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.”