At The Automat with My Linguist Grandmother
Too many decades ago my grandmother used to take me to Horn and Hardart's Automat restaurant in New York City.We'd go to a show or a movie and then would have a meal there, and for me, going to Maxim's in Paris couldn't have been more exciting.
Off we'd go to that white enamel, brass and glass food palace. My grandmother would hand me a dollar and I'd walk to the lady at the high desk in the middle of the busy restaurant, and she'd exchange that dollar for twenty nickels.Loaded with this King’s Ransom, I'd head toward the walls of food, displayed behind dozens of small hinged, brass-framed, knobbed windows of thick glass, with different foods behind them. I'd take a long, long time to make my choices, but which? Sandwiches of every possible sort, including the classic cream-cheese-and-jelly?Thick green and white bowls of baked beans? Pot pies? Soups? Spaghetti?Bowls of Irish stew?
I'd finally decide and jam the nickels into the slot next to my choice, and the small square door would pop open allowing me to reach in and pull out my booty.The door to the tiny receptacle then closed down and would lock, and I’d watch the round tray within spin away and an exact clone of what I’d just bought would magically reappear.
It was heaven! I'd place my selection on a tray on the long brass railed shelf beneath and slide it toward my next acquisition. Or I might consider parting with a few more nickels and get a full meal; corn, meatloaf covered with thick gravy, buttered beets, mashed potatoes, green beans. Maybe salad, although I’ve never much cottoned to salad, then or now, and think it tends to wreck the whole point of a good, hot, salty, calorie and carbo-laden greasy dinner.
I’d then face a bank of the most fabulous, delicious desserts known to humankind, an endless variety of pies and cakes, all flavors and colors, custards, fruits, weirdly shaped pastries, cubed Jell-O in all colors topped with thick piles of real whipped cream, heavy white bowls of over-the-moon fabulous ice cream, to cover with ladles of free sauces of choice.
Milk, for some reason, was sometimes brought to the table, poured from a sweating grey metal pitcher into thick short glasses still hot from the dish water, and I'd drink it quickly, loving the feel of the hot glass on my lips, the cold milk on my tongue.I'd gulp fast before the cow juice turned warm.
I remember sitting at the thick sticky Bakelite tables.The plates and cups on it were heavy porcelain, white and clean. The din of human voices in Horn and Hardart's Automat had a strangely musical quality for me, like a chorus that sang a sort of clanking, rumbling opera, its accompanying orchestra the clinks and clatters of cutlery, plates and glasses.I was happy there, staring at and listening closely to the people all around, so many different accents, all seeming actors and singers and dancers performing just for me in this big crowded and loud restaurant, purchasing their foods from those endless rows of tiny windows, sitting and eating, talking and laughing.
But some were not. Even though I was so young, I knew some of the people I watched had darkness in their lives.Some were poor and hungry and poured Ketchup into mugs of hot water, and with the free soda crackers, they had a meal of sorts, tomato “soup” and crackers.Today I am deeply ashamed I never handed those sad people some of my nickels, but instead I looked away.
There was always one most unpleasant incident which happened at my revered Automat.My beloved grandmother, (a woman who considered herself a multi-linguist because alone, she'd taken a trip around the world in l937 and had completely incorrectly memorized about four phrases from various countries,) would think she was furthering the cause of brotherly love between all nations by bellowing out one of those dreadful phrases at the Automat, especially when she'd espy someone of Asian persuasion.
"Oh no," I'd breathe when I'd see her eyes light up.I knew she'd spied a victim across the restaurant, and it was nearly always an Asian.Her mouth would split into a huge United Nations grin and she'd shriek across the floor a horrid phrase which sounded something like "HONG YONG DISSY MEWIE!!" She'd continue to shrill that repeatedly until the luckless man or woman would finally look up to see what the tumult was, whereupon my beloved Granny would happily blast it again.
It was just quite simply ghastly. The poor person hadn't a clue what that old woman was shouting, could not respond in kind, and for all I knew, she may very well have been unknowingly declaring war on his country or insulting his mother.I couldn't wait to run out of there, after, of course I’d scarfed down all the food I could. She'd always grin happily at me and say "You see my darling Elsie? I just said Good Morning to that nice gentleman over there from Japan. Or is that Korea? Or China? Oh well, it's made him happy. Now he feels like he's back in his own country for a moment, don't you agree my dear?" I most certainly did not. And neither did he.
But as to the kind thing.In l994, I wrote about all of this for a magazine called *Reminisce* and that article surfaced one day at a nice man's home. He read it. His name was Steve Plant and he owned Plant's Seafood in Bath, Maine.Mr. Plant called me to advise that he owned a clock that had been in the last great Horn and Hardart restaurant in New York City, and he kindly wondered if I'd like to see it. He told me that just before that last Horn and Hardart restaurant had been demolished, someone got that clock out and had given it to him. He sent me a photo.
It's not a mighty clock. It's smallish, and advertises Coca Cola, but the Horn and Hardart name is there and that clock was part of a marvelous and now ended piece of American culinary history. Perhaps I’d looked at that clock when my dear grandmother took me to that exciting restaurant. Maybe I glanced at it as I ran furiously out of the building as she screamed "HONG YONG DISSY MEWIE" at some hapless soul. It was nice of Mr. Plant to let me see that clock again and to cause me to remember those sweet, good days. Very nice indeed. And oh, they were truly sweet, good days.