Echoes of the Automat

There’s an oft-quoted passage from a Joan Didion essay entitled Goodbye To All That that reads, “I still believed in possibilities then, still had the sense, so peculiar to New York, that something extraordinary would happen any minute, any day, any month.”

Ms. Didion may have stopped feeling that way about New York somewhere along the way, but we haven’t. In fact, the enduring sense that something extraordinary (and/or strange, serendipitous, surprising, wonderful) could happen at any time is one of things that hooked us but good on this city more than 35 years ago and keeps us engaged with New York even today.

One can live here for 34 years (as we have) and still step out your front door and encounter something you’ve never seen before.

Our day’s tasks on a recent Saturday found us at the corner of 38th street and Eighth Avenue in Manhattan, less than a mile north of Cladrite HQ, when we spotted, to our surprised delight, a painted ad on the side of a brick office building just east of the avenue.

These hand-painted signs are sometimes called “ghost signs,” in part because they are virtually all painted many decades ago, they often advertise products and establishments that no longer exist and they are frequently only discovered—uncovered, really—when another building, built more recently, is razed, revealing the long-forgotten advert. The newer, now-demolished building had hidden (and thereby preserved) the ghost sign all those years.

That wasn’t the case with the sign we spotted on Saturday. It peeks over the roof of a four-story commercial parking garage, so while it might once have been concealed by another building, it has been, for at least as long as the parking garage has been there, hiding in plain sight.

A hand-painted Automat advertisement    A hand-painted Automat advertisement

That the sign was for an Automat once in operation on the building’s ground floor made all the difference. We love all these old signs and always get a kick out of spotting examples we’ve never noticed before, but an advertisement for an Automat? For our money, it gets no better than that.

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