February 2, 2011

St. Mark's Place, New York, NY. December, 2006

In 1950s New Jersey, when my brother and I were little kids and our parents would sometimes take us to Manhattan, I always looked forward to an exciting and glamorous chance to eat at the Automat. I was enthralled by the little windows that, for a few inserted coins, would click open and allow access to the treasures within: sandwiches, macaroni and cheese, baked beans, slices of pie, any number of splendid offerings. The milk dispenser alone was a source of constant fascination: Place an empty glass in the small grotto beneath the spout, insert a nickel, and cold milk was dispensed into the glass. Amazing. I brimmed with childhood curiosity: Who put the food into the compartments? How did the food stay warm? Could you really take as much as you wanted from the condiments table? What if you inserted your nickel before you put your milk glass in place? Horn & Hardart -- the name still suggests those magical cafeterias that vanished long before the 20th century ended but that continue to cast their nostalgic spell. Not long ago, a Japanese firm tried to revive the automat phenomenon in the East Village with Bamn! Sporting a slick design that owed more to Hello, Kitty! than H&H, it offered hand-held fare aimed toward a late-nite munchies sensibility. Alas, the original magic was nowhere to be found, and in spite of its coterie of enthusiasts, Bamn! lasted only a short time.

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