Monday, January 21, 2013

NYPL: Lunch Hour

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!"


James C. Taylor said...

I knew nothing about this but will definitely check it out! I remember seeing a lot of functioning automats in (old) Amsterdam, although that was over ten years ago.

blue glass said...

boy do i miss those ladies dispensing nickels - they'd shoot a handful onto the counter - they'd never count the nickels and they always gave you the correct amount.
and they always wore a smile.

BabyDave said...

Thanks for the tip on this exhibit. I must go.
I remember the Automat experience as a young child. My father would hand me a dollar bill in front of the change-making booth. I would hand over the bill and the woman at the booth would push forth 20 nickles for me to scoop up. It was like Christmas at a Las Vegas slot machine for a four-year-old.
A few years later, as a grade-schooler I would go to an Automat with a subway platform-level entrance. A kaiser roll purchased for, I think, a dime, along with the pat of butter that came with it and the condiments on every table made a ketchup and/or mustard sandwich that was a very tasty after-school snack.

onemorefoldedsunset said...

Thanks! I'd definitely like to check this out. I'm glad I got the chance to experience the real thing, but I almost feel I imagined it.

Marty Wombacher said...

That looks too cool! I wish I could go!

laura said...

the automat wasa great concept. looked nice too, kind of chic for good prices. i may be off in my memory, but was there one on 57st? i remember going there as a teen. when did the last one close? just think anout this: from the audomat to subway, from the audomat to mac donalds. what a downward spiral.

Pat said...

There was also poor woman's lemonade: ice water + the free sugar and lemon slices they put out for tea drinkers.

BabyDave said...

Yes, I remember one on 57th Street, a few doors West of Sixth Avenue, on the South side of the street.
As for the closing of the last Automat:

Brian Dubé said...

Recently, in 2006, the automat had a revival in the form of Bamn!, an East Village restaurant based on modern automats in Amsterdam. It has since closed, though.

demize! said...

Man I miss the Automats. The Gargoyle coffe spigots, the crock of baked beans with ham and Pumpernickel wedges. Damn good Chopped Steak with mashed and creamed spinach too.

demize! said...

Just an addendum on the current theme ; there were chain establishments that I truly miss and just didnt have the same ominous quality that our current ones do. Maybe its just aesthetics, but I loved a chain called ZUM ZUM which was a great looking place and had excellent inexpensive German style food, it was also always kept impeccably clean. I also miss Chock Full of Nuts, Nedicks, and to a lesser degree Orange Julius.