Ruminations from the Ramp
Roach Coaches and Gastronomic Delights
By Tony Vasko
In 47 years of working at airports, there have been few great dining experiences. When you get a thirty-minute lunch break, there is not much time for going very far so you are limited to what is on the airport or what is very near.
One always has the fallback of a brown bag or a lunchbox. The days of the microwave had not arrived when I started so it was a sandwich, a soda, a piece of fruit, and hopefully something really sustaining like a Twinkie or a Devil Dog. Down south the boys enjoyed their Coke and Moonpie. The culinary impaired, unable even to make a sandwich, could always bring in some crackers and a can of tuna fish or sardines. Sardines were looked on with disfavor by everyone else sitting in the same room. Some of the married guys had a thermos that their wife had stoked with hot soup. On a cold night it went down well.
Lunchrooms in maintenance hangars were usually decorated in bilious green, were dimly lit, and suffered from the spills and litter of the preceding shift. A vending machine with candy and cookies, a soft-drink machine, and a machine that alleged to dispense coffee were there. So was a refrigerator. If one cared to investigate, its remote reaches had a selection of forgotten lunches mutating into new forms of life.
Failing the lunch box, you could eat at one of the places on the field. One midnight shift there was little choice. At the then Idlewild Airport the only thing open at night was the "Greek’s." Political correctness was not in then. They resided for many years on the second floor of the "Temporary Terminal" right off the entrance to the Observation Deck.
This was definitely not a great place to dine. Their coffee however was great--thick and hot. They also had a wonderfully sweet and tasty apple pie, which in the summer attracted its fair share of flies. In the winter when you really needed it you had no worries and a slug of coffee and a slab of pie made you able to take on another round of putting chains on another tug.
Their hot dogs were dubious at night. With little turnover, a few vulcanized meat tubes sat forlornly in some grease on a grill that was rarely scraped. Their wrinkled look precluded even thinking of ordering a dog. A burger was a possibility but went onto the same grill. The cook, cigarette dangling from his lower lip, pressed down on it with his spatula to drive out any juice from the meat. Lots of ketchup and relish made it possible to eat.
Eventually the International Arrivals Building went up at Idlewild, and we moved over to the West Wing. We could eat in the line shack itself or go upstairs into the terminal. There was no room for anything like the "Greek’s" in that edifice. On midnights all that was open was the "Milk Bar." In reality it was a lunch counter. It too had its surly waitresses.
Mort was my leadman and was naturally very opinionated. He also loved apple pie. The former substantial slabs of pie at the Greek’s dwindled at the Milk Bar to a far smaller wedge, but it must be admitted they were thick.
Served with a rather skimpy slice, Mort exploded and demanded that he get a slice fit for a lead mechanic. He berated the waitress who glowered back but took the slice. Mort turned to the rest of us and boasted how he could get what he wanted. We meanwhile watched the waitress. Seeing Mort was preoccupied she took her big ham-hand and squashed the slice of apple pie down so it spread out on the plate. She came back and threw it in front of Mort who looked down at its now widely distributed contents and said, "Now that's what I call a slice." Did we tell Mort? Not right away.
Things improved with the opening of the other terminals. On second shift we often dined at the Eastern Terminal employee's cafeteria. This was actually quite good. So was Pan Am's over at their hangar.
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