Above: The Automat on East 14th St., in Manhattan
Sidney Gross (1941-2016)
Fast food is not an invention of McDonald’s. Before McDonald’s, there was the Automat. Once so widespread in New York, the Automat is now extinct, but in the 1950’s it was synonymous with wholesome food and atmosphere. For as long as the Automat existed, I was compulsive about going there. When I moved away from New York, it was one of the magnets which drew me back for visits. Even when I lived in Brooklyn, I would stop in at any branch Automat that I passed, if only to turn the crank in the coffee area and watch the steaming beverage pour from the lion’s head spigot.
My favorite Automat was the branch on East Fourteenth Street in Manhattan. Twice a day I passed its gleaming windows on my way to and from Stuyvesant High School. In those days, when a high school became overcrowded, as Stuyvesant certainly was, the Board of Education did not erect an expensive new building to house the overflow; instead they put the students on split session. The first two years I attended what was known as the “P.M. Session,” which ran from 12:30 to 5 p.m. Late classes were just a continuation of my earlier existence when I had to attend Hebrew school after P.S. 226 let out at three. Of course, I was always famished at the end of the day and I still faced, in the rush hour no less, a one hour ride back to Brooklyn. The Automat lay between the school and the subway station, so it was natural to stop there and fortify body and soul before boarding the Sea Beach Express.
What did I eat there? Well, since dinner would be waiting for me in Brooklyn, I had to content myself with a light and thrifty snack. This was usually a cup of tea and a small green ceramic pot of Horn & Hardart baked beans. The beans were so much different than the ones we had at home, which were simply Heinz vegetarian fresh from the can. These were dark brown. They weren’t watery, and they contained bacon, spices, and onions in an absolutely heavenly combination. To this day I maintain that the Horn & Hardart recipe for baked beans is worth all the gold in Fort Knox.
Every Automat was built on a grand scale, a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach. The front windows went up a good story and a half, and you entered via a revolving glass door so that the visual line of the windows was not broken. The dining room was immense, filled with small tables which would hold four uncomfortably on straight-backed chairs. A small group of tables was roped off from the rest by a red plush cord. On a brass stanchion was a plain but neat sign which read simply “Ladies.” Each of the tables in the reserved area held a clear bud vase which contained a single daisy. A nice touch, I always thought.
The floor and walls of the dining room were faced with reddish beige marble. These were the days when New Yorkers made much of the Moscow subway station. If you were visiting Russia, this was supposedly a “must see.” In my own mind, I identified the Horn & Hardart with what the Moscow subway station must be like. Well above the hubbub of the ground floor was an ample balcony meant to accommodate the overflow crowds which must have been common in the Automat’s heyday.
Smack in the middle of the main floor was what had to be the eighth wonder of the modern world—the Automat change booth. Everything in the Automat was calculated on the use of nickels. If you did not have nickels to buy food, you went to the change booth. The change maker on Fourteenth Street really knew her business. No matter what coin or bill you presented her with, she reached into her drawer and threw a fist full of nickels onto the counter which separated her from the rest of the world. She never seemed to count them—or make a mistake. Ingrained in my memory of the Automat is the sound of those nickels crashing against the marble change counter.
To the left of the change booth was the Automat itself, a solid wall of shiny glass doors graced with porcelain knobs on brass stems. It looked like nothing so much as a theater marquee as it glittered in the light streaming from a battery of incandescent bulbs overhead. Like soldiers, the doors were aligned in vertical file. Each was clearly labeled: creamed spinach, baked beans, lemon pie, chicken sandwich. The joy of all this was that you could peek through the glass and see your selection already before you on its own plate. All that needed to be done was to insert the appropriate number of nickels (in my day the top was five), twist the porcelain knob, and presto, the door would fly open and you would reach in and grab your food. One of my childhood fantasies was to discover a door with a broken knob which would pop open without the aid of nickels. I never found it, but the lure kept drawing me back.
So, there was our fast food of the fifties. Contrasted with McDonald’s and Burger King, the Automat system must have been like hunting through a file drawer as compared to a computerized retrieval system. Yet I can’t help but feel that having it my way would entail the buffalo nickel and the shiny glass door.