There are four entries (five, if you count that number one has two definitions) for ‘tradition’ in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary and I would say that all of them are pertinent when referring to the famous – perhaps, infamous – ‘grease trucks’ at Rutgers University.
There’s been a fair amount of press surrounding these once transient lunch mobiles. I recently saw an article (in The Star-Ledger, I think) that mentioned the trucks and how they are going to be affected by the new redevelopment projects that are about to happen at my alma mater. There was also a recent article in the New York Times that addressed the grease trucks’ cultural relevance to New Jersey’s state university and how they face possible extinction in light of the aforementioned proposed changes. Those changes will take place in and around the university’s main campus, particularly at the intersection of College Avenue and Hamilton Street, across from Scott Hall, where the trucks are now permanently located; but for how long?
I don’t know if other colleges and universities have grease trucks. I suspect they do - since they’re simply lunch mobiles - but their trucks may not be as ingrained into the identity and cultural experience of the school’s students as the ones in New Brunswick are to the Rutgers student body, past and present. And, to faculty too! There really is something ‘Rutgers’ about them. If you’ve attended university in New Jersey, whether you went to Rutgers or not, if the topic of food trucks comes up, for certain, you’ll mention or think about the ones on College Ave. I don’t know what will become of them but, like most RU students who’ve walked down College Avenue and spent any time on campus, I’ve had my share of being a grease trucks devotee.
My first experience with the trucks came around November or December of my freshman year. My first two years of college, I was a commuter taking an early bus from South Orange to Newark, where I’d catch the New Jersey Transit Northeast Corridor train to New Brunswick. If I were lucky, meaning my sister didn’t need the car and/or my parents were on one of their long stints in Manila or Hong Kong, I could drive and leave as late as 7:15am to catch my 8:10am class. When taking public transport, my bus was at 6:50am.
Anyway, during that time I joined the RU squash club and made friends with other Asian expat students. They were from Singapore and India and I’m still in touch with some of them. Coming from then British-ruled or formerly British-ruled cities, we played soft ball (yellow and white dot) squash as opposed to the hard ball version many of our American club-mates were playing. So, in addition to our background, we had the sport to speed along our friendships. It was one of these friends from Singapore who took me to my first grease truck. It was a Wednesday, I believe, and we’d arranged to meet after my classes on the Livingston College Campus (now the Kilmer Campus) for lunch before going to my much later classes on Douglass, the Women’s College, where my department (Exercise and Leisure Studies) was located. I don’t remember what I ate but I do remember my friend being very specific as to which truck we were going to queue up. We hadn’t just arranged to meet for lunch. We’d arranged to meet for grease truck food.
From then on, especially with the cold weather upon me, the grease trucks became a regular stop on my way to writing classes and economics labs. They were located in Murray Hall and Scott Hall, respectively, in the Voorhees Mall. I’d pick up a cup of coffee – light and sweet, of course – which would be served in one of those blue and white, Greek motif cups and a bagel with butter or a coffee roll. From these regular stops, I started to discern which trucks made the coffee exactly the way I like it, which trucks had the best French Fries, which ones had the best Taylor Ham, egg and cheese on a roll and so on. At first, you just go to whichever truck has the shortest line. But, when things don’t taste the same, you go back to the truck that gave you exactly what you wanted, how you wanted it and you keep going to that truck.
The College Avenue grease trucks, you see, aren’t just a convenience for Rutgers students and faculty. They’re personal. Each semester, because you’re on a schedule, you pass them on the same days, at the same time. They’re familiar, reassuring. Regrettably, I forget his name (Abad comes to mind), but there was one truck whose proprietor and I started to get to know each other. We’d talk about football (soccer) and Taekwondo. He’d ask about Hong Kong, which is where I grew up and still call home. And, he’d even give me free coffee on occasion. One time, as I crossed the street to get to class and the line in front of his window was life zapping long, he saw me as I passed through the truck’s back door, next to where the generator was set up. He called me over and gave me a coffee. When I reached for my wallet, he waved me off. The times I visited his truck after that, he never made mention of it and I still got free coffee now and again. A couple of times, he’d even throw in a bagel.
