Passing Trains

Short Stories... All Aboard!


The Automat

Across from the Church of Movement & Travel, where Park Avenue passes over 42nd Street and traverses the vehicle veranda around Grand Central Station, taximen and rail passengers once paused between clocks and 5-minute schedules at the Automat. Before dry-pressed burgers on polyfoam buns, before the era of repetitive transit in universal circles – the Automat was the place to nourish the body without risking the soul.

Shivering by zero degrees, 3 o’clock in the morning, the revolving glass door turns to welcome every entry in. Late travelers, odd characters, even night risers - coming, sitting, and going. Cabs, lights off, doors locked, their Checkers parked outside along the winter street.

Apart from the obvious, the Automat kept bodies alive, like the people who slept deep underground next to electric rails and fast moving trains, who panhandled, or patrolled the terminal’s public phones scavenging for coins. Two quarters for a bowl of hot soup, good, substantial soup, and a slice of rye bread. In the bargain, a chair at the table, a napkin and spoon, salt and pepper, an hour of unmolested warmth - the reward for making it through another cold-hard day.

There’s a guitar with a girl sipping organic juice through a plastic straw, so dedicated she commutes to the city to sing songs to the snow. Yet, she’s still a pretty thing waiting for a train, waiting like the cross-eyed man gawking at her from a table nearby. In the brightness of Automat light, booze-shot eyes, a gold band tight around his suburban three bedroom, ranch house finger. Six tables beyond, conductors compare notes and sip coffee, while twelve tables south a lone bag-lady nods down toward sleep – the Automat warmth a lullaby.

Cabbies are laughing about a rookie, a young fellow apparently too worried about the more-money the other drivers make. This late night the old timers set him up with tales seriously said, about wild, huge meter rides from the airport to Albany or Philadelphia.
"Jack, where you been all night?"
"Remember that fare the starter gave me from LaGuardia earlier?.. well, I went to New Haven."
"No kidding."
"Yeah, and get this, the minute I drop the fare off in New Haven, a guy hails me right back to New York, the Playboy Club on 59th Street!"
"Jeezus!… what luck, how much did you make?"
The rookie glows evergreen, again.

Ladies in white hair nets are busy behind the banks of tiny doors, refilling the emptied stainless-lined boxes, adjusting ham sandwiches and slices of custard pie, feeding the people between stop and go. Amongst the tables, a porter sweeps at crumbs and mops here and there, while across the street the night’s last trains whistle their leave.

The taximen melt back into their cabs, "All aboard!" fades through the tunnel, the guitar girl practices chords to an outbound train. Yet, the glass and brass dining room isn’t quite empty, waiting for the oatmeal sunrise to arrive. Until the next rush of coins dropping the slots, a bag-lady sleeps across from the Church of Movement & Travel -- while a writer retreats into the memory that recalls when the Automat was alive.

© 1997 David Baker (a/k/a D.M. Molloy)


Blogger NellieRose said...

Ahh, The Automat....a forgotten treasure of the city. This brought back memories of my grandmother taking me to The Automat for "treat" after spending the afternoon at the Royale while she ushered people to their seats.


May 10, 2005  
Blogger Bakerman said...

...Now I'm curious; where was/is the "Royale"?

May 10, 2005  
Blogger NellieRose said...

The Royale is on 45th between 7th & to the Milford Plaza.

May 11, 2005  
Blogger Joe Mama said...

Excellent writing. You've painted vivid images of a different place and time.

March 14, 2007  
Blogger Bakerman said...

Thanks, Joe - and thanks for dropping in.

March 16, 2007  
Anonymous Bakerman said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

March 06, 2012  
Blogger David said...

Visit the Automat!

February 03, 2017  
Blogger Bill said...

I get back to NYC every few years. There aren't may of the old restaurants around anymore. In the 60's & 70's traveling from Bridgeport to NYC on New Years eve. Mama Leone's was tradition. A few years ago Katz's and Yonah Shimmel's Knish was a nice site to see. On every trip Peter Lugers gives me a nice feeling of NYC yesteryear. I look forward to doing it again this May 2017. The only adventure my Mom ever went on was a trip to NYC on the train from Bpt,Ct and eating at the Automat. She told us about putting money in a slot and sliding back a door to get her food choice. We sat there in amazement as little kids as she told us this story of her trip to that far away land (60 miles by train).

March 19, 2017  

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