Railroad Bookkeeping With Valente and Conductor Bubbles
SUFFICE that he was called "Bubbles"; he was the conductor on the Central Railroad passenger trains that worked the Rockland Division out of Portland, Maine. A bachelor, he kept a room at the West End Hotel, across from Union Station, and appeared every morning for his first eastbound run with a carnation in his lapel. In those days railroads encouraged conductors to be surly and impolite, but Bubbles got his nickname from his shining morning face, his indelible smile, and his never faltering courtesy. Everybody loved him, and it was a pleasure to ride on his train. Once a week, both directions, one of his passengers was Valente, an immigrant fruit peddler who was just beginning a new life in America. Somehow Valente had acquired an elderly white horse with rimracked wagon and had started a house-to-house sales route out of Portland. Picking up his load wholesale on a Monday morning, he would vend his oranges, bananas, grapefruit, and whatever, through Yarmouth and Freeport, to Brunswick, and on to Bath, where he would be sold out by Friday afternoon. He had places to sleep and to stable his horse along the way. In cold weather he kept a lighted lantern under the blankets over his fruit, and he had warm stables overnight. Valente became a well-to-do man in a short time, and there are still people around who will remember him with respect and can name some of his grandchildren. Upon completing his week's route at Bath on Friday afternoon, he would stable his horse and take the evening westbound train to Portland and home. On the Saturday morning, he would return to Bath on the early eastbound, retrieve his nag and wagon, and backtrack to Portland in time for supper. Thus he came to know Conductor Bubbles, and Conductor Bub bles came to know Valente. Indeed, Conductor Bubbles would make a little ceremony when Valente came aboard, shaking his hand vigorously, calling him "Garibaldi," and picking his carnation from his lapel to stick it in Valente's hatband. Valente always took it home to Mrs. Valente. This had been going on for a year or more when the World War engulfed us, and the Bath Iron Works became active again after peacetime idleness. The steam trains through Bath became important for carrying shipyard workers, and all at once Valente found hi s quiet ride home to Portland a jostling, crowded, noisy occasion. He would get pushed around as he tried to get aboard, and sometimes couldn't find a seat. Everybody was a stranger. So this is what happened. Passengers on trains were expected to buy tickets at the station window before coming aboard. Cash could be offered on the train to the conductor, and he was prepared to accept it, but people just didn't do that. Now the shipyard workers, flush with wartime wages and brash with a big importance, didn't bother to get tickets, but came into the train to flash $10 and $20 bills at Conductor Bubbles and let him sweat things out. This was unkind. Conductor Bubbles either had to make change or punch refund cou pons so change could be had at the station window after the trip. Fares ran to 15 cents, and a few to 25 cents. Valente watched this a few times, and then one Saturday morning on his way to pick up the nag, he spoke to Bubbles and proposed a strategem. You see, on his westbound ride on Friday, Valente would have his week's money inside his clothing. Housewives who bought six oranges, a bunch of bananas, and two grapefruit were not, at that time, into big money. Valente didn't see many folding bills, but he got a lot of dimes. On the next Friday trip, a shipyard worker handed Conductor Bubbles a twenty, for a 15-cent ride, and Valente had the change already counted. Instead of a refund ticket, the shipbuilder had a pants pocket loaded with nickels and pennies, and Valente's smile was just as shiny as Conductor Bubbles's ever was. Valente said that on the third Friday every shipbuilder had his ticket. None of the commuting shipyard workers rode as far as Portland, so after they thinned out, Valente and Bubbles would do their bo okkeeping and Valente would have a chit he could redeem at the Portland window - for greenbacks, not coins. As the years rolled along, Valente mastered his English, and enjoyed many years as the esteemed gentleman of an illustrious family. His children all went to college. And those around his one-time neighborhood like to tell how, in his early days when he was poor and hardly able to make himself understood, he came to Bubbles's aid and "financed" the Maine Central Railroad.