Most truck drivers hate being told they have to go out on Long Island. Not me – I was bummed that we wouldn’t be stuck for the weekend to enjoy the city! But this month, the story is not about the city. I “found” this story just around the corner from where we delivered in Maspeth, NY.
The driver we were running with, Darrell Zerbe of Watertown, Wisconsin, told us that he always eats at a place called the Clinton Diner when going to the location where we were headed. When I asked him why, he told me about how famous it was – having been featured in several movies, TV shows, music videos and commercials – and that the food and atmosphere was great. Now, I couldn’t wait to see the place!
When we arrived at the diner, I was surprised to see the words “Truck Stop” on the sign – the place is pretty small. But, from the time we walked in the door, it was such a treat. Sliding into the old red booth and then reading the back of the menu, which outlines much of the history about this famous little diner, I got to thinking that this would be a great story for my column. When I asked about writing this story for all of you, the waitress kindly told me that I would have to talk to Nick, the owner. And I must say I was most impressed with Nick. While talking to me about the diner, several other issues facing truckers that run into New York City came up, and Nick was very concerned and passionate about them.
Nick is very concerned about the 55’ length law in the outer boroughs and total lack of parking within the city, which usually forces drivers to go to New Jersey or Long Island when they should be resting. He also pointed out that if the trucks could come in at night it would make rush hour much easier. I could hear and see Nick’s genuine concern as we talked about the driver’s safety, their need for rest, and their struggles to find a safe place to park. Nick only has space to park a few trucks at one time, but that doesn’t change his passion for the subject!
There is no legal place to park trucks on NYC streets. So, NYC needs to designate truck parking in industrial areas, especially areas on truck routes, so that if drivers hit the 11-hour mark on their logs they can find a place to park legally (and not get caught in the catch 22 where they legally can’t park and they legally can’t drive). The distance between the New Jersey truck stop and the Long Island truck stop/rest area can be an hour of driving (or more) with traffic. We all know that parking and finding safe places to park has become a huge issue throughout the industry, and the worst part of working in NYC is the space – it’s just not there to expand or make things bigger. I guess when they were laying out the city they couldn’t have envisioned how big the trucks and trailers would get or just how many people would one day live there.
But, even with a limited amount of parking for trucks, the Clinton Diner has many loyal truck-driving customers. A lot of drivers will stop in after they get back from their day delivering in the city. Although the parking isn’t what most of us are used to when we say “truck stop” the locals (and out-of-towners like me) still like to stop there and enjoy a great meal in a relaxing atmosphere. The Clinton Diner, which was named after Governor DeWitt Clinton (1769-1828), sits on a little triangle at the corners of Rust Street, Maspeth Avenue and 57th Place, and was named the “2nd Favorite Truck Stop” in the Vivarin’s Guide to Truck Stops and Diners in both 1997 and 1998. With the limited amount of truck parking, that says a lot about how good this little diner really is!
The Clinton Diner, which opened back in 1935, is currently one of the last remaining original “Space Age Style” diners from the early 1960s still left in New York City. “Space” was the new frontier, and that spirit was reflected in the design of diners in the mid to late 1950s. Today’s new or renovated retro-style “diner-restaurants” feel cold and flashy and they lack the warmth, character and coziness that these old diners of the 1950s and 1960s still hold on to. But these “true” old diners are being gobbled up and quickly replaced with new construction. Again, it is another case of us losing a little piece of history, here and there, as these old diners are torn down. As stated on the back of the menu, according to the American Museum for Diners, “A diner is a place where the working class man can get a home-cooked meal at an affordable price.” This is what the Clinton Diner is all about.
Because the old Clinton Diner has remained the same since it was last renovated in 1965, it has become a very popular place to shoot movies and TV show scenes. When the diner is being used for a movie or television program, it’s closed to the public for obvious reasons. But when the shooting is over, the customers are welcomed back. To date, the diner has been featured in over 30 different feature films including “GoodFellas” (1990), starring Robert De Niro, and “You Don’t Know Jack” (2010), starring Al Pacino as Dr. Jack Kevorkian. They have also shot scenes at the diner for television shows like “Third Watch” (2000 & 2001), “Law & Order – Criminal Intent” (2006 & 2007), and “The Good Wife” (2010). Several music videos and commercials have also been filmed at the diner, including one of those famous “Got Milk?” (2001) spots. The list goes on and on!
On the back of the menu, along with the list of all the movies and such that have been filmed at the diner, is a little history about the neighborhood and how this place (Maspeth) came to be. Located just across the East river from Lower Manhattan on the western end of Long Island in Queens, it is hard for most of us to imagine, but it was once a very sparsely-populated rural area. In 1683, the borough of Queens was named after Queen Catherine Braganza, the wife of Charles II of England. At the beginning of the 17th century, Queens was populated largely by small farms and was predominantly rural. During the 18th century, the area started to experience growth in the area of manufacturing along the shores of the East river. The area became a borough of New York City in 1898 and rapid economic and physical growth has followed the merger ever since.
Governor DeWitt Clinton (whom the diner was named after), held every important office in New York State at one time or another in the early 1800s. Govenor Clinton was also credited with planning the Erie Canal from his Maspeth waterside retreat, which he had inherited from his father-in-law, wealthy Manhattan merchant, Walter Franklin. Later, citizens converted the grounds of the Sackett-Clinton House into a park around 1910, but it burned down in 1933. The entire area is now covered with industry, revealing no trace of the mansion that was once there, which was located just one block away from where the diner sits today. There are several other stories about local landmarks on the back of the menu, but you will just have to go there yourself to read about them!
Unfortunately, we have become a throw-away world where the old is just bulldozed down to make room for the new, claiming that it will be better. Well, I for one think that new is not always better. To be able to go to a place like the Clinton Diner, sit in a booth, and wonder what famous person might have sat there before me or how many drivers might have sat there over the years and enjoyed a good meal and a break from the grueling work of driving in the city, is priceless. I say “thank you” to Nick for not getting caught up in that “newer is better” mentality, and for keeping something old and beautiful preserved for the rest of us to see and enjoy.
Its funny how back in July I wrote about Iowa 80 in Walcott, Iowa, being the largest truck stop in the world and here I am, just a few weeks later, at what might be one of the smallest truck stops in America. Although these two places are completely different, they are linked together with their rich history and ties to trucking, they just became “famous” in different ways – one grew into a giant through constant upgrades and changes, while the other’s claim to fame is that it has remained the same for almost five decades. I hope it stays that way.
But both of these truck stops have the same commitment to service and quality, and both of them are proud to be part of the trucking community. Large or small, it all boils down to serving your customers, and nobody does it better than this little jewel in Maspeth, NY – the famous Clinton Diner. I can’t wait for our next delivery to New York City – go figure!