Commentary by Dick Wolfsie
I just returned from my brother’s wedding in New York City, and I am happy to report that things went off without a hitch … except for Peter. He got hitched for the first time, which was about the last thing I expected him to do at age 66. Mary Ellen and I stayed at my sister’s condo, allowing us to spend extra time together — but most importantly, saving us $500 a night.
We were strolling along Sixth Avenue on Thursday, and I stopped to recall a favorite memory from when I was a kid. In that area of town once sat a Horn and Hardart Automat. It was, I always thought, the world’s biggest vending machine. Inside the restaurant was a giant wall that reminded me of the inside of an old post office. It was covered with hundreds of small compartments, each with shiny glass doors. Customers would put in coins, slide the door open and grab a serving of creamed spinach, Salisbury steak, meatloaf, roast chicken or fresh, hot apple pie. At one time, the slots only took nickels. I’m not old enough to remember back quite that far.
Behind those little doors was a mammoth kitchen. If you negotiated your gaze just right and peered past the candied yams, you’d see dozens of bustling men and women in starched white uniforms sliding the cherry cobbler into the oven or basting the huge birds that would be roasted and made into turkey a la king.
If your favorite vegetable was not in its slot, you simply vocalized, in a very polite New Yorker way, through the porthole: “GOT ANY CREAMED SPINACH?” Before you knew it, a friendly face (or a hand, at least) appeared and placed the succulent side dish on a real china plate within your hungry grasp.
Recently, at a vending machine in an oil change shop, I lost my composure when my item failed to descend. I started shaking the machine. Then I kicked it so hard that six Post-it notes requesting refunds fluttered to the floor. First, the Yodels didn’t drop into the tray (Yodels have a mind of their own.) OK, no Yodels, so I pressed Twinkies. Then BBQ potato chips. Nothing. Dinty Moore Beef Stew? Zip.
Finally, celery and carrot sticks tumbled into the receptacle. Yeah, that’s really what I wanted, anyway.
In 2016, 14 people were killed by vending devices. When I first read about this, I assumed it was from bad chicken salad, but apparently it was the machine falling on folks who had lost their temper and began shaking the behemoth. That’s a big price to pay for a bag of Fritos.
Last week, I put a buck in a dispenser for a cup of coffee. I pressed extra cream, extra sugar and extra strong. The piping hot beverage came bubbling out exactly as I had programmed it. Amazing. The aroma of fresh-brewed java wafted into my nose, but the precious liquid swirled down the drain hole. There was no cup.
Ain’t technology great? Now machines even drink your coffee for you.
Horn and Hardart closed their last store in 1991, selling many of their locations to Burger King. Occasionally, for old time’s sake, when I place my drive-thru order, I scream:,“GOT ANY CREAMED SPINACH?”