There's still time to enjoy Lunch Hour, the NYPL exhibit that celebrates the history of lunching in New York City. Free to all and located at the Main Branch (I refuse to call it by its new name) until February 17, the show is definitely worth the visit.
Filled with vintage menus and photos from places like Delmonico's, Sardi's, and Schrafft's, and an interview with the inventor of the stainless-steel hot dog cart, the show also has a few poetry treasures--a signed copy of Frank O'Hara's Lunch Poems and a hand-written version of W.H. Auden's "In Schrafft's," which begins:
Having finished the Blue-plate Special
And reached the coffee stage,
Stirring her cup she sat,
A somewhat shapeless figure
Of indeterminate age
In an undistinguished hat.
But the biggest draw of the Lunch Hour show is their restored Horn & Hardart Automat. If you squeeze your eyes, and imagine the scene in black and white, you can almost feel transported through time.
The best part is--you can touch this Automat. You can open its glass and brass windows and reach inside, as if for a slice of honey pie or a fresh donut, or a plate of cholent (everybody around you saying, "What was cholent?"). I slipped a nickel in, just to see what would happen. It rang through the machine and thunked down in the dark hollow of its inside, unwanted.
They've also got a screen showing clips of Automat scenes from Hollywood movies and television--in all of them, an impoverished young woman seeks sustenance. In That Girl, Marlo Thomas makes a poor woman's tomato soup from a bowl of hot water and ketchup. Automat worker Audrey Meadows slips a free chicken potpie to Doris Day in That Touch of Mink. And in 1934's Sadie McKee, Joan Crawford looks hungrily at a fellow diner's abandoned slice of lemon meringue--into which he extinguishes his cigarette.
An older couple next to me picked up the listening device to hear the film's sound, a lush cafeterial clatter. "Dishes and silverware," said the woman to her husband, "That's just what they really sounded like!"