It’s after midnight, but the lounge car of Amtrak’s red-white-and-blue-striped Empire Builder passenger express is jumping. A guitar player is whacking out some early Peter, Paul and Mary, followed by a bit of late Beatles and then a round of I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad with the crowd around him joining the refrain.
The man at the strings is Charlie Fike, and he is playing out of both love and duty. Part minstrel, part clown, part storyteller, the 34-year-old Fike has found a unique stage for his talents. Officially, Fike is the Chief of Onboard Services on the Empire Builder, and for him service is a word with no limits. This combination of unflagging zest and talent have earned him Employee of the Year honors from Amtrak and surely has helped boost the Empire Builder’s ridership (up 14.9 percent in the past year alone).
Charlie Fike is a throwback to a more leisurely era, when riding the rails appealed to the restless imagination of America, when Woody Guthrie sang paeans to freight-hopping hoboes and when Hollywood built movies around sleek hotels-on-wheels like the 20th Century. For Fike, nicknamed “Railroad Charlie,” the glory of rail travel still lives. “I’m selling the adventure and the romanticism that make trains totally unique over buses and airplanes,” he says.
Fike starts selling at 2:45 p.m., when the Empire Builder pulls out of Chicago’s Union Station bound for Seattle, 2,200 miles away, with some 350 passengers in 10 double-deck cars. Before departure he has inspected the stock in the dining car, made sure the sleepers have their linen and even checked out the supply of brooms, mops and soap. Then as the train rumbles westward, Charlie’s voice comes over the train’s public-address system: “You’re currently traveling on the safest form of transportation known to man,” he intones, soothing passengers about the recent spate of Amtrak disasters (see p. 41).
For the rest of the 44-hour trip Charlie remains a man in motion. He scurries through the train arranging cakes and personalized cards for passengers celebrating birthdays or anniversaries, shuffling off a dance step or two in the aisles, providing disembarking travelers with hotel and sightseeing tips. He pays particular attention to children. “Kids can be a real asset to you or they can wreak havoc throughout the train,” he says.
Adorning himself in mime garb, rubber nose and clown makeup, Fike prowls the train bouncing invisible balls and luring kids into tug-of-war games with an invisible rope. He dons a bear-cub hand puppet, passes out children’s books and sends youngsters on scavenger hunts for items such as empty soda cans and feathers.
When the small fry are tucked away, he pulls out his guitar for the performances he bills as 90 minutes but which usually last until the final reveler heads for his seat or bed. Passengers who happen to have carried instruments aboard find themselves pulled into impromptu shows. In one memorable session Fike, two other guitarists, a banjo player, a flutist and a 350-pound conga drummer jammed till 2 in the morning. “I could envision the outside of the train as it moved down the tracks,” Fike says, laughing. “All of the cars are moving straight except for this wild car rocking from side to side. We made some extraordinary music.”
Charlie’s day on the road usually ends at about 2:30 a.m.; then he catnaps and is at it again at dawn. On the P.A., Charlie gives news bulletins, the latest sports results and a running spiel about the glories of the Western scenery. In the last he includes Washington’s Cascade Tunnel, snow-capped mountains, bald eagles, old forts and even a scruffy salvage yard with a junked bus that has been converted into a pseudospaceship emblazoned “Santa’s Super Rocket.” “This interplanetary cosmic attraction is quite interesting to look at,” announces the irrepressible Charlie.
He once invited passengers to catch a glimpse of the monument marking the geographical center of North America near Rugby, N.Dak.—two hours after the train had passed by the spot. “It’s easy to lose track of where you are and what day it is,” says Fike of his marathon schedule of trips halfway across the nation (the westward journey ends at 9:15 a.m. in Seattle). After a one-day layover in a hotel, he works the train ride back to Chicago, then takes five days off before starting the cycle again.
Fike, who was born in Cleveland in 1950, got his first taste of railroading at 12 when he won a newspaper-carrier contest that took him to the Seattle World’s Fair. Growing up, he also became attracted to show business and at 22 started training as a dancer. He attended Garfield Senior College in Painesville, Ohio for three years but left in 1976 without getting a degree. He performed as a modern dancer with a college companion in Painesville, then moved to Seattle, where after a stint as a street mime he signed on with Amtrak as a dishwasher.
Charlie worked his way up to cook, chef, then waiter in charge of the dining car before being tapped in 1983 for his current $30,000-a-year position. Last December he married dancer Marlene Bialik, 28, to whom he proposed onstage at Lakeland Community College in Ohio at the end of a dance performance. The pair are restoring a 120-year-old two-story house in Painesville, seven hours from Chicago. At home Fike spends his spare time carving wooden rocking horses, which he sells for as much as $1,000.
Being Amtrak’s wandering minstrel has brought Fike rewards that eluded him on the stage: “I’ve never bombed on the train,” he claims proudly. But according to Railroad Charlie, his greatest satisfaction comes from the good feeling he is able to spread. For example, when a Fike-instigated lottery prize of a Christmas dinner for two in the dining car was won by a young mother with three children, a man in the seat behind her offered to pay for the other two meals. “He realized they didn’t have a lot of money, and he was really into the spirit of giving,” Fike says. “That’s part of the magic of trains. You become a self-reliant community and everybody becomes neighbors and friends.”