Visit to the Automat

What follows is an excerpt from my novel, “Drafted.” Eli has won a weekend pass and is visiting NYC for the first time with his new girlfriend, nurse Sarah Clark…

We took a three-dollar cab ride to Battery Park, where we bought ferry tickets to see the most famous French harbor gal in the world. I bought popcorn to eat on the voyage, but we tossed most of it to the seagulls that followed the boat. After circling the island, and taking lots of pictures, we headed back to land.

I had always wanted to see a Broadway show, so next we decided to head uptown to Times Square. Winding our way through the large underground subway stop, we emerged near TIXS, the discount Broadway ticket booth. After waiting in line for an hour, we scored half-priced orchestra seats to a revival of “42nd Street.”

Sarah announced, “Eli, I’m starving, let’s get something to eat before the show.” I agreed. We spotted a Horn & Hardart nearby and entered through the revolving door.


I had never heard of an automat, much less eaten at one before. The inside was a cavernous, rectangular hall, with shiny, lacquered tables, and one entire wall filled with chrome-and-glass coin-operated vending machines. A woman in a glass booth, called a “nickel thrower,” gave me enough change to purchase our supper.

I picked out a turkey sandwich on white bread with lettuce, tomato, and bacon, put the proper number of nickels into a slot, and turned a chrome-plated knob with a porcelain center. I watched in fascination as the compartment rotated, my meal came into view, and the post-office-box type glass door clicked open.

Much to my surprise, a voice drifted out of the opening, “That’s the last turkey sandwich and I want it.” A disembodied hand grabbed the backside of the plate and wouldn’t let go.

“I’ve already paid for it,” I complained, pulling back on my side.

“Tough,” said my faceless assassin.

Sarah laughed as I wrestled for my supper. I gave a firm tug and heard a forlorn cry, as my invisible opponent lost his balance and crashed to floor. I raised my liberated sandwich in the air and made the “V” for victory sign with my free hand. Several customers applauded my winning efforts.

“Having fun?” Sarah asked, still smiling.

“You didn’t tell me I’d have to fight for my food. I’d like a piece of pie too, but I’m not sure I have enough resolve.”

Sarah said, “Don’t forget, you’re almost a trained killer now.”

Taking a deep breath and armed with a pocketful of nickels, I approached the pumpkin pie window. Putting the money in the slot, I watched the pie rotated into view. I hesitated, but nothing happened, so I gingerly reached into the compartment. I suddenly felt something wet and quickly pulled back my hand, which was now coated with whipped cream. Sarah laughed so hard, tears rolled down her face. I gave her a dirty look and set my jaw in determination.

I filled a glass with cold water and furtively crept around a potted fern near the still open pie window. Without warning, I stuck my arm through, and tossed the water in a wide pattern.

A curse came from my adversary, “Damn!” My wet opponent struck swiftly in retaliation. I watched in horror as a fist appear over the pie, hesitate briefly, then smash down hard, unmercifully splattering crust and pumpkin pie everywhere. The whole restaurant got into it now, loudly chanting incendiary words, edging me on to get even.

I gave an evil laugh and grabbed an exactly calibrated, mug of Horn & Hardart’s black coffee from the mouth of a chrome dolphin’s head. The same famous brew mentioned in the song, “Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee,” by Irving Berlin. But I did not intend to sing about the coffee, but rather use it as a deadly weapon against my foe. Not wanting to take a chance on missing my target, I peered through the open door.

Before I could act, a hand came out of the hole, holding a whipped cream aerosol can. My assailant pushed the nozzle forward and covered my face with the stuff. Temporarily blinded, I wiped the sticky, cold goop from my eyes just in time to see him drop the can, flip me the bird, and slam the little window shut. Embarrassed and defeated, I slunk back to my table to finish cleaning my face with a handful of napkins.

Sarah tried to hold back the laughter. “Aren’t you going to get any pie?”

I gave her another look, which only made her laugh harder. I quietly sulked while finishing my sandwich and washing it down with coffee. Hmm, Irving Berlin was right. Horn & Hardart did have the best brew in town.

* * *

Richard Allan Jones is the author of the humorous adventure novel, “Drafted,” available now at, and the soon to be released political thriller, “Party Favors.”

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