Name ring a bell? It would if you are of a certain age and grew up in either Philadelphia or New York City. It was the brainchild of Joseph Horn from Philadelphia and Frank Hardart born in Germany and raised in New Orleans. They started with a coffee shop/luncheonette with no tables in a building in Philadelphia that once was a print shop that happened to publish little things like the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.
But the thing that separated them from the rest, besides the New Orleans style coffee, was that in 1902 they received the patent to use vending machines to sell their food. Fresh food would sit behind glass doors on shiny shelves waiting for you to deposit a coin or one of their tokens so that you could open the glass door and grab your slice of pecan pie. This was the beginning of the fast food industry though no one knew it at the time. The first Automat opened in America in Philadelphia on Chestnut Street and soon they branched out to Times Square in New York as well as Union Square and of course Broadway. The idea of an eatery with no table service, tables yes, but no waiter or waitress service was unheard of, and it took off like a rocket. People were fascinated, charmed and won over by the Macaroni and Cheese and fresh baked goods. And the food was cheap.
They were extremely popular in the Depression and well into 1950’s and 60’s. They were quintessentially a product of the city; you didn’t find one of these in the burbs. I went with Dad on occasion when were were uptown and in need of sustenance. Dad would, as was his way, take scores of napkins, and brush the seats and the table he had chosen for us to sit at before we made our food choices. Besides the fun of getting your food that way (I loved it), and watching Dad, meticulously dressed, as usual, make himself comfortable amongst scores of unknown fellow city dwellers, the most fascinating attraction was the people that you would see.
There was an old Television show that had the tagline “There are a million stories in the Naked City”. Well, all of those stories could be “read” in the faces of the people that came into the Automat.
I looked around me and marveled at the cast of characters on view this Saturday afternoon:
There was the middle-aged guy who looked older than his years, wearing a shabby cheap suit and a tattered raincoat, with nicotine stained fingers and a shake to every movement he made; a man who maybe liked his drink a bit too much. Sitting over cup after cup of coffee, with maybe a Danish that grew staler by the hour, he drummed his fingers on the Formica table top. A man without much money and nowhere to go. A sad looking man, but one with still some semblance of dignity; after all, he put on a suit didn’t he?
There was the older woman who was trying hard not to look it. She wore lots of make-up and a fake fur boa over a cloth coat missing buttons. She stained her cigarettes and coffee cup with the cheap red lipstick she wore. Her bony fingers were adorned with costume jewelry, and yes nicotine. She sat in a way she thought was seductive, she too was alone on a Saturday afternoon but had hopes for a Saturday night. Sad? Sure, but again, she possessed a self-assuredness that justified or not, allowed her to get up every morning and get through yet another day.
There was the young couple, two kids in tow, obviously stopping in for a bite before a matinee, the husband watching his expense account at the new Ad agency he had just landed a job at. His wife, looked around like she was from another planet, and indeed she probably was from Scarsdale or White Plains and was wondering what she was doing in such a place. She kept a tight rein on her kids who were having the time of their lives gazing at all the tasty treats behind the glass. The husband, nervous, knowing he wasn’t making points with his dining selection, constantly asking the wife if she would like some chocolate pudding for dessert.
There was the businessman, more successful- his suit wasn’t tattered and his hands didn’t shake. He constantly got up to feed coins into the pay telephone mounted on the wall nearby, checking with his office: “Any calls for me?” as he gulped down a chicken salad sandwich on whole wheat bread, his wife at home having told him that whole wheat was healthier than white. “Ok, I will be back in the office in a little bit… if Charlie calls, tell him I will get back to him this afternoon”. Charlie was a prospect, and prospects were hard to come by in his desperate world.
There was the bearded dirty homeless man who had managed to beg enough coin to get a meal. He sat alone, no one else wanting to be near him, to smell him. His eyes darting from one side of the room to the other, almost frantic, afraid someone would take his meal? Kick him back out onto the cold street. At his elbow, a well worn Bible that had seen better days. A prophet in the wilderness? The Lord himself, testing his creations to see how we received a poor homeless man? Looking momentarily weary and sad with the knowledge we had failed miserably.
Let’s face it. Eugene O’Neil and Tennessee Williams must have hung out in an equivalent to the Automat. They knew these people.
I sat in my plastic chair, comfortable being with Dad, watching these folks and feeling a sense of wonder. What an amazing place that could attract such a crowd. Me, I was happy to be with Dad who nursed a cup of black coffee and enjoyed a Salami on a Kaiser roll and to savor a slab of blueberry pie with Chocolate Milk. I would look outside and see the crowded Avenue, with New York City being New York City, and realize this place was a little respite, an oasis of yes, serenity, where one could come to unwind with a warming bowl of turkey soup. The world went on outside; here it took a breather, even for the young Ad Exec who hadn’t yet learned how to relax.
Or maybe it was even something more than that.
It’s a shame they are gone. There is nothing like them left; the plastic blandness of a fast food joint, or even a suburban diner, doesn’t come close to the pure cultural experience those places allowed, free of charge…..well you did need a nickel for a cup of coffee, and man, if you could come up with another fifteen cents, that blueberry pie was to die for.
File this one along with all the others, under Progress – but don’t forget the question mark.