and ironing suits — was a step up to the middle class.

And it sure beat cropping sticky, stinky tobacco leaves in the hot Virginia sun and getting kicked by that fractious mule.

A pullman porter helps a customer board a train.

“I’m in charge of showing you the ropes,” said “Frederick,” a Pullman Porter who had been on the job a few years longer. “Listen up Bama cuz I know you are fresh off the farm and still got chitlins stuck in your teeth. I’ll show you how to charm these white folks and make good tips to send home to Mama. Just follow my lead.”

Marvin listened to Frederick and soon was making good money working on the rail and seeing the bright lights and big cities, including New York, Chicago and Oakland and San Francisco way out West. And he and Frederick soon got to be chums.

But he noticed Frederick, a handsome, shorter, dark-skinned dude with his hair conked and slicked back, was different. He was worldly, well dressed and read novels and poems by Langston Hughes and Zora Neal Hurston ad Jean Toomer, not Popeye, Betty Boop and the other cartoon funnies like the other guys.

And in cities such as New York he always knew all the “frolic pads” to go to where the gin was good and you could score a reefer bag in the back.

Marvin also noticed that although Frederick had a gaggle of tender pidgeons hanging under him he never bragged about screwing all the girls in town like the other porters, including the married ones.

Truth be told Marvin had a secret too. He had been playing with guys since he was 16, straight back to that sissy farm hand named “Elijah” his Daddy would hire to help them bring in the crop. The girls just didn’t send Marvin the way a dude could.

“Look man, you can’t be telling nobody what we be doing,” he once said after Elijah had sucked his dick one evening behind the smokehouse after they had fed the stock.

“Daddy, I ain’t going to do nothing to stop you from giving me that good red peter,” Elijah said, wiping Marvin’s cum from his lips as he got up from his knees. “And shit if I tell on you I might as well spill the beans on a lot of other men around here that like to enjoy my boss tongue and lips on their dicks.”

A Pullman Porter makes up a bed berth. Photo courtesy of the Christian Science Monitor.

So Marvin was interested in finding out whether Frederick was like Elijah but heck he just couldn’t come out and ask. But one day he found out.

They were on a layover in New York City and like many porters shared a bed in a rooming house to save money. Marvin took off his clothes by the warm radiator and when he turned around  Frederick noticed the imprint of his long dick in his red long johns.

“Damn man, I bet the chicks be swooning over that dick . That’s a chippy’s playground,” Frederick said.

Marvin looked at Frederick. Frederick’s eyes looked the way Elijah’s did when he wanted to play with Marvin. But Frederick was a lot more handsome than Elijah, a country negro with buck teeth and big ears.

So Marvin unbuttoned his long johns and let his long uncut dick swing free. “You can play with it if you want,” he said.

And that’s how it started. Marvin and Frederick became lovers. They arranged it so they worked the same routes or were doing stopovers in town at the same time. Shit, they even pooled their money and bought a rowhouse in Richmond halfway between their work base in Washington and Marvin’s small hometown in southern Virginia.

Marvin couldn’t wait to meet up with Frederick, go to some quiet room, climb between Frederick’s muscular dark legs, slather his dick with vaseline, and ride that ass all night long while Billie Holiday wailed on the Victrola.

“I was liking you the first time I saw you walk on the train,” Frederick said. “That’s why I ran back to the supervisor to make sure I was the one who was going to teach you how to do the job.”

“So it was all a set-up? You were just hunting me down?”

“Sure was baby. I love myself a tall, yella nigga,” Frederick said.

And they kissed, turned over and hit the hay. They had to be up early in the morning to work the Silver Meteor from New York City to Miami.

Marvin and Frederick would have kept going like this but the war was coming and life was changing. And being black and gay back then was not easy — loose lips could cost them a job. So Marvin eventually decided to marry a woman because he wanted kids and to appear respectable. But he stayed tight with Frederick — shit Frederick was even the best man at his wedding.

After the war Marvin returned from service and got his job back on the train. He continued to arrange his schedule to have as much time with Frederick as possible although he had less time now that he had a wife and two kids with another baby on the way.

Two black men in a photo circa 1940s. Male friends often took intimate photos together in the 19th and early 20th centuries. However, some historians believe some of the couples photographed were gay lovers.

Marvin died before Frederick and Sean was settling his father’s estate when he found papers and letters about Frederick and the house in Richmond. Frederick was still living there. Sean, who by now was gay and out himself, was surprised to find his father had a double life. Did his mother know? There was no way to find out. His parents were dead.

He called Frederick and arranged a visit. An old man answered the door. Despite the fact he was around 80 years old Frederick was still dapper and handsome, his once pomaded hair now white and worn in a close-cropped natural. A thin mustache above his full lips just like guys used to wear in the 1940s.

Sean looked around the small neat house. There were pictures of his father. Pictures of his father and Frederick hanging with gay men he had never met. Pictures of himself and his mother and siblings when they were children. Clothes belonging to his father — a suit jacket, bathrobe and worn slippers — hung in the closet. It was like his Dad had a second home away from home.

“I can talk to you now because your parents are dead and I see the apple don’t fall far from the tree — you have the same tastes your father did and you look a lot like him,” Frederick said, chuckling. “I loved your father and he loved me. But I understood why he decided to take a wife. I just couldn’t do the same with a good conscience although a lot of gay black men back then did. But I supported Marvin in all he did.”

“When I die I’m leaving this house to you and your brother and sister, Sean. I don’t have no family. But your father told me every little thing you kids did so it’s like I knows y’all.”

“You come back anytime and visit whenever you want. It’s like I’m sitting with your Daddy again.”

And Sean did visit Frederick every time he went through Richmond, until Frederick died in his sleep a few years later.