December 1993

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Railroad 'Greasy Spoons'

Had Own Lingo


Richard F. Palmer

Index to articles by Richard F. Palmer

The recent article concerning the restaurant in Penn Yan brought back memories of some of the old "greasy spoons" I remember as a youth growing up near the railroad.

Such restaurants were usually located in communities that were railroad centers and junction points. One such place was Manchester, between Canandaigua and Palmyra, where the Lehigh Valley maintained a large classification yard.

Back in the 1940s, this was a very busy railroad yard which also served as a facility for maintaining steam locomotives. A huge roundhouse was located here as well as equipment for icing refrigerator cars that carried perishable items such as meat and vegetables in the days before mechanical refrigeration.

Nearby was located one of these small "Mom and Pop" restaurants to cater to the needs of railroad men. My father and I would frequent this place (name long since forgotten) while watching trains.

Railroaders had all kinds of names for this diner-"greasy spoon," "hash-house," "beanery," or, in some instances, something even stronger if the railroader was a little pickled from too much "Green River."

The railroad restaurant was probably the source of more slang than most of its counterparts. After all these years I can still recall when a little old man came in, sat at the lunch counter and ordered ham and eggs. He looked bewildered when the waitress turned her head and hollered to the short-order cook:

"A mogul with two headlights!"

In railroad terminology, a mogul was a 2-6-0, or an "eight-wheeler."

A second later the little man said:

"Beg your pardon, ma-am, but I would like to have the eggs turned over."

"Blanket the headlights!" yelled the waitress.

Another time a locomotive engineer sat down at the counter and ordered "Wheat cakes with coffee."

"Running orders," yelled the waitress.

The engineer also wanted a "steak well done."

"A hot box and have it smoking!" was the cook's orders.

Another patron ordered "scrambled eggs."

"A wreck on the mainline," yelled the waitress.

A brakeman said "let's see your switch list" and the waitress handed him a menu. "Give me a couple of battleships, a pan of Murphys on the mainline and a string of flats on the siding."

The waitress listened attentively while she slammed around the crockery and Woolworth silverware.

The brakeman continued:

"Cut the cow car off the Java train and switch me a couple of life preservers for a consolidation, as it's a long drag to the next feed tank and you had better fill the auxiliary to its full capacity."

Translated into English, he might have said:

"Give me a couple of pork chops, fried potatoes and a side order of wheat cakes. Also a cup of black coffee and doughnuts. Fill the lunch basket, too, for it's a long drag to the next hash factory. Put the coffee in the bottom and fill the upper deck with sandwiches and pie."

My father got a big charge out of this "show," saying "It's better than seeing Laurel & Hardy!"

If a waitress had a nice figure, the railroaders would say that she was "standard guage." "She walks with more movement than the Baker valve gear on a locomotive," they might also say.

The lingo seemed non-stop, especially on a cold winter Saturday morning:

"Gimme a locomotive covered with cinders, a couple of switch lights in the fog, a string of flats and a mug o' Java!" This was a porterhouse steak covered with onions, two fried eggs with grease poured over them, fried potatoes and a cup of coffee.

Most of this old-time slang has passed into oblivion. It also existed in hosts of other skilled crafts and professions.

What has always been amusing about such slang is that the people who are slinging it think everyone else knows what they are talking about. Probably the last "hold-out" today is the military, where soldiers, sailors and airmen spew forth a continuous barrage of acronyms that would put the old-time railroaders to shame.

Back to railroading, it sometimes took years before an "outsider" caught the gist of what a railroad man was talking about.

I remember one night at the Palmyra depot of the New York Central, my father asked the agent "How are trains 36 and 39?" The agent answered, "Number 39 is showing and Number 36 is in the color and will soon hit the bell." My father looked bewildered and muttered something about not being able to get any information from the ticket agent. What the agent really meant, my father later learned, was that Number 39 was backing off the wye (turn-around track) while the other engine was at the block signal waiting for a clear track to come into the station.

Another old story we were told involving rich slang concerns a nurse, who asked her patient, an old seasoned conductor, how he got injured in an accident in the yard.

"It was like this: I was making up a manifest in the garden and I had only one snake working with me. He was standing on the goat's back porch ready to cut off a battleship, and she was a heavy one. I was giving the eagle-eye a washout and yelling to the singer, "That'll do,' but he gave the jack's boss a quick come-along, and the hogger threw a kick in the drag.

"Then one of my brogans got caught in the target where I had the points half bent, so the reefer took to the ground on top of me, and here I am."

The nurse had a blank look, said thank you, and wrote in her report: "Farmer injured in taking care of animals."

Today, very little of this type of lingo is heard among railroaders. But if you listen intently to the scanner radio, you may still pick up a few slang terms peculiar to railroading such as "Selkirk Dispatch calling the head end of TV-2," or something similar. The light on the rear of a freight train which replaced the caboose a few years ago is commonly called "FRED" which is short for FREIGHT REAR-END DEVICE.

© 1993, Richard F. Palmer
Index to articles by Richard F. Palmer
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