A Poem by Nicholas Christopher

"The Automat"

April 15, 2020  By Nicholas Christopher

The Automat

on Forty-second Street and Third Avenue
where my grandfather in his brown suit and fedora
his vest with the silver pocket watch
used to take me for lunch—
Salisbury steak scalloped potatoes snap peas
and deep-dish apple pie—
after which he would clip and smoke
an Upmann Corona
Cuban cigars not yet banned in the USA
and explain the difference
between hand-rolled and machine-rolled cigars
the fine points in which he was well-versed—
the wrapper cut into a delicate spiral
by the curved blade of the chaveta
and the cap triple-layered to hold
its shape through a long smoke—
having been a cigar-roller himself
as a fourteen-year-old refugee
making his way from Macedonia to America
by way of Istanbul and Caracas
where he rolled in humid rooms at long tables
with men two and three times his age
giant fans whirring in the corners
and a hired storyteller in a rocking chair
entertaining the rollers
with his repertoire of fables and romances
love stories for men who rolled twelve hours a day
ten cents an hour until their fingers went numb
and then slept in rooming houses four to a room
His name was Nicholas too my grandfather
he lived on bean soup and bread
saving to buy passage to New York
learning to watch out for certain men
and to resist the brothels
having seen sailors ravaged by syphilis
and to avoid the police who would shake down
a boy with no work papers
just a passport from the Ottoman Empire
that was still occupying the village he had escaped
actually which he had been ordered to leave
by his father my great-grandfather a farmer
of three barren acres who at the height of a famine
said that there were five of them in the family
himself his wife three children
and only enough food for four
and no way around it except
for my grandfather the eldest son to leave
and sixty years later find himself
(after a lifetime of manual work
American sons who fought in wars
an American daughter who died young)
in an automat with his grandson
who could deposit nickels in steel slots
and from glass compartments
misted by heat and wafting aromas
extract a meal



The preceding is from the Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which features excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The latest issue of Freeman’s, a special edition gathered around the theme of power, featuring work by Margaret Atwood, Elif Shafak, Eula Biss, Aleksandar Hemon and Aminatta Forna, among others, is available now.

Nicholas Christopher
Nicholas Christopher
Nicholas Christopher is the author of seventeen books: nine books of poems, most recently, Crossing the Equator: New & Selected Poems and On Jupiter Place; seven novels, including A Trip to the Stars and Veronica; and a nonfiction book, Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir & the American City. He is a professor in the School of the Arts at Columbia University. He lives in New York City.

More Story
Antibody: Starring Rebecca Dinerstein Knight, Megan Giddings, and Megha Majumdar This is episode four of The Antibody Reading Series, a weekly reading and Q and A hosted by Brian Gresko. Tonights...

Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.