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Local History

Back in the 1950’s Big John McGurdle bought a mechanical fortune teller for his apothecary.  He was adding a soda counter and wanted something to grab the attention of the local kids.

The machine was big and heavy, it took five men to load it in, but that was good because it attracted a crowd and got its picture in the paper.  It’s a dark skinned man, the people Big John bought it from said it was a Turk, wearing a classic “Arabian Nights” get-up:  a robe and a turban.  He’s sitting on a throne, and his slippers had gold braiding and pointy toes.

People really did come in just to put a nickel in the machine and watch the mechanical Turk’s torso swing back and forth and his arm raise up and down and his eyes open wide.  Then, and only then, would your fortune dispense out of the slot by his knee.  It was a fortune cookie sized piece of paper, and the words were in broken English.  Bobby Silver said it had predicted he’d be a big athlete, and Jenny Jamison said it told her she’d go on safari.  By all account’s McGurdle’s new soda fountain was pretty good, so it became a hang-out spot and back when I was in high school there was a brief tradition that all the senior girls would go there just before prom and have the mechanical Turk tell their fortunes.

McGurdle kept his building immaculate … he was the kind of man who took it personally when someone on the block didn’t rake his yard … and so his deco style 1920s building had been declared a state landmark by the time died in 1998.  It’s owned now by his nephew, Tall Pete, who could be making a lot more money as a pharmacist for one of the big chains but likes running his own shop.  He still sells sodas … can’t really tear the machine out or replace it without violating the preservation act … and also sandwiches and sides and a few deserts.  The chicken salad’s pretty good.  McGurdle’s is one of the centerpieces of the local historical society:  they get as defensive about it today as Big John did back then.  For all that’s happened in the world, McGurdle’s has held up pretty well.

But the Mechanical Turk started to go bad in 1995.  First a gear broke, or something, and his arm stopped going up and down.  Big John immediately wrote to the company to have him fixed, but the world had changed too much.  The mechanical Turk may have come with a lifetime guarantee, but the company that built it had been bought by a Japanese holding company and then split off as part of a deal somehow involving Warren Buffet, and then dissolved into a vending machine repair company, and the law had lost interested in their promises about three steps back.  Big John kept calling them, started yelling, even hired a lawyer because he was the kind of man who believed in lifetime guarantees, and the lawyer dropped the case when it came out that they even didn’t make parts for the mechanical Turk anyway.  Besides, they said, it was racist – we know that now.

The mechanical Turk stopped turning its torso to the left in 1999, and the torso stopped moving at all in 2001, and people say it stopped opening its mouth on the day of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.  That got written up in the newspaper too. Anything for a local angle, I guess.

The right eyebrow stopped going up and down in 2005.  Today you can still buy penny candy at McGurdle’s, but if you put a nickel in the mechanical Turk its left eyebrow jumps up and down to a loud mechanical “clack” and a blank slip of paper sometimes comes out of the slot.

Sometimes people says it should be gotten rid of, but it’s just so heavy, and it’s unclear whether the statute considers it a protected part of the décor, and the historical society would throw a fit.

It’s an eyesore, if you ask me, a throwback to a less enlightened time when we thought the world was our zoo and liked to pretend people we didn’t understand had special powers.  I’ve come a long way since then:  my grand-daughter married an Egyptian fellow, and they live in Calcutta.  Can you believe it?

But Bobby Silver played in the minors, and Jenny Jamison was a travel writer for 30 years.  I eat lunch in McGurdle’s sometimes, and stare at the dark skinned machine, and think back to prom.  I have thoughts, there, and memories, that I never have anywhere else.


Benjamin Wachs has written for Village Voice Media,, and NPR among other venues.  He archives his work at

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