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."
"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 brass-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.
© David Baker (a/k/a D. M.M.)