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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

The [n-y-c] files: Whenanickelwasmagic

Published: November 17, 2006
Section: Arts, Etc.

Come find out what you cant know;

see whats not there. Its no more, but it used to be in humanitys hometown;

you know where. These are the [n-y-c] files. *


Ottoman? she asked.

No, automat. Ever heard the word? I must have asked six friends from the New York area, and only one knew what it meant after a hint. Its a sure sign of the times, I guess, when not even New York kids know about it, even though it was once as much a part of their citys daily landscape as the Empire State Building or Ebbets Field Oops;

too young for that.

On the Facebook, reminiscing is all the rage with such groups as I Get 90s Nostalgia Already. Have a go at this intro: For those of you kids now who have no idea what were talking about when we mention [Polly Pockets, trolls, Beanie Babies, pogs]…

Friends, judging by the Facebook, it looks like were young enough to be old! So pass the Geritol and well re-visit the days when a nickel was magic for a generation of kids.

Where would you go for lunch in Manhattan back in 1912? You might have your choice of upscale restaurants. If you couldnt afford them or just wanted a quick bite, you had some random saloons to choose from with their sometimes-sketchy clientele. Definitely no place for a lady back then. A city with a growing workforce simply needed a place to eat. Then the automat appeared on the scene.

When Philadelphia restaurant owners Joe Horn and Frank Hardart opened their first New York eatery at Broadway and 13th Street, modeling it after an automatic vending machine in Berlin, they called it the Horn & Hardart Automat. It wasnt the only one of its kind for long.

Imagine youre a little kid who loves gadgets, as most kids do. Youre growing up, each day wanting to try doing new things on your own. Imagine youre out for a big day in New York City and youre hungry. Theres a new place in town where its fun to eat, where you can get the food all by yourself. In fact, the whole place is kind of like a big toy

The walls of the restaurant were full of long rows of coin-operated stainless-steel and glass lockers with various food-items behind the windows. You could drop a nickel in, open any door, and take whatever you liked. A nickel thrower would make change for customers at a booth in the center of the restaurant.

Kids loved it. Midtown office workers flocked to it. Families would dine there for the sheer novelty and convenience. Horn & Hardarts slogan: Less work for Mother.

What Horn and Hardart had invented was essentially the fast-food restaurant. For the first time, fast food wasnt the take-your-chance affair youd find on the street at some hot dog stand. It was always dependable in quality, and served in clean, shiny surroundings, with real crockery, glasses, and steel utensils. In short, it was like nothing that had existed before.

This innovation soon became a New York institution, famous for dishes like creamed spinach, baked beans, macaroni and cheese, meatloaf, pies, puddings, and everything we think of today as comfort food.

The automat saw its heyday during the 1930s, as thousands of unemployed residents, needing an affordable place to eat, found a daily source of reliability and sustenance in Horn & Hardarts eateries. The poorest New Yorkers, if they could afford nothing more, would stop in each day for just a cup of that famous coffee.

Automats proliferated throughout the Depression and the war years. They continued to prosper well into the 1950s, at one point numbering over 180 locations in New York and Philadelphia.

As burgeoning suburbs drew people away from New York, the automat began to fade from the landscape. Drive-in restaurants, well-suited for the automobile age, became the new fast-food fashion in the 1960s. The changes heralded the automats slow demise. New Yorks last automat, and a piece of history, quietly closed in 1991, an event barely noticed by a new generation.

Friends, I dont like sad stories. Fortunately, this one has a twist: A brand-new automat, calling itself BAMN!, opened last summer on St. Marks Place in the East Village. The food wont be quite the same, and it sure wont cost a nickel. Still, I wish the owners well. I guess a part of me just loves to see an old idea reborn for a new generation. And yes, I plan to go as soon as I can.

Will I see you there? Ill be the sucker with a tear in his eye, watching some wide-eyed kid running up to the glass wall and dropping the money in, just as his grandfather may have done, back in the days when a nickel was magic.

* First in a series:
[ D-train to Stillwell Avenue ]
[ The man who drove the bums out ]