My Lunch with Pearl Bailey

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[This Commentary originally appeared in the September 13, 1990 issue of The Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel.]

CarosaCommentaryNewLogo_259I used to always ride the train. An unnatural fear caused me to seek every opportunity to avoid flight. Yes, yes, I know all the actuarial tables say flying is the second safest form of transportation (after elevators). In that portion of my life when time seemed less important (namely, both during and immediately after my collegiate years), I viewed the train as the preferred method of travel.

The train relaxed me. It allowed me to read. It permitted me to get up and walk around. It provided the opportunity to be alone or discover new friends, depending on my mood. Most importantly, it forced me to slow down. Once I boarded the train, I knew I would next step foot in New York City (usually to board yet another train before I reached my final destination of New Haven). I also realized the trip would take eight hours.

The trains from Rochester to Grand Central Station tend to leave our city very early in the morning. I perpetually chose to ride the earliest train. This meant my father would have to drive me to the train station at about 5:30 in the morning. He never complained, though. Maybe he was just as tired and numb as I was, so the inconvenience of the hour never fully registered.

I had a regular routine when taking the train. I would often settle in my seat and sleep until just past Utica. Then I’d wake up and begin tackling the many magazines and books I had brought with me to read. I made sure I had a good mix of newsweeklies, science journals and the two most recent issues of Foreign Affairs. The variety kept my mind fresh and attentive.

Shortly after our scheduled half hour delay in Albany (to wait for the train from Boston), we would begin the final leg down the scenic Hudson River. At this point, I would start to consume the lunch either I or my mother had packed the night before. Lunch usually included two salami and provolone sandwiches on white bread, a banana, an apple, some carrots and celery and, lest you think I’m a health nut, an entire canister of Pringle’s potato chips.

Upon arriving in New York City, only about half of the canister of potato chips remained. I would disembark quickly, rush to the main lobby, look over the time tables to identify which track held the New Haven line, and dash off for the train. Rarely did I have to wait long between trains.

Shortly after I graduated, I returned to New Haven for the annual hockey banquet. Though I could afford the plane, I took the train, thus squandering one of my scarce vacation days on vacuous travel. My father drove me to the station hours before the sun rose. Not being a popular time of year for travel, I found myself a nearly empty train when I boarded. I took a pair of seats, put my bag down in front of me and went to sleep.

I felt us stop in Syracuse, but remained in a semi-conscious state of slumber. Someone got on, was greeted by the conductor and sat down across from me. Still technically asleep, (my eyes were closed), I figured I didn’t have to say hello. The car buzzed with excitement for awhile, although I couldn’t figure out why. The activity seemed to be centered on the person sitting across from me. My eyes opened just a crack. I spotted the person’s dungarees and Georgetown sweatshirt. I fell back to sleep.

In my dream or in real life someone said, “Hi, Pearl.” A husky male-like voice responded. I concluded the person across from me must have been a basketball player from Syracuse whose nickname was Pearl. I slept until Albany.

Things quieted down by the time I woke up for my traditional lunch. I watched the great escarpment along the river pass by slowly as the train moved south towards New York City. I felt sorry for the person across from me. I could tell from the corner of my eye the person watched me as I ate my lunch. Sitting silent and alone, I felt the least I could do was offer this stranger a Pringle (which, by that time, was all I had left).

“Would you like some potato chips?” I volunteered. The person smiled broadly and said, “No, I don’t want to eat your food.” I was taken aback. Not by the response, the tone of which was very kind, but by the fact that this person was a woman, not a man. Quickly, to cover my shock, I countered, “Oh, no! Don’t worry, I always bring too much for me to finish. Please, have some Pringle’s.”

“Well, OK,” said the strange woman. “To tell you the truth, I’ve been eying them for quite some time now.”

Thus began my three hour conversation with this unique and very kind woman. We talked about her visits to Rochester (mostly with her husband). We discovered our mutual fear of flying. She talked about Georgetown. I talked about Yale. She encouraged me to take graduate courses; I asked her if she had been talking to my mother.

We spent a lot of time talking about my family. She spoke very caringly of the members of my family, especially my grandmother, even though she only knew them from the stories I told her. She particularly liked to hear about all the Italian cooking that went on in my family. I told her to give me a call the next time she was in Rochester and I’d cook her some homemade sauce.

I gave her my address. She told me what a nice young man I was for sharing my potato chips with her. As we detrained, she promised to send me something. I said she didn’t have to (I couldn’t imagine what this lady would send me). We parted, she for Penn Station and me for New Haven. I never knew who she was.

Several weeks later I received an unmarked package in the mail. In it were two books by Pearl Bailey and an autographed picture. She was really a nice lady.

Next Week #76: Saddam’s Savage State (originally published on September 6, 1990)
Next Week #78: …On Vacation, Back Next Week… (originally published on September 20, 1990)

[What is this and why is here? See Interested in Discovering My Time Machine? for more details.]


  1. Chris Carosa says

    Author’s Comment: In a small rural town, people tend to only read about famous celebrities. They rarely, if ever, actually meet them. Life has provided me with certain uncommon experiences, including the rare occasion of bumping into and engaging a well-known personality every now and then. Usually, unlike this story, I knew who they were. In almost every case, except the one involving the Baltimore Orioles’ Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer (but that’s another story), I treated them as I would any other person.

    When I arrived in New Haven after the chance meeting described above, I went to a dinner event and the subject of identifying the mystery woman I had just met on the train quickly became the talk of the table. My (older) friends felt it might have been Pearl Bailey. I wasn’t sure until I received her package in the mail.

    Pearl Bailey died on August 17, 1990 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She began her career in vaudeville and, after touring with the USO in World War II, she embarked on a Tony-award winning Broadway career. Her husband was acclaimed Italian-American jazz drummer Louie Bellson. An avid New York Mets fan, Pearl Bailey sang the National Anthem for the fifth and final game of the 1969 World Series. This game capped the Mets’ miracle season with a Series clinching victory of the Orioles. Jim Palmer did not pitch for Baltimore that game. Dave McNally did. McNally hit a home run in that game. In sixteen World Series plate appearances, McNally only got two hits. They were both home runs.

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