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.
Supreme among staff cafeterias was the one in Montreal. Not having been there in years, I do not know if it still stands up. It is the only staff cafeteria I have ever seen that had real French Onion Soup in a crock with the melted cheese forming a roof over it. It was delicious and made field trips up there in the winter worth it. I recently ate in Zurich's staff cafeteria, and it is not bad either.
On day shift some facilities get visited by what we always called "Roach Coaches." These are usually not like their name describes. Shiny and fitted with sides that lift up, they dispense hot and cold sandwiches and can be quite good. You would be working inside the shop, and there would be a blare of horns outside. Someone would get on the PA system and announce, "the Roach Coach is here." This precipitated a general rush outside.
I spent a lot of time in Toronto in the 1960s and fondly remember the coach pulling up in front of Genaire Limited's hangar. I am still searching for the meat pie that would match the ones off that truck.
One "Coach" more fitted to the title used to roam the ramps at Newark. A mother-daughter team owned and worked it. It was unusual in that it had a hot grill inside. One side lifted up exposing a counter. They made things to order and had been there for years. When the present generation of terminals was first built, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in all its might ruled them off the ramp. Somehow, they beat them and were grandfathered in and continued to roam the ramp. It was one of the few times the Port Authority got pushed aside. They bided their time and waited.
Security not being what it is now, they parked on the ramp and employees came out from the terminal and fingers to line up. The interior of the van was not clean, and the grill was dirty, but their portions were large and a steak and onions on a roll tasted great. They finally lost their franchise when a little bout of food poisoning gave the Port Authority their chance. Alas, one of the last vestiges of free enterprise left Newark.
Back at Idlewild/Kennedy. If things were slow we could grab the carryall and go off-airport to the Airport Diner over on Rockaway Blvd. This was a true diner being all bright metal and neon lit. It was open twenty-four and seven. On midnights it was stocked with waitresses who could put the Pope in his place. They had to be able to handle the sometimes loud airport people not to mention the inevitable drunks wandering from the Owl Tavern who needed a cup of coffee to "sober" them up.
Some people are stubborn and my friend Ted was one. The waitress came to take our orders. "Western omelet and fries and a coke." "Burger but hold the onion." "Give me potato salad and a coffee." "Tuna fish and jelly on rye with fries and just water." Huh! Ted had meant peanut butter and jelly, a sandwich he favored.
"Jelly doesn't go on tuna fish," said the waitress. "Are you nuts or something?"
Up went Ted's back. "I want a tuna fish and jelly," he barked.
"Okay," said the waitress. Her eyes squinted and off she went.
Have you ever seen a tuna fish sandwich with a full half an inch of grape jelly on it? I did. Ted ate it and pretended that was what he wanted. We all smirked, of course. He brought in a brown bag for some months until he lived it down.