Remembering 'The Arm'


IT'S HARD for me to believe that the restaurant where I used to bus tables and trade quips with legendary Baltimore Colts players will soon be filled with shopping carts. Of course, I'm talking about the Golden Arm restaurant, which was started by Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas and defensive back Bobby Boyd at York Road Plaza a generation ago.

The restaurant, which Mr. Unitas sold in 1988, recently closed and the adjacent Giant Food Store is to expand into the Golden Arm's space. The store expansion and other factors are said to have squeezed the restaurant out of its 27-year home.

Though "The Arm" -- as the regulars and staff affectionately called it -- is gone, the memories of working there will be with me for a long time.

As a waitress in the early days of The Arm, I found my niche waiting tables in The Pit -- a sunken cocktail lounge with six, two-seat tables and a piano bar with seven stools. No food. Just drinks. Quick turnover. Got it? It was the easiest station in the restaurant. That's why I "got it."

Before that I worked a normal station like everyone else: Five tables of four each. It didn't work out. During my first week on the job, a party of 18 women came in for what they were hoping would be a one-hour lunch. They wanted separate checks and each had a special request like, "Please leave the onions off my salad and put the dressing on the side." If you were at my house for dinner and made such a request, I could do it. But even now, 25 years later, I still couldn't get 18 women in and out of a restaurant in an hour. Waitressing was not in my blood or my head, and from that day on I began to appreciate what an art it really is.

The 18 women-in-waiting all ate -- something. They each got a personalized check -- a napkin with her total and some mustard on it. And they all got back to work -- an hour late.

It would've been a lot worse if it hadn't been for Jeannette, Margaret, Jo, Lenor and Louise -- all experienced waitresses who took pity on me. I can still see Jeannette standing at the salad window, rolling her eyes when she saw how pathetic I looked. God Bless her and the many Arm employees who rescued me during my stint there. I worked there during my last two years at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County, and I don't know if I learned more at The Arm or college. It was hard work but the money was good: $50 bucks a weekend in tips alone.

Most of my customers were patient, too, as I learned unfamiliar terminology. For example, when a man asked for "cherry herring" after his meal, I told him that all of the desserts were gone. He suggested that I ask the bartender. Sure enough, Lou knew just what I meant: It's an after-dinner drink.

Not unlike the TV show "Cheers," The Arm had a number of regular customers. One regular, Bill, had his reserved stool at the bar. He called me "Team" and I called him "Coach." More than anyone else, he really did train me. He taught me how to relax and have a good time and to treat each customer as of he or she were the only ones I had.

A lot of Colts came in, of course. Billy Ray Smith liked to sit in the pit. He was one of my favorites. One day the native Texan ordered a steak and when I asked him how he wanted it cooked, he said, "Oh darlin', just knock the horns off of it and bring it out." More food lingo that I didn't know.

Then I met a building named Bubba Smith. I almost fell over backwards when I looked up to greet him. To this day, I'm sure he is the largest person I've ever met, but he has the gentlest handshake. (And was much less intimidating then those 18 women.)

Working a football Sunday (a Sunday when the Colts had a home game) was my idea of purgatory. On those days the restaurant was usually a zoo for the waitresses. By the time the fans came back from the game they were in rare form. Their condition and the crowds raised the waitresses' job of keeping track of customers to an art form.

If a waitress lost any of her customers or they wound up going out the door before paying up, she paid the check. Knowing that turned this normally timid waitress into a raging offensive tackle. One night I stopped five big Texans who "forgot" to pay their bill. I burst through the restaurant doors and ran after them into the parking lot. There was not an ounce of fear -- or wisdom -- in my brain at that moment. I screamed, they stopped. I held up the check, they reached for their wallets. I strutted back across the restaurant threshold like it was the goal line, "Yes!"

At the end of each night the restaurant gave each waitress a free drink. We sat and relaxed. And if somebody had a birthday, the gifts and the cake came out, and we sang. Good friendships developed at 2 a.m.

There was Margaret whose son was in Vietnam at the time. We lived through that tension with her. And then one day, tragedy struck. He was seriously injured. After months of recuperation, he came into the restaurant in a wheelchair. For me the war never had a face until then. That young man was the first war hero I ever knew. His mother was the second.

And then there was Jo; the only thing drier than her sense of humor was one of Lou's martinis. One day, two women who devoured a huge calorie-laden lunch, made the mistake of asking her if she had anything light for dessert. She answered: "I'm sorry, I just served our last order of feathers."

Then there was Louise who, like Jo, could carry about 10 cups of coffee at once (no tray), swing them like a pendulum as she walked, and not spill a drop. The two of them could wait on the entire restaurant and still squeeze in a smoke break. They were masters of the craft.

Pretty soon people will be rounding up Super Deals and selecting prepared gourmet food where customers used to sit and eat the best shrimp salad around, and where football memories hung on the walls long after the team slipped out of town.

Johnny Unitas and Bobby Boyd gave the place a reason for being, made it warm and inviting. But it kept on going even after ownership changed hands because it filled a niche in people's lives, not just for food but companionship.

It's hard to lose something that's so right for the community. But we'll always have the golden memories.

Joyce Green writes from Cockeysville.

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