Getting a sandwich—and hit on—at the Automat

The Horn & Hardart Automat is one of those institutions New Yorkers seem to collectively mourn the loss of.

Call it early 20th century fast food: Put a nickel in the slot and turn the chrome-plated knob, and a glass window would open granting you access to the food item of your choice: macaroni and cheese, baked beans, Salisbury steak, pie and of course, a hot cup of coffee.

From 1912 to the mid-1960s, the city had up to 50 Automats, like this one depicted on Depression-era color postcard.

The easy-access food wasn’t its only appeal. The Automat was a place you could sit and nurse a cup of coffee all night long—and got hit on by a famous Beat poet, as Patti Smith recalls in her tender memoir about her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids.

[Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe on their West 23rd Street fire escape, about 1970]

“One drizzly afternoon I had a hankering for one of those cheese-and-lettuce sandwiches.

“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-five 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.

“Allen added the extra dime and also stood me to a cup of coffee. I wordlessly followed him to his table, and then plowed into the sandwich.

“Allen introduced himself. He was talking about Walt Whitman and I mentioned I was raised near Camden, where Whitman was buried, when he leaned forward and looked at me intently. ‘Are you a girl?’ he asked.

“‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘Is that a problem?’

“He just laughed. ‘I’m sorry. I took you for a very pretty boy.’

“I got the picture immediately.”

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17 Responses to “Getting a sandwich—and hit on—at the Automat”

  1. Josie Says:

    I remember the Horn & Hardart Automats well, from early childhood through my early thirties, and the good plain inexpensive food they provided. I remember the booths where clerks deftly returned twenty nickels for a dollar. The nickels would slide out on a curved wooden surface made silky smooth with years of wear. I remember the macaroni & cheese, the baked beans, the baked custard, the coffee and milk dispensers, the tall glasses containing cubes of red and green Jello with or without whipped topping–a much more festive dessert, in the eyes of a child, than a slice of pie. Some of the automats had open staircases to balcony seating areas. I encountered Woody Allen in a bar, once, but never Allen Ginsberg at the Automat.

    • wildnewyork Says:

      Ginsberg may have been at the Automat, but he identified you as female and continued on his way….

  2. mykola (mick) dementiuk Says:

    In the late 60s I worked as a stockboy in Scribner’s Bookstore on 5th Avenue. Patti Smith was a salesgirl in the store upstairs. I loaded and packed up books in the basement with other stockboys. She would come down on her break time for coffee. She was one hell of a weird chick, in appearance and the way she acted. But this was the late 60s, Free Love had taken over, at least for awhile. Never knew what happened to her, I left to work with Grove Press, until I saw her album in a record store window in the 70s. Glad she made it.

    • wildnewyork Says:

      I was never a fan until I read Just Kids. It’s a very tender, poetic account of being young and unmoored in circa-1970 New York City. She talks about her job at Scribners as well as at other defunct bookstores, plus long-forgotten stores like Lamstons. I think you’d really like it.

  3. Greg C Says:

    There’s an interesting Automat article here:

    Great post, I was there around 1970 or so (when I was very young)

  4. Joe R Says:

    There was a Horn & Hardart, right down the block from the Chelsea Hotel, at the corner of 7th Ave. The building has been replaced with an exceptionally ugly piece of crapitecture.
    WildNY, I agree. The book is a very nice memoir about young lovers getting their start in the big city. You don’t even have to like either the work of Smith or Mapplethorpe to appreciate it. And it’s full of descriptions of late 60’s/ early 70’s New York (my favorite parts).

  5. Alex Baugh Says:

    I loved the Automat. My favorite was the Macroni and Cheese and the Baked Beans. And they had the best oily hot chocolate. Windinnewyork – I also remember Lamston’s. I used to love those old dimestores, they sold things there that now you either can’t find or have to travel from store to store for.

    • wildnewyork Says:

      I was a little kid during the last throes of Lamston’s, and though I don’t remember the store itself, I do remember my mother saying something along the lines of “put on your coat, we’re going to Lamston’s” at least every other day. If I find a photo, I think the store will be an upcoming post.

      • John Torres Says:

        If you want a good picture of Lamston’s in the sixties try to watch the part in Breakfast at Tiffanys when George peppard and Audrey Hepburn scoop around the Lamston store with a mask on. That was a good scene of the Store.

  6. warsze Says:

    I worked as a bus boy/delivery boy at my Dad’s restaurant right around the block from the last Automat on 42nd and 2nd. I always wanted to get lunch there but how would it look buying lunch from a different restaurant.

  7. Alex Says:

    I recall in the early 1990s going out of my way a few times to eat lunch at the last Automat at 42nd and 3rd Avenue. It was a novel experience, the food was average at best.

    Just Kids is one of the best memoirs I’ve read in quite some time. It recently won the National Book Award for non-fiction.

  8. Joe R Says:

    The Lamston’s that Patti Smith must have been referring to used to be right across the street from the Chelsea Hotel on the NE corner of 23rd and 8th. In its place is now a GAP (ptui!). Upstairs there was a bowling alley, now a health club (also ptui!). This is an attractive two story, very deco, building called the “John Q Aymar Building”.

  9. Hot coffee and pie at a Sixth Avenue Automat | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] last Automat in New York City closed its doors in 1991, and I wish I had the foresight back then to give the hot coffee and […]

  10. Hot coffee and pie at a Sixth Avenue Automat | News for New Yorkers Says:

    […] last Automat in New York City closed its doors in 1991, and I wish I had the foresight back then to give the hot coffee and […]

  11. huntleyfilmarchives Says:

    1940s footage of people using an Automat in New York!

  12. DAVID EVANS/upriverdavid Says:

    Thanks for the film archive, now I know what they looked like, in action.

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