The Automat (Defined)

An Automat, Mr. [Neil] Simon wrote in New York magazine, was “a large, rectangular hall, filled with shiny, lacquered tables surrounding a glass booth, where the nimblest fingers on earth dispensed change for a quarter or a dollar in nickels . . . endless nickels, shiny nickels, magical nickels that were slipped into slots on the wall, and before your very eyes, an Open Sesame roll came around the bend of a glass cubicle.”

Playwright Neil Simon describing an Automat in James Barron’s New York Times article, Last Automat Closes, Its Era Long Gone, April 11, 1991, as found at:



The Automat

By Marcus D. Niski

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:

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



How to Analyse a City: Part I…

By Marcus D. Niski

How to Analyse a City: Observation, Memory, Reflection and the Journal/Notebook as a Tool for Observing and Analysing Cities in Action

One of the most useful ways to engage with a city is to learn how to read it through the process of observation, memory and reflection.

To take time to be in the city, enjoy the city and to practice the ancient art of being a FLANEUR in the city.

The Flaneur: or, How to Read a City

 ‘…as Walter Benjamin explains, the flaneur is in search of experience, not knowledge…’

– Edmund White in The Flaneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris, Bloomsbury, London, 2008.

 Who, or What, is a Flaneur…?

The flâneur, or the notion of the flaneur, is a creation of the 19th century Parisian streets that offered an almost unlimited kaleidoscopic opportunity for social observation and experience.

The flaneur, by definition, is an ‘exemplary stroller’ who strolls through the streets at a pace in which observation becomes the centre point of his experience.

As Edmund White suggests in his stunningly observant account of the flaneur and the ‘paradoxes of Paris’, Walter Benjamin was probably one of the most acute observers of the idea of the flaneur and one of literature’s most important writers in documenting the activities of this unique Parisian creature.

The flaneur is not a tourist, shopper or pedestrian eager to rapidly consume the landscape, but one who is almost overwhelmed by the delectable possibilities of the urban landscape; so much so that he is not really sure where to start or where his journey will take him.

The Journal and the Notebook and How to Observe a City

One of the best ways to really learn to observe a city is to carry a notebook or a journal with you in your pocket or in your bag and to record the observations that you see and hear all around you.

This is one of the simplest and most powerful techniques that a writer can use in gathering material for their writing.

Some Observational Techniques for the Journey: Memory, Observation, Reflection – Writing or Slowing Down and Observing – The City as Art and Text

Next time as you wander through the streets and lanes in your city, you might like to consider the following creative ideas as the basis for making notes in your notebook which can later be used as the basis for reflection and writing in a wide range of genres:

Poemwrite a poem based on an observation you make…

Found poemconstruct and write down your found poem in your notebook…

Observationalrecord an observation/s you have made…

Overheard conversation – record and overheard conversation as dialogue…

Visual image  – record a visual image that you have seen as the basis for poem or starting point for a piece of writing…

Remembrance  – Record a remembrance that may have been triggered by something you have seen…

Smell – use your sense of smell and record some notes or reflections…

Reflection – use a visual image to reflect or to write a mediation about what you have just seen …

Colour – Taking the Colour Walk: William S. Burroughs and the ‘colour walk’ through Paris …

“I was taking a colour walk around Paris the other day … I was walking down the boulevard when I suddenly felt this cool wind on a warm day, and when I looked out I was seeing all the blues in the street in front of me… blue on a foulard…a girls’ blue sweater…blue neon…. the blue sky …all the blues. When I looked again, I saw nothing but all the reds…of traffic lights…car lights…a café sign…a man’s nose…”

Excerpt from The Beat Hotel, Barry Miles, Atlantic Books, London, 2000, p 157.

In the next two Journal entries, I’ll talk about one of my favorite creative and observational writing techniques which I call the The Camera Eye, as well as my two most favorite writers – Blaise Cendrars and John Dos Passos – who both used this technique as an important exploratory and experimental tool amongst their broad armory of creative writing techniques.

Marcus D. Niski,  June 2017

[1] Modernist Cultures 7.2 (2012)  180-204

Species of Space: Sao Carlos, Brazil.

This intriguing visual exploration of Perec’s Species of Space that I most fortuitously came across on YouTube was made by the Nomads.usp Center for Interactive Living Studies, Research Group of the Institute of Architecture and Urbanism, University of Sao Paulo, Brazil,

Species of spaces is: “A reading of central and peripheral public spaces of the city of Sao Carlos, Brazil, “Species of Spaces” was filmed in just one afternoon, simultaneously by several Nomads.usp researchers, as a snapshot, a one glance and yet plural, distributed in the urban fabric. The title is a tribute to Georges Perec, a French novelist, Oulipo member and urban scholar” [Originally Published on Oct 20, 2015].