The Automat

Have you ever been in an Automat? Do you even know what an Automat is? Well, let’s turn to Wikipedia and see what they say…..

“The first automat in the U.S. was opened June 12, 1902, at 818 Chestnut St. in Philadelphia by Horn & Hardart. Horn & Hardart became the most prominent American automat chain. Inspired by Max Sielaff’s AUTOMAT Restaurants in Berlin, they became among the first 47 restaurants, and the first non-Europeans, to receive patented vending machines from Sielaff’s Berlin factory. The automat was brought to New York City in 1912, and gradually became part of popular culture in northern industrial cities.”

The listing further goes on to state that in New York City there were eventually 40 Horn and Hardart Automats, with the last one closing in 1991. Automats were prominent in New York City when I was a kid in the 50s and 60s. In fact, when the Metropolitan Opera was located at 40th Street, there was a basement level Automat on 7th Avenue, between 40th and 41st Street, and we went there a lot. It was a place to get a quick cup of coffee, or for a little kid to get a bologna sandwich!

If you’ve never been a little kid, with a handful of nickels, looking over what you could get in an Automat, then you probably weren’t a kid in NYC at the same time I was. It truly was the quintessential New York experience from back in the day. So much so, that in the 1962 movie ,That Touch of Mink starring Cary Grant and Doris Day, Doris Day’s best friend (played by Audrey Meadows of The Honeymooners fame) worked behind the scenes in a local Automat that was prominently featured in the film. Here’s a clip from that movie that gives you an idea of what an Automat looked like.

The two things in the Wikipedia quote above that surprised me were, (1) that the first Automat opened in Philadelphia and (2) that it was basically a copy of Berlin Automats using the machines that dispensed the food as produced in Germany. Who knew. As I said, the Automat seemed like the quintessential New York Experience! My personal relationship to this blog, and why the Automat will always hold a special place in my memory, centers around a story that my cousin Jeanne Pratt and I have laughed at many times over the 60 plus years since it happened to us.

My Mom’s parents were visiting New York from Chicago. This time, they also had my Chicago cousin Jeanne with them (the daughter of my Mom’s younger brother). One day, my Grandparents, Jeanne, and I were in Manhattan. We could have well been at Radio City Music Hall seeing the movie and show – something my Grandma liked to do. At some point in the day, we stopped in at an Automat. My Grandma always seemed to be picking up strays, and this day in this particular Automat, she picked up, what we used to call back in the day, a bum. He was dirty and smelly, and my Grandmother fell for his story that he’d been a famous brain surgeon, but when his wife died, his life fell apart, leaving him to beg on the streets. I think my Grandma was the only one to buy his rap.

She invited him to sit at our table, to the dismay of myself and Jeanne (she was probably 10 at the time and I was 8), who were not buying his tale of woe! Immediately, she dispatched my Grandfather, “ Go get him a cup of coffee Bill,” and off he went to one of the famous Automat coffee dispensers. Jeanne and I looked at each other, as the story unfolded as he drank coffee and regaled my Grandmother. I have no recollection of how we finally got to get away from him, but I’m pretty sure my Grandfather left with a few less bills in his pocket, at the insistence of my Grandmother!

While we don’t see Jeanne and her husband Walt that often as they live in Connecticut and Florida, and we’re in Jersey, the once or twice a year we’re together, invariably one of us will bring up the “Automat Incident.” Some 60 years later, we still both laugh, and shake our heads, and just acknowledge that, “That was Grandma!”

Bluetooth Ear Buds and your Cell Phone

Wikipedia defines Bluetooth as “a short-range wireless technology standard that is used for exchanging data between fixed and mobile devices over short distances.” The first consumer Bluetooth device was a hands-free mobile headset that was launched in 1999. Those first Bluetooth headsets were large, but as the technology improved, the size dropped until Bluetooth Ear Buds became the norm. They are a great invention, that allow joggers, walkers, people at the beach, and others seeking privacy the perfect tool. No cords or huge headsets to get in the way of your activity, you don’t bother others near you, and small enough to be carried in your pocket when you are done with them. Back in the olden days, when I was still working at WABC, a set of Bluetooth ear buds made my twice daily Long Island Rail Road trips a bit more palatable. They were easy to use, small, and much better than a wired headset. They are indeed a great way to listen to music, podcasts, or the radio, if anyone still listens to the radio!

Then there is their other use…conducting a phone call while connected to your cell phone! I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of having someone at work, on the street, or in a store, say “Hello,” think they were talking to us and respond, only to then discover that they had a Bluetooth ear bud in one or both ears, and were in the midst of a telephone call! Sorry, but people doing that should be forced to wear a sign or some other outwardly obvious indication to those around them that they’re on the phone and that the rest of us should ignore all talk that comes from their mouth! I know that I have been caught multiple times, and frankly it is embarrassing once you are either waved off by the person, or you yourself realize what’s happening. There are also other issues I’ve discovered over the years. Here’s one, from my personal experience.

When WABC Radio moved to 2 Penn Plaza in early 1989 from 1330 Avenue of the Americas, the neighborhood around our new home was very different from what we’d enjoyed at 54th Street and 6th Avenue. Instead of being a block from ritzy Fifth Avenue with stores like Saks, across from the New York Hilton, and blocks from Rockefeller Center, we were now 17 floors above Penn Station and Madison Square Garden in a much older, undeveloped area. Rather than skyscrapers that housed Corporate America, we were across from the ancient Pennsylvania Hotel, 2 blocks from the Macy’s on 34th Street, and surrounded by small buildings with everything from Pizza places to Taxidermy Supply stores as tenants. New York City was a very different place in 1989, and on the average day, 5 people were murdered, there were 9 rapes, and 194 aggravated assaults. Then there was Penn Station in our basement!

The “New” Pennsylvania Station was basically a basement establishment, under 2 Penn Plaza and Madison Square Garden, having taken the place of the beautiful McKim, Mead, and White designed train station in the late 60s. On any given day, Penn Station looked more like a portal to a third world country than a prime transportation hub in New York City. If you came to work too early in the morning, you literally had to step over people, as hundreds (perhaps thousands) of homeless folks used it as a flop house! Many of them were pushed out into the surrounding streets before the commuting day started, but Penn Station was still the home to many of NYC’s best crazies! We joked about it, but there were literally people walking around in tin foils “hats” so nobody (aliens, the CIA, you name the group) could read their thoughts. On a daily basis, I’d see folks giving others furtive looks, yelling at people who were just passing by, and of course, having long animated conversations and arguments with others that nobody else could see! I always said that you could always tell the crazies from the “normal” folks, as the crazies were the ones talking to themselves. Then came Bluetooth ear buds.

In the later years, before I retired in 2016, whenever I’d venture down the 17 floors and take the escalator underground to Penn Station, there were new rules. Now, it was much harder to tell if somebody was nuts or just on the phone. Some of the crazy people were very normal looking, but now, some of the “normal” people acted as crazy as the best of the crazies! Talking in a loud voice to nobody, having explosive arguments with nobody, and making extravagant hand gestures were no longer a clue. They could be crazies, or they could be folks on their cell phones! You decide….

I was prompted to write this blog, when I saw (and heard) a lady walking down our street yesterday as I sat on our front porch in Ocean City. She was all alone, and there was no one around, and yet, she was carrying on an extensive conversation, including using body language for effect! As with my experience long ago at Penn Station…on the phone, or crazy? Remember, when you avail yourself of the latest in technology, the rest of us don’t always know!