Joseph Gomez Interview Transcript
Joseph Gomez: I’m Joseph Gomez, and I was a railway mail clerk on -- I finished up on the Portland, New York and Boston, New York RPOs but I worked many other RPOs as a substitute too.
INTERVIEWER: Which rail lines did you work on the most and which locations did you travel between?
Joseph Gomez: I’ve travelled everywhere from Washington, D.C. to Portland, Maine, and I started out as a substitute, and as a substitute, I worked on the Boston, Spring, and New York, and the Pittsfield and Stamford RPO, the Stamford and New York RPO, the Winstead and Bridgeport RPO, the Boston-Waterbury RPO, and the Spring line which is the Spring and New York RPO. And when I made regular, I made regular on Boston and New York, and then transferred to the Portland and New York, and then bounced back to Boston and Washington RPO which was the last run I made.
INTERVIEWER: And how long did you serve as a railway post office clerk? Joseph Gomez: As a post office clerk, 12-1/2 years on the road.
INTERVIEWER: And do you by chance remember which years? Joseph Gomez: I started in 1953.
INTERVIEWER: Why did you want to become a post office clerk?
Joseph Gomez: I had an uncle that was a railway mail clerk and he described all the high points of the life. He didn’t dwell very long on the bad part. He told a lot only the good spots, but I had a wish that I was going to become a mail clerk, but in the meantime, my kid brother and I went and took a ride out west and we worked on a ranch out up in the Blue River in Colorado, and when we came back, the draft board was calling him and I made up my mind to join the Railway Mail Service, so that’s how I came to be a mail clerk.
INTERVIEWER: And what types of jobs did you have on the railcars?
Joseph Gomez: I did everything. I sorted pouches on the pouch table, I worked in the letter cases, and worked in the city distribution on letter cases and state distribution, and also I worked in the paper table, and I made throws and catches, and acted as a foreman also. So I did it all.
INTERVIEWER: And for any of the jobs that you just told me, could you walk me through a typical day on the railcar starting from when you went into work?
Joseph Gomez: Okay. If I was in the state of Maine at five o’clock at night, we would report to the mail car at track 17 in Grand Central and we would start working all Maine and Eastern New Hampshire mail and the Eastern Massachusetts mail as it came in, and they waited until nine o’clock. It was called the State Of Maine Train so it was a very important train to Northern New England. And so we would take the mail in until 9 p.m., and that’s when all of the daily newspapers descended on us which at that time were The New York Times, The New York Herald Tribune, The Wall Street Journal, The Journal of Commerce, the New York News, The New York Mirror, and The Journal American. They all published at that time so we took all those mails in and then we were off and running, and we would leave a few minutes after nine with the doors full of mail, and we would try to work it all off before we made our first stop in New Haven. And then, at that point, we would pick up more mail and we would off load mail that was going up to Springfield or Vermont in that area and to other trains. And then we ran through New London and Providence and Worcester and Lowell and Haverhill, and Dover, New Hampshire, and Portsmouth, and then we would start making throws and catches up in Biddeford, Maine and Old Orchard Beach, and then we’d stop to Portland and we’d drop off mail for about seven different trains that were leaving at that time.
INTERVIEWER: And out of any of the jobs that you worked, was there one that you liked the most?
Joseph Gomez: I like the state of Maine. It was another time and another place in another era. I was a young man in an old man’s job at that time. I was one of the youngest people on the road for a lot of the time. So we used to work long nights and then we would stay during the day at a place -- one of the place I stayed was at the Morton House, was an old-fashioned home up on the Western Promenade, a very dignified old home but we would go in the side door and go downstairs, and in the basement, they had a bed already made and a dresser, and we would take a shower there and sleep and leave a dollar on top of the bureau when we left, and I never met anybody that lived in the house or anything, but it was a very dignified, old-fashioned way to live and I enjoyed it so much.
INTERVIEWER: And which job did you like the most on the railcars?
Joseph Gomez: The pouch table was a very busy job because you had to get the mail out for the next stop and we worked very fast. And then we had a slogan, “Nobody’s up until you’re all up.” It was a good time that way because we all worked together very much.
INTERVIEWER: And was there anything that you ever disliked about any of the jobs or the positions? And this can be anything from a major complaint to a small tedious thing that you kind of brushed off.
