When I was a young guy, I would go to the Loop with my grandmother two or three times during summer vacations from school. We would shop at Field’s until noon, and then we would go to the Automat on State Street for lunch. My grandmother liked the Automat, because it was cheap and the food was great.
The first thing we did upon entering the Automat was to exchange paper money for coins. Twenty nickels was enough money to buy a meal.
My grandmother would case the place with an eagle eye until she found an empty table, and when we got to the table, she would place a book on the table so no one else would sit there.
All food was behind windows that looked like post boxes, flush against a wall and framed in stainless steel. Behind those windows was a load of food choices. There were sandwiches on white and rye bread totally filled with chicken salad, ham salad and tuna salad. Other windows displayed hot dogs, beans, soup and salads.
I would walk back and forth in front of the windows trying to make up my mind until grandma told me to hurry up.
When I decided, I put the required number of nickels into the respective slots, and with a loud snapping noise, the windows would open, and I would reach into the openings and grab the plates and slide them onto my tray.
The windows would then shut, and in the empty places where my food had been, an exact duplicate of what I had chosen would appear, the items being replaced by a person behind the wall.
Balancing my tray as I weaved through the crowded tables was an acrobatic act. When I got to our table, I carefully placed my plates and utensils on the checkered tablecloth and sat down in a well-cushioned chair.
My grandmother ordered milk for me and tea for herself from a waitress. We spent about a half-hour eating and started on our journey back to Oak Park on the el.
Sometimes we stopped at my grandfather’s office on Randolph Street to say hello, or my grandmother would decide that we should do more shopping, which would mean a long stop at Carson’s.
Once or twice each summer, my great aunt Jane would join us for lunch and go with us to my grandfather’s office. On the days that we would visit my grandfather and Jane, we wouldn’t get home until 3 or 4 o’clock.
By the time I reached eighth grade, I no longer went on the trips downtown. My grandmother went instead with my mother and they met Jane at the Automat.
In spite of the extra stops for shopping and conversations of great length, my memories of going to the Automat with my grandmother were quite positive — the food was plentiful, it tasted great, and the price was right.