the automat

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The only cafe that’s open at night is Mix, and it closes at nine, just after the night begins. Beyond that there are only bars, and all of them are loud. Where does one go to sit and talk at night? When people complain that there isn’t a quiet place, I remind them that there is the automat. This is met with groans of begrudging acknowledgment. It’s a bit like suggesting that we go to Denny’s, which, rather than inviting one to an of island of comfort where the night expands, tends to remind one all too strongly that it’s too late. The florescent lighting, the empty booths, the drone of the refrigerator, and the unhappy staff all do this. One stares at the menu thinking oh god, I want to go home and to bed.

The automat is similarly sterile, and as one of the few places open all night, has much the same role as Denny’s. But where Denny’s, flung far from downtown on a road dangerous to walk along, is more connected with the interstate than anything else, the automat is just a couple of blocks from downtown. And the automat of course doesn’t have a wait staff to disaffectedly take one’s order. All the employees are hidden away in the kitchen behind the wall of neatly packaged food. And somewhere someone watches the video camera pointed at the wall. It’s just a room run by machines. At least that’s the idea. The illusion that one is alone with the rest of the customers and that one’s comfort is not supported by people but by machines is an anachronistic one. There is a reason that there are only a few automats left in the U.S.. And this one is doubly out of its time, having only been here since 1992. As far back as I can remember it has always been here, somehow staying in business despite not being terrible popular.

Cafes today basically flee in the opposite direction from automats. The early 20th century in a fervor for novel mechanical artifice embraced the automat, and the way it veiled the customer from the labor of food service. Today, through the cafe, we have a new way of dealing with the same conflict. Instead of hiding it, we make a performance of repairing it at an interpersonal level. The cafe is a community of which baristas are a part. Rather than living in blissful ignorance of capitalism, we have dressed it in soft and cuddly fabrics.

The seating here is uncomfortable and ugly, the lighting is garish, and the walls echo, but its the only place open through the night.

Daylight is alien to the place. It sleeps during the day, recovering from the previous night. When I walk past it I sometimes see the window cleaners at work or someone mopping the floor. Technically it’s open during the day, but nobody comes in. It’s in the night that the dreams of the past century come to life and the world of electric lights and machines is a world at all.

At the same time that the automat’s starkness can end the night, it also can make the night seem to go on forever, and that the needs of the body that the automat panders to are immaterial. It’s a demanding dream. One either believes of one doesn’t.

The automat is particularly desolate for me because I have a lot of memories here with people who aren’t here any longer. Back in high school when the night was its most infinite, we used to come here as a giggling horde full of quirk. Or at least, we thought we were full of quirk, thoroughly convinced that each of us was special and destined for Great Things. During these invasions the automat wasn’t filled with modern emptiness, but all of our limitless, though angst-filled egos. Because, obviously, everyone was like me in high school.

Even though I was alienated and aloof with these people, coming here without any of them and without youthfulness, it seems so pointless.