Joseph Gomez: All the tedious things that we brushed off was, I mentioned, we were on track 17 in Grand Central and they used to bring the cars in in the summer time and they’d be baked from the sun, and it was metal cars, and we would be in the car, just get in the car, you’d start sweating right away because it was so hot, and you couldn’t turn the fans on in the car because all they would do is blow dust around, and so we preferred to work without it.
And it was dreadful down at 17 because the conveyor belts were all around you and they were trapping dust and the heat from the conveyors too so the temperature would frequently go well over 100° down there, and then we always loved to get a breath of fresh air when we went out through the tunnel out on 125th Street. That was the most complaint I had. And weather was a factor, you know? No doubt about it. And of course, the inconveniences of like train wrecks and what not.
INTERVIEWER: And what type of car did you typically work on?
Joseph Gomez: I worked on a 60-foot mail car. Most of them were marked with the New Haven railroad designation on them. They all ran from the 3200, 3600 series, and they were 60 feet and they had pouch racks all ready to drop down and you had to put up the stanchions which were the tables. And then you, what you call, dress the car. You put your labels in and the sacks in and the pouches in, and the clerks who are sorting the letters, they would put their manila headers in the permanent pigeonholes and then we would prepare to start sorting mail.
INTERVIEWER: And when you worked on the railways, do you remember what your starting and ending salaries were?
Joseph Gomez: Oh, gosh. I’m going to guess. I think it was $1.495 when I started. When I got through as a clerk, I can’t tell you what the salary was then because I stayed in the mail service, I stayed in the post office and then I went up to the supervisory ranks, to management. So I can’t give you a figure when I got through.
INTERVIEWER: But what you do remember, do you believe that the pay was fair for the amount of work that you had to do?
Joseph Gomez: I think so, sure. We were blessed. We had what we call a 48-minute hour which meant they would pay us one hour’s pay for every 48 minutes we work. The reason why they did that is because we had to study a lot of schemes on our days off. We had to memorize many states and cities in order to keep our employment.
INTERVIEWER: And what did you typically carry with you in your grip while you were on run?
Joseph Gomez: Okay. On my grip on the road, I carried my work pants and shirt and maybe a sandwich or two on the first day we went out because we’d go on for six days probably, and the revolver and a belt, and I would have my badge and key with me, and I would have a railroad-type hat to put on my head for the dust, and I usually wore some steel-toed shoes because you always dropped the things on your feet working in close quarters. So you had that, and usually I took a sweatshirt because a lot of the times, we would lose the heat in the mail cars in the old days.
INTERVIEWER: What was the longest trip you ever worked?
Joseph Gomez: Boston to Washington was the longest. That was near the end. That was train 176, 177. That was the last RPO that ran in the United States.
INTERVIEWER: And do you remember how long that took?
Joseph Gomez: Well, it wasn’t as long as the Port-New York, because at the Port-New York, we used to work a lot of time in what you call advanced time. Like I said, from five until nine o’clock at night before we even left the station. I’d say all in all, the Port-New York was longer because that arrived in Portland, Maine at five minutes to eight the following morning after leaving at nine o’clock at night so that would be the longest, yes.
INTERVIEWER: And while you were an RPO clerk, did you have a family?
Joseph Gomez: Yes. It was tough because you go away every other week, and I had three little children, too. INTERVIEWER: And how did you cope with leaving your family behind on long trips?
Joseph Gomez: That was not fun because we had to rely a lot on the rest of the family because it was a difficult thing but we made do, and the weeks that we were off, we were off together all the time. We always did things -- I worked another job too because trying to support a family, you had to do that, but I was always with children too.
INTERVIEWER: And how did your family cope while you were away on long trips?
Joseph Gomez: Well, I used to do the shopping and I left all of the groceries for them the day that we left, and we were a one-car family at that time so it was do with what you had and things were different then. It was a simpler existence. If you needed a quart of milk, you walked down the street and go to the nearest store and get a quart of milk. But other than that, most of the groceries were already purchased.
INTERVIEWER: What are some of your fondest memories of working on the railways?
Joseph Gomez: My friends, absolutely. They were the fondest memories. I worked better part of ten to 12 years with most of the same people, and I got to know them so well. I had friends from New Haven and New York and all points, and we were very close because we basically worked together, we ate our meals together, we slept in the same place in the Hotel Martinique and the Railway Mail Club and we slept in the same room, and so we were together for six solid days and nights. We knew each other maybe better than our wives did. It was a very close family. We had our little spats but not many.
