Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Unpaid federal employees need an automat!

When my Dad was twenty-something, he left home in Baltimore to find work in Philadelphia. Like many guys his age, he rented a bedroom in a "boarding house," but stoves were not allowed and no food was served. On a modest income, where could he eat? He always went to the nearest Horn & Hardart Automat. There were several in Philly, and even more in New York City. Each had a marble floor and ornate ceiling, with shiny enamel tables, art deco lighting and stained glass windows. Patrons didn't use paper plates or plastic spoons. They received real dishes and flatware, but there were no waitresses or cashier. Instead, there was a lady in a kiosk in the center of the room. Her job was to make change using only nickels. Give her a dollar and her busy fingers would slide 20 nickels to you. Why? Because all the food was displayed behind small glass doors along the wall, and you could open a door and remove the food by inserting one (or more) nickels.

During the Great Depression, many folks felt lucky to have ten cents for lunch. At the automat they could buy a chicken pie or a dish of baked beans. If they didn't have a nickel, they might do what Marlo Thomas did in an episode of her TV show "That Girl," -- put free ketchup and free saltine crackers into a cup of free hot water and call it tomato soup. Ketchup soup was very popular during the Depression. Does this mean automats were hang-outs for bums? Not at all. Taxi drivers ate there, but so did Robert DeNiro while making the movie "Taxi Driver." Rich and poor were equal in the automat -- a great comfort during the Depression. How did famous people feel about automats?

Neil Simon said, "To have your own stack of nickels placed in your tiny hands and be able to choose your own food, displayed like museum pieces; to make quick and final decisions at age eight, was a lesson in finance that two years at Wharton could not buy today." Tony Curtis adds, "I used to shine shoes when I was 14, and when I was a little ahead, I'd stop at Horn & Hardart." Dick Clark claims he lived at the automat when he only had $2/day for food. "The food was delicious, and it was wonderful," recalled Woody Allen. For many, going to the automat became a family "tradition," not just a meal. If you have five free minutes, here's a video worth watching! It explains how Horn & Hardart automats gave birth to fast food, while giving dignity to the poorest of the poor. youtube.com/watch?v=Gz3yTInPJa0

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