The Automat

The Automat has an unlikely place in the pantheon of American Literary History. At once a place of simplicity, convenience and stark utilitarian dining, the Automat chains of New York City – dominated by Horn & Hardart and Bickfords – became the meeting places of some of America’s most famous and infamous literary figures. As legend would have it, a cavalcade of some of America’s most important writers, artists and playwrights would grace the shores of the humble Automats most notably Bickfords located on West 42 Street where Beat luminary Herbert Huncke was said to be almost an permanent fixture. [1]

From William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, to Woody Allen, Neil Simon, Patti Smith – amongst countless legions of other lesser well-known writers, artists and intellectuals – many notable New York City writers are said to have imbibed in, and in many instances, immortalized the humble Automat in their novels, short stories, plays, and films. Indeed, the Automat seemed like a writer’s domiciliary dream come true: what was there not to like about Automats given the perfect combination of enticements for any malnourished, impecunious writer or artist – cheap food (relatively), 24 hour convenience, winter warmth, and the company of like-minded eccentric souls. Accordingly, playwright Neil Simon is said to have proudly declared: “The Automat! The Maxim’s of the disenfranchised”.

The most potent “secret weapon” of the Automat was undoubtedly, as Bill Demain writes, the freshly brewed coffee [!] :

For all the good food, the Automat’s real secret weapon was its coffee. Horn & Hardart popularized fresh drip-brewed coffee in New York. Prior to the Automat, coffee was often harsh and bitter, boiled and clarified with eggshells. The Automat’s smooth aromatic brew flowed regally from ornate brass spigots in the shape of dolphin heads. In their heyday, Automats sold over 90 million cups of their fresh-brewed coffee each year. And they were committed to keeping it fresh. When an Automat employee brewed coffee, they filled out a time card. After twenty minutes, they discarded whatever coffee was left and made a fresh pot. If there was any doubt about Horn & Hardart’s commitment to java, the Automat even adopted Irving Berlin’s “Let’s Have Another Cup Of Coffee” as their unofficial theme song.

  – Automatic for the People: Remembering the Automat Restaurants, by Bill Demain, in Mental Floss, April 21 2015.

The demise of the Automats as a night-time creative and culinary haven was said (amongst a range of complex factors) to have coincided with a dramatic loss of night-time patronage due to the perceived lack of safety at night during the period of the 70s and 80s when New York experienced a wave of muggings and rising levels of street crime leading many residents to shy away from the tradition of frequenting the many Automats dotted around Manhattan at night.

While the Automat may have physically disappeared from the presence of Manhattan’s unique urban landscape, it remains forever immortalized in literature and American art most notably in Edward Hopper’s beloved painting Automat (1927) which “portrays a lone woman staring into a cup of coffee in an Automat at night.”

Patti Smith similarly immortalizes her reminiscences of the Automat which she often frequented with her partner and muse Robert Mapplethorpe in this passage from Just Kids describing her encounter with Allen Ginsberg who provides her with some spare change for a cheese-and lettuce sandwich –

Horn and Hardart, the queen of Automats, was just past the tackle shop. The routine was to get a seat and a tray, then go to the back wall where there were rows of little windows. You would slip some coins into the slot, open the glass hatch, and extract a sandwich or fresh apple pie. A real Tex Avery eatery. My favorite was chicken potpie or cheese and mustard with lettuce on a poppy seed roll. Robert liked their two specialties, baked macaroni and cheese and chocolate milk, but for a girl raised on Bosco and powdered milk, it was always too thick, so I just got a coffee.

           I was always hungry. I metabolized food quickly. Robert could go without eating for much longer than me. If we were out of money we just didn’t eat. Robert might be able to function, even if he got a little shaky, but I would feel like I was going to pass out.  One drizzly afternoon I had a hankering for one of those cheese-and-lettuce sandwiches. I went through our belongings and found exactly fifty cents. slipped on my gray trench coat and Mayakovsky cap, and headed to the Automat.

          I got my tray and slipped in my coins but the window wouldn’t open. I tried again without luck and then I noticed the price had gone up to sixty-fve cents. I was disappointed, to say the least, when I heard a voice say, “Can I help?’

I turned around and it was Allen Ginsberg…

He told me he was writing a long elegy for Jack Kerouac who had just recently passed away. “Three days after Rimbaud’s birthday,” I said. I shook his hand and we parted company.

– From: Patti Smith in Just Kids, Bloomsbury, London, 2010.

William S. Burroughs described the generalized impact of gentrification in his elegant observation that ‘all the angels are leaving all of the alcoves’ conveying a sense of damage, loss and change in the face of relentless ‘progress’ often at the cost of simplicity and tradition. The Automat, as does so many other urban phenomenon of previous ages and epochs, seems relegated to a bygone era now fortuitously frozen in time in some of America’s great art and literature: a legacy we can be most sincerely grateful for.

Marcus D. Niski,  July 2017


[1] Huncke was a legendary story teller and it doesn’t take too much imagination to conjure him up engaging in one of his famous all-night “bullshit sessions” [as Huncke himself would refer to similar sessions at the Chelsea Hotel as documented in Francois Bernadi’s superb short film Original Beats] at Bickfords surrounded by various acolytes, misfits and colorful characters of the night.

For a further biographical portrait of Huncke and images of his writers notebooks see my: ‘The Writer’s Notebooks of Herbert Huncke’ by Marcus D. Niski, Reality Studio, 26 March 2012 as found at: http://realitystudio.org/criticism/the-writers-notebooks-of-herbert-huncke/

At The Automat – A scene set in an Automat from the film Sadie McKee (1934) starring Joan Crawford

 

 

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