By Stuart Mitchner
We begin in the Automat. What better place to launch a column on William Blake’s birthday than with the first encounter between two of his most passionate advocates, Patti Smith and Allen Ginsberg?
Smith’s endlessly readable 2010 memoir Just Kids offers only a few clues as to exactly where and when this chance meeting took place. Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe were living at the Chelsea Hotel at the time (I’m guessing late sixties); “a few doors down” was the Capitol Fishing tackle shop, a favorite source for two artists determined to transform “the insignificant into the divine.” According to Smith, “Horn and Hardart, the queen of Automats, was just past the tackle shop,” which puts the site in question at 202 West 23rd Street.
The routine was “to get a seat and a tray, then go to the back wall where there were rows of little windows. You would slip some coins in to a slot, open the glass hatch, and extract a sandwich or fresh apple pie. A real Tex Avery eatery.” On this “drizzly afternoon,” Patti has eyes for a cheese-and-lettuce sandwich with mustard on a poppy seed roll. After putting all the money she has — 55 cents — into the slot, she can’t get the window open because the price has gone up to 65 cents. When a voice behind her says “Can I help?” she turns around and sees a man with “dark intense eyes” and a “dark curly beard.” Yes, it’s Allen Ginsberg. They’d never met “but there was no mistaking the face of one of our great poets and activists.” more