The automat was on 57th Street, near Hell’s Kitchen, and my dad worked 20 blocks south, near the United Nations, so why we were all the way uptown at the automat is a mystery to me. Also it was late in the afternoon. The city seemed made of silver. My dad was relaxed and amused. He did not take off his suit jacket or loosen his tie or anything like that, but he was relaxed and smiling, and he said, Get anything you want. Here are some quarters. There was an older man getting cherry pie. He showed me all the possible pieces of pie. There seemed to be a thousand possible pieces. You could get all sorts of other food there also. You could hear the faint clatter and banter of cooks behind the wall if you listened carefully. We sat at a table in the window. A horse walked past with a policeman on his back. A woman came into the automat and hurried to the wall and got a bowl of soup, drinking it so fast she surely burned her lips before dropping the bowl on a table and rushing out as fast as she had hurried in. The bowl rattled for a few seconds and then subsided. My dad saw all this but didn’t say anything. He was very good at seeing things closely but not necessarily commenting. The late light came through the windows in the shape of huge beams or timbers or girders. Where the woman had hurried out of the automat the dust motes swirled in little eddies in a girder of sunlight, and my dad and I watched the motes for a while. If you sat in this window long enough, the entire world would parade past in all its motley glory, said my dad. You could read the whole story of the world if you sat long enough in the window of a Horn and Hardart.
Perhaps this is how the Great American Novel would begin, with an author sitting meditatively in the window of an automat. Your characters walk in and present themselves and tell you about their adventures over pie and coffee. Any number of fascinating stories can wander in and out. Not to mention the thousands of stories walking past outside the window. You can see a great deal from the window of an automat if you pay close attention. The horse, for example—imagine the stories he could tell. Perhaps it is the horse that is actually the astute law enforcement professional, and the policeman is a raw trainee assigned to that horse for seasoning purposes. Perhaps the horse knows every crime committed in this area for the last decade in such detail that he could tell you the color of the criminal’s eyes and the docket number of the case file. Perhaps the young policeman is so stunned by the brilliance of the horse that he spends a good part of his day trying to grapple with the idea that everything he thought about the brilliance of human beings relative to that of other species looks to be in serious dispute. All sorts of things like this are possible if you have enough pie, don’t you think? And my father laughed the way he still laughs to this day, like a mountain rumbling with amusement, and I asked him if I could possibly get a second piece of pie, and he said, Absolutely.
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