INTERVIEWER: And do you still keep in touch with any of the former clerks? Joseph Gomez: One or two. Most of them are dead.
INTERVIEWER: Okay. Did the post office ever issue you anything either for your safety or for the positions you worked?
Joseph Gomez: Yes, a pair of goggles for when I made the throw and the catches. I used to put a pair of goggles on and looked through a shield when I was approaching the area where I had to make the throws and the catches. They gave us that for safety but you needed it badly because the cinders used to come up and hit you in the face. INTERVIEWER: And was there anything else that they ever issued you for your job?
Joseph Gomez: Yes. We’d have station slips that we had to put on the mail, and it had your name on it and you would stamp your name on all the slips so any mail that you sent out had your name on it, so if there was anything wrong, they would come back to you with it. So we had a lot of responsibility for doing things correctly.
INTERVIEWER: And were you ever in a dangerous situation or a bad situation while on the railway?
Joseph Gomez: Yes. I was in a train accident in East Greenwich, Rhode Island, and I was in a hospital in Stanton Island for six months at a marine hospital.
INTERVIEWER: And do you remember what happened?
Joseph Gomez: Yes. The train broke apart and we were thrown forward because the brakes automatically went out and I was thrown forward, and I hit a metal case and turned sideways injuring my face and then my back.
INTERVIEWER: And do you know why the train broke apart?
Joseph Gomez: Yes. It was just worn parts, I guess. Negligence on the part of the railroad. We were doing about 70 miles an hour at that time so that wasn’t good.
INTERVIEWER: And was there any other time when you were in danger or in a bad situation?
Joseph Gomez: Yes. We hit a car in a summer one night and we killed five kids coming from the University of Rhode Island. They were trying to beat the train to the crossing and we ran over them.
INTERVIEWER: And then, did you ever hear of anybody experiencing anything dangerous or put in a bad situation either on your line or perhaps a different line?
Joseph Gomez: Well, my friend, Brooks Hall, was held up when he was working a one-man job in Chatham in New York RPO. One night, it was a Saturday night, he was alone and the door was open and they stopped at a little stop outside New York City and three men jumped in the car and they had sawed-off shotguns and they wanted the Yonkers pouch, and they handcuffed Brooks to the metal rail there and Brooks didn’t have time to tell them anything so they grabbed the sack with the name “Yonkers” and they jumped out and all it was was a sack of newspapers for Yonkers. They grabbed the wrong thing and they got arrested and they all did a lot of hard time for it, but we used to kid Brooks, “Why didn’t you shoot it out with them?” He said, “There were three sawed-off shotguns sticking me in the face, I wasn’t about to shoot it out with anybody.” But he was good guy and he operated correctly the way he had to.
INTERVIEWER: And then, was there anything else that you ever heard of?
Joseph Gomez: We used to have a lot of fun there but sometimes we would take a little target practice going in the summer nights, we’d shoot the guns out at Old Orchard Beach. There was nobody there at that time so we were just -- to clean out our revolvers, we would shoot them out there. Oh, yes, there was an adventure sometimes when we were in a restaurant and some drunken guy would come in in the middle of the night and start things but we never got involved. It was a rough life because we worked long hours and away from home, so a lot of things could happen, but we try to stay away from those things.
INTERVIEWER: And, did you ever face or witness any type of racial discrimination while you were a railway post office clerk?
Joseph Gomez: Witnessed it? No, because I was very close to a lot of black fellows on the train. But one good buddy of mine, Hamilton Jenkins, told me a story about when he transferred up from down south and he told me that in this Birmingham, Alabama terminal, even if it was a federal building, they had drinking fountains for the black and the whites, and I couldn’t believe that at that day and age that they still had that, but he told me that it was true, and I guess it was. I just said, “Geez, Ham, at this day and age, it’s stupid the things they’re still doing down there.” But that’s the only incidence of racial discrimination I heard because we had a very close crew and we had two black fellows right in our crew.
INTERVIEWER: Okay. And then your answer kind of leads into the next question, did you hear of anybody else who experienced or witnessed racial discrimination?
Joseph Gomez: People used to use names at times. My name is Gomez, it’s a Spanish name, and people used to tease me and called me Gumez at times or something like that. Sometimes it’d get you irritated, making fun about your name. And somebody called me Gonzales and somebody called me Lopez and stuff like that, but I never took any of it too seriously. They were making fun of me but not maliciously. We knew better than that.
