In Midst of Bad Memories, Nostalgia Brings Me Back to a NY Automat
Commentary by Steven A. Smith
The holidays always bring on serious nostalgia.
But nostalgia is not the same as memory.
Nostalgia is a longing for what might have been: “A bittersweet longing for things, persons, or situations of the past,” according to the American Heritage Dictionary.
During the holiday season, like most of you I suspect, I long for the times I had with my family. I miss my parents and two siblings who are gone. I miss holiday times with my children. Ours was a secular home. But we still had a Christmas tree and visits to Santa. And a menorah for Hanukkah.
When the kids are grown and gone the holidays are just not the same.
So, I long for those times, a bittersweet longing for the past that minimizes or ignores entirely the contentious holiday dinners, arguments with a crazy brother and children more concerned about gifts under the tree than doting parents.
Nostalgia focuses on the positive, often conjured from a mix of memory, imagination and popular entertainment.
Memory, as opposed to nostalgia, is something more specific and significantly more powerful. We may think of memories as unspooling in our minds like a movie. But they are far more complex, often fragmentary, often as much imagination as real.
Memories sometimes are so strong it seems as if we are truly seeing the past. So, when memory and nostalgia intersect it can be transporting.
Nostalgia, by definition, is warm and fuzzy. Memory easily can be just as terrifying as comforting, can conjure a time and place that we do not long for, more nightmare than sweet dream.
Brain science tell us that memories can be triggered by any number of things, including sights, and smells, and tastes, by the weather, by a familiar song. But I am an old reporter and editor. So, events are a huge trigger for me.
The murders of four students at the University of Idaho last month triggered the worst kind of memories. I covered or supervised the coverage of untold acts of murder and mayhem in my newspaper career. Some more terrible than the butchery in Idaho, if you can imagine.
Journalists are first responders in the service of history. Like other first responders, they can be deeply wounded by the tragedies they cover. I have had to send reporters to counseling after they had been immersed in stories detailing the worst of human behavior.
And so, some of my memories this season have been nightmares.
But then I saw “The Automat” on Turner Classic Movies and again on HBO Max.
It was late at night. My dear Carla was asleep, and I was cruising the streaming apps for something to watch, preferably without murder and mayhem. And that was when I stumbled on “Automat,” a quiet little documentary about what was once the most successful restaurant chain in America even though it operated only in New York and Philadelphia.
Most of us know about the Automat, if we know it at all, from occasional scenes in the movies. It was the quintessentially urban restaurant where patrons could put nickels in a slot and remove all manner of food displayed behind glass windows. The food was good, it was inexpensive, and the Automats attracted people of all classes and races.
That simple little documentary triggered a memory of my own Automat experience, an experience buried deep and long forgotten. And it is a wonderful memory, an antidote for those murder nightmares.
I was 17 years old, and I was going to New York to pick up a writing award for a story written when I was a high school junior. I was able to make the trip only because of generous donations from people who knew my journalism teacher. And so I would travel alone.
I had flown only once before and this was the longest trip, by far. I was more than a little nervous. Looking back, I am amazed I made the trip at all. I had never really been out of Oregon. My family did not have the money for travel that required more than a day’s car ride. Now I would go to New York alone, check into a relatively seedy hotel – the best I could afford – and wait two days to pick up my award before flying home.
Hotels were new to me. Taxis were new to me. And I was not used to eating in big-city restaurants. What do I order? What is a tip and how do I manage that? I didn’t have much money to spend, so it was clear I would have to eat cheap.
I ate in the hotel’s even seedier restaurant a few times. The food was bad, the waiters rude and the service worse. I needed to do something.
Walking around Times Square a few blocks from my hotel, I saw an Automat. And it proved a dining miracle. I exchanged a few dollars for nickels, did what I saw others doing and served myself a wonderful meal.
I do not remember exactly what it was, probably a ham and cheese sandwich and maybe a slice of apple pie. The Automats were famous for their coffee, but I had not started that habit yet. I probably had a soft drink or milk.
In all, it was easy, and it was cheap, and it was good. And it was not uncomfortable, more like a friendly cafeteria than restaurant. I ate there the rest of my trip.
All of this came back to me as I watched the documentary. Automats began in the 1920s and lasted into the 1970s when they became economically unsustainable. As it turns out, in 1967, I ate at one of the last remaining restaurants, right off Times Square.
There is nostalgia. And there is memory.
Sometimes the two intersect and the experience is transporting.
For one evening, in the midst of mayhem and tragedy, I was transported to a better place and time – alone in New York, a seedy hotel and a sandwich with apple pie. That memory is a perfect seasonal gift.
Steven A. Smith is clinical associate professor emeritus in the School of Journalism and Mass Media at the University of Idaho having retired from full-time teaching at the end of May 2020. He writes a weekly opinion column. Smith is former editor of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington. As editor, Smith supervised all news and editorial operations on all platforms until his resignation in October 2008. Prior to joining The Spokesman-Review, Smith was editor for two years at the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon, and was for five years editor and vice president of The Gazette in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Newspaper Management Center Advanced Executive Program and a mid-career development program at Duke University. He holds an M.A. in communication from The Ohio State University where he was a Kiplinger Fellow, and a B.S. in journalism from the University of Oregon.