STAMFORD, Conn. – Last call came Friday for the bar cars on commuter trains between Manhattan and Connecticut, a final run for rolling taverns where city workers gathered for decades to play dice, find jobs and hold annual Christmas parties with a jazz band.
The cars on the Metro-North Railroad are believed to be the last of their kind in the United States. With their faux-wood paneling on the walls and red leather lounges, they evoke New York’s “Mad Men” era of martini lunches.
On the 7:07 p.m. train to New Haven a day earlier, commuters snapped photos and recorded videos of the cars that became much more than places to simply have a drink.
“I moved to Connecticut 10 years ago, but I never would have met as many friends as I’ve met. It all started on the bar car, really,” said Nan Buziak Lexow. “It’s a sad day for all of us.”
Her husband, Fred Lexow, was a regular bar car rider for more than 20 years and was one of the original dice players. When he died in September 2012, she described him in his obituary as “a former regular rider of the 523 Club from Grand Central.” Fellow bar car riders attended his wake. Bartenders sent flowers.
The bar cars, which date back at least 50 years, are being retired because they cannot be coupled to a new fleet of train cars on the New Haven line. Transportation officials are hoping to buy new bar cars or retrofit some, but no decisions have been made yet.
Amtrak still serves alcohol in its dining cars. But the American Public Transportation Association says Metro-North is believed to be the last commuter rail line with bar cars.
“It was part of the commuter railroad experience,” said Art Guzzetti, the group’s vice-president for policy. “One by one they’ve been going away.”
The annual Christmas party until a few years ago featured a five-piece jazz band underwritten by a rider. The bar cars were also a place to make contacts for new jobs and for pranks, like gluing cans to the bar to trick one man who would come through and guzzle half-drunk beers, riders say.
Kyle Elliott said he started riding in the bar car 10 years ago but a job change two years ago has kept him away. He returned Thursday after hearing they were making their last runs.
“I know all these people,” Elliott said. “I’ve been to parties in the summer at their homes. I know their children. I’ve been to funerals of people that I’ve known in this bar car. We’ve shared all the things that you share with your friends in life through meeting each other in this bar car.”
Meghan Miller, of Branford, who’s been riding the bar car since 1997, said she showed up for the birth of a fellow rider’s child before he did because she was on an earlier train and the rider’s wife had called her as his emergency contact. She said bar car riders would buy her drinks and smoking used to be allowed.
“This is very much 1963. It is a very ‘Mad Men’ vibe,” she said. “That would be incredibly appropriate. If females are going to be on the bar car, you’re expected to hold your own.”
Mark DelMonte, of Wallingford, was known as the “mayor of the 5:48,” sending email alerts to fellow bar car regulars updating them on which of the dwindling number of bar cars were rolling.
“I wanted to take one of these cars, because they’re going away, and put it in my backyard,” DelMonte said. “It’s ugly. It’s orange. But it’s nostalgic and we love it.”
Christoffersen reported from New Haven. Associated Press writer Stephen Singer in Hartford contributed.