Dining in an automat, alone

For years after I returned from college in 1985, Dad hounded me to go to the automat at 42nd Street and Third Avenue. Horn & Hardart. Now a lost brand name, like Edsel, or Moxie. Well, not so much the latter; I often say my wife has it.

“It’s the last one in Manhattan,” he would tell me.

He would go there in the 1960s and ‘70s when he worked on Madison and 40th selling out-of-home advertising space. His company, with the pedestrian but functional name Transportation Displays Incorporated, was owned by the Winston Network. People referred to it as “TDI,” so when my second grade teacher went around the room asking each of us what his father did for a living, I—having no other context than one of the popular TV shows at the time—replied innocently, “He works for the FBI.”

As I recall, my teacher didn’t correct me, and my classmates didn’t challenge me. Badass kid, I was.

Eventually the company went through a leveraged buyout and Dad, who was VP of Sales, was not aggressive enough in his forecasts. He was forced out at age 64 and sued the company for outstanding commissions as well as punitive damages on the basis of what he and his lawyer argued—rightly or wrongly—was age discrimination. With a $46,000 settlement, he went into a decline that lasted 13 years until my mother and brother and I found him dead in his bed with an empty bottle of pills and a drained gin bottle next to him on a silver tray. Plastic bag over his head fastened with a rubber band around the neck. Now 12 years after his death, as I pore over books on urban design in the mid-20th century and about neighborhoods with automats, I realize I am walking through his life in print. Questions sprout from each page like tender shoots—“Was the chopped steak dried out?” “Did you all think that this was the future of dining, like in a Jetsons cartoon?” “What kind of people would you meet there—were they lonely?”—only to wither under the unremitting sun of my father’s silence.

[to be continued]

photo: Hernan Hernandez

It turned out to be nothing

The 12-year-old boy at the table next to ours grabbed his throat with his left hand and started coughing. His coughs turned to choking, his cheeks filling with now-threatening under-chewed food, his eyes protruding like those rubber dolls you squeeze for stress.

He looked past his father, who sat across from him, and off to an unknown horizon as his mother did what later I realized was a symptom of the problem: she slapped him repeatedly on the back. I reviewed instantly and autonomically my knowledge of Heimlich’s—where on the sternum to hold my fist, how hard to press/pull…. I would launch this food to the glass dessert case 15 feet away if necessary.

The boy somehow swallowed his food, and the mother let into him. Nagging him with a mouthful, the mother spoke in the direction of the father—“Now you’ve done it…”—while the boy took another bite and he, too, responded to her in the middle of a mouthful of food. She turned her attention to her husband and, as she spoke, her cheeks puffed outward with unchewed food and her words escaped only as through cake batter. Her consonants, especially T’s and D’s, sounded like Th’s and Dz’s. Her eating style had spawned new phonemes.

Moments passed and the husband, who I could see least, since he was parallel to me and not across, started choking and holding his napkin to his mouth to reduce the sound, which was now part of a Table Symphony that dominated the small café.

“Oh, he always does that,” the boy reminded his mother. “And it turns out to be nothing.”

The father ate through the choking, and no one died while Karen and I were there through two quiche lorraines, a cappuccino cheesecake and a chocolate mousse layer cake (no coffee, just tap water, please).

This was a family who choked a lot in public. All three. All the time. All talking with their mouths full. All the time.

You’d think they’d learn.

Had there ever been a fourth?

photo: lion kim ball