The trucks become extremely personal, in fact, that a student will risk being late for class – and not just a large lecture where one can get lost in but a small lab or seminar in a much smaller classroom – by getting off at the stop closer to his chosen truck and away from the building his class is being held just to get a particularly made drink or sandwich. Even though you’re not likely to see the owner of the truck in any other setting, he and his truck become ‘yours.’ They’re part of your college experience – your Rutgers experience – and they’ll stick with you for years after you’ve stored your cap and gown. The trucks become so personal and specific that, whether you are going to be late or not, you’ll find yourself running from one end of College Avenue to another and back to get fried mushrooms from one truck, coffee from another and a hotdog with the works from a third. This might sound impractical – ridiculous and crazy even - but it’s all part of the unique experience the grease trucks and Rutgers are. Perhaps this is one of those things you’d have to be there to really understand and appreciate. One time, when I was studying in the Rutgers College student centre, I overheard other students negotiate a food run. One said he was going to get a burger from one of the trucks, which he named. The next person asked the first if he could get the same thing for him but at a different truck. It’s crazy, but like I said, one’s relationship with a grease truck is that personal and that specific. (I didn’t but I was tempted to jump in and ask the first guy to make a stop for me.) The food from a grease truck, back then anyway, wasn’t exactly the healthiest - burgers, dogs, fries, bagels, doughnuts, etc. – but it’s quick, inexpensive and comforting. And, when you want comfort, you want a truck you can trust.
I graduated from Rutgers in 1991 and I’ve gone back frequently in the years that followed to play tennis with a classmate, watch the US Men’s National Soccer team play Colombia, and compete at Grandmaster Y. B. Choi’s annual Open Taekwondo-Karate-Kung Fu Championship, which was always held in The Barn (the College Avenue campus recreation centre). In the 2000s, I took my wife down to show her where I went to school and to listen to His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. Just last spring, we brought our son and I got to reminisce with a meal at Stuff Yer Face, which hasn’t changed much. We even bought him a red hooded Rutgers sweatshirt. With regard to the grease trucks, though, it was a trip in 2003 that stands out.
I went to the stadium on the Busch Campus with a friend to watch Manchester United’s practice. After it was over and he got autographs and awed at some of the best footballers in the world, we drove to College Avenue for a Fat Cat. (My friend from Singapore, the same one who introduced me to the grease trucks, also introduced me to this ridiculously generous sandwich, which I have to say has gotten much smaller - by more than half - from what it was when I was an undergrad. The size and variety of the Fat Cat is one of the two things that struck me but I’ll talk about the Fat Cat in another blog post.) The other thing that struck me was the location of the grease trucks. There were far fewer in 2003 than when I attended Rutgers (1987-1991). Then, they were lined up on the quad side of College Avenue from Scott Hall all the way down to the dorms just before Brower Commons, the College Avenue dining hall. Now, they’re safely ensconced in a lot behind the bus stop across from Scott Hall on one side, at the corner of College Avenue and Hamilton Street, and frat houses on the other.
They were still there but there was something bland about my grease trucks experience in 2003. Maybe it was because it was summer and not a teeth-chattering December afternoon. Maybe it was because there weren’t many students getting on and off the D and G campus buses and rushing to class in an intense frenzy, harried the way only a self-important college student can be harried. It was bittersweet for me, to say the least. Nonetheless, my friend and I got our Fat Cats and we sat on a concrete stump to enjoy our burgers and talked about football.
In 2012, the grease trucks are still there in that same lot. I’ve been down to Rutgers a handful of times since 2003 but I see things with an older man’s eyes. The grease trucks may not be what they used to be but at least this generation has its version of them. I hope they stay in the Scott Hall area. That’s where they’ve always started (or ended, depending on which side of College Ave you’re coming from). I don’t know where the new proposed location is for them, if there is one. I hope there is one. There’s nothing like them, especially the way they were when I was a student at Rutgers. Independently owned and rivals for the same crumpled dollar bills in students’ pockets, they form a fleet nonetheless. Lined up, front-to-back and side-by-side, separated each by a generator that purrs as familiarly as the cat you left at home and weren’t allowed to have in your dorm room, they’re there for every Rutgers student. They’re unacknowledged and unconditional friends. If you listen carefully enough, you can almost hear the generators whispering, “We’re here if you need us. If not today, then maybe tonight. If not tonight, then maybe tomorrow.” Either way, they are a part of Rutgers – a tradition – and they should be maintained.
I’ve rambled enough about this to the point of needing a pick me up. Think I’ll get myself a coffee, light and sweet, of course.