INTERVIEWER: Were you a member of any type of outside organizations such as a union or club? Joseph Gomez: Yes. I was in a Railway Mail Association, and I believed in it very strongly at that time. INTERVIEWER: And then, what did you guys do in the Railway Mail Association.
Joseph Gomez: If we saw an injustice occurring, we would have one of our chapter officers go to the superintendent and tell them that this is not the correct procedure or something like that. You shouldn’t be making somebody do this or that, and sometimes it’d get corrected and sometimes they just push it aside. INTERVIEWER: Could you give me an example of something that you guys thought --
Joseph Gomez: Well, it happened before my time but it was what they called the Quackenbush case. There was a fellow that was very active in the union and they tried to railroad him out of the service. This was when they were trying to bust the union at one time long before my birth but he was the guy that was active in the union and they tried to hook up some kind of charges on him and he had about 50 to 100 witnesses that says he never did that, and ultimately, the post office department, as it was known then, had to ultimately restore him to his position.
But he was kind of a hero to all of the mail clerks.
INTERVIEWER: And were you ever featured in any type of publication for the Railway Mail Association? Joseph Gomez: While I was a member of the organization?
Joseph Gomez: No. I did various things afterwards though that featured me, yes.
INTERVIEWER: And was there anything that you ever wanted to change about your position or any of the jobs that you had?
Joseph Gomez: I only wish that they had the foresight to keep the mail cars on, because at one time, you could mail a letter for Farmington, Maine in Grand Central at five minutes to nine at night and have it delivered up there in Farmington, Maine the next morning at ten o’clock, and you can’t do that today. They just never have been able to equal it so it’s just unfortunate. It’s progress in reverse.
INTERVIEWER: And what do you miss the most about being a railway post office clerk?
Joseph Gomez: Well, other than the people, I miss the roar, the sound of the train and when it’s rocking back and forth when you’re sorting mail and the urgency that was involved, and the spirit of togetherness that you had that you’re never worried about your own self because they would help you or you would help them. And the crew was the main thing, the crew. And the bosses were great. Some were knuckleheads but some of them were great. INTERVIEWER: And then for the last question, is there any other information that you would like to make accessible to researchers about your experience or position with the railway post office?
Joseph Gomez: Everybody had a nickname, and though there was -- I'm trying to think of someone who was -- I can’t think of it offhand, but there was some Tony’s. There were two [indiscernible] Tony the Cop, Tony the Comb, and it was just those names were examples. And our bosses had names too, and we even made up songs about them. One fellow was a hard-driving boss and his name was Joe Henry, and so when he left us, he was going to go on the nightline which is the big line, and so we made a song of, “Joe Henry, Joe Henry, to the nightline must go.
To the nightline where they’ll curse him so. If the ocean was mail and Joe Henry was a duck, he’d swim to the bottom and never come up.” We’d sing that to him. So we’d serenade him. I would think the best loved of all the bosses on the road was Johnny Walker. He was so well known by all the crews and loved by everybody that they used to sing about him. They’d sing, “Walker, Walker, Walker, walking all the time. Johnny, Johnny, Johnny, always feeling fine. Pulling pouches, never still, always working and always will, ask the boys and they’ll all say Johnny Walker, you’re okay.” And we’d sing it all together to him and we loved him and he loved us too.
INTERVIEWER: And then, anything else that you would like to share? Any funny stories that you may have had? Joseph Gomez: We had a fellow that drank a little too much one night and it was Christmas Eve and he thought he’d be able to get on board the train but we had a tough boss at that time, so he had told him he had to go ride in the coaches. So we sang a parody to Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer which was, “One night Christmas Eve, Herby, the boss came to say, Sammy, with your nose so bright, you will ride the plush tonight.” In other words, he will ride up front and not get paid for it. So, it was funny things like that we used to do.
INTERVIEWER: And then, anything else that you would like to share about your personal experience?
Joseph Gomez: No. I had 12 wonderful years, almost 13, on the road and I wouldn’t share them or anything. I look around now and I like to share experiences with somebody but there are very few people around to share them with. I just think of myself as probably like a dinosaur. I’m a member of an age that’s gone by and I think the world is better for us having been in it but I’m thankful to the Smithsonian, and you too, Kaitlin, because you’re trying to bring things back to life that a time that was and never will be again.