Honk if you love the automat

When my father introduced me to the culture of the automat I was too young to be aware that these Everyman self-serve restaurants were on their way out. It was the 1960s, I was 9, and we were living in Jersey City, just on the other side of the Hudson River from Manhattan. We seldom went into New York, so I knew we were headed for something special. As further indication of this, my father dressed me in a suit and tie.

We didn't visit the Statue of Liberty, and we didn't ascend the Empire State Building. Instead, my father escorted me into a place that had a futuristic air about it. I still remember the chrome fixtures, the polished tables, and the expansive nature of the enterprise. Most of all I recall the aroma of hot food and the hustle and bustle of urban dwellers who had packed one of the Horn & Hardarts in midtown for a filling, reasonably priced, wholesome meal.

"Have anything you want," directed my father as he escorted me over to the buffet-style line where the entrees steamed. I grabbed a meal - probably sliced turkey breast with mashed potatoes and gravy - and moved on to fresh bread and salad. Somewhere along the line were the self-dispensing machines containing the cold items behind little glass doors - fruit cups and coconut custard pies and cherry Jell-O (with whipped cream). As soon as an item was removed, some invisible hand would restock it from behind (thereby making the automat a little less than "automatic"). My father paid for the meals and we went over to a table for two, carting trays laden with our cornucopias. And there we sat and ate with the masses, completely happy.

Ah, the automat. Surely it was one of the last great urban commons. The brainchild of Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart, these precursors of fast-food joints began to blossom in the Northeast - mostly in New York and Philadelphia - around 1900. The idea was to keep costs (and prices) down by eliminating wait staff. In short, the customers became the waiters, and judging by the wild success of the automat, they were happy to act in that capacity in the interest of good, cheap food. (In the 1940s and 1950s - the automat's heyday - the most expensive item on the menu, turkey with dressing, cost 25 cents.)

Automats were not directed specifically at the wealthy, at the poor, or at the working class. Instead, they cut across class lines by offering a combination of thrift and elegance designed to appeal to everybody, from the anonymous poor to the wildly successful. (Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, and Woody Allen all were denizens of Manhattan's automats.) Beyond this, Horn and Hardart had a policy of not forcing people to leave after they had finished eating, or even of requiring that patrons buy any food at all. During the Depression, those for whom life had gone hard would warm their bellies by making "tomato soup" out of the (free) ketchup and hot water. In the heat of summer they would squeeze a lemon into the (free) ice water.

At this juncture I am reminded of an amusing anecdote by the late, great novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer, who loved eating in automats. When he arrived in the United States from Poland in the 1930s, he sought out a restaurant. Wandering into an automat, he saw all the people carrying trays and thought, "What a wonderful country! One restaurant, and so many waiters!"

As I sat and ate my hot turkey with my father on that summer day in 1963, it seemed perfectly reasonable that he should have required me to wear a suit. In my blue-collar family, only a handful of situations required such attire: church, weddings, funerals, and "special occasions." The automat was a place where I was eating with grownups, where I saw people of every stripe and color, heard foreign tongues, and, to boot, could acknowledge by demonstration that my eyes really were bigger than my stomach (there were some 80 items on offer). If that wasn't a special occasion, what was?

By the '70s, automats were fast disappearing. Urban economic woes, combined with the explosive growth of roadside fast-food restaurants conspired to sideline an institution that belonged to an era when eating was an event to be savored at one's leisure, a pause from the day's hectic pace, not part and parcel of it. Sadly, Horn & Hardart closed its last automat, on New York's 42nd Street, in 1991.

It has been so long since I was in an automat that I am, for the most part, resigned to its passing. I know, at root, that the automat is probably gone for good; and I know that "progress" is the American byword. But I also know something else about the Horn & Hardart my father took me to on that placid summer day: It was the place where Jell-O never tasted so good, with or without the whipped cream.

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