On a recent warmer-than-average fall day, I begrudgingly entered the most crowded part of New York’s Times Square clutching a malfunctioning robotic hand.
I wasn’t surprised that I had ended up here. Billed as an automated “Cocktail Butler” capable of driving your drink to you from across the bar, the hand is 29 years old and a veritable ‘80s relic. It accepts two large C batteries, and, when saddled with drink, it noisily plods along a level surface at a snail’s pace compared to what you’d expect of today’s electronics. The hand had taken a glorious but woefully brief ride across a desk at PUNCH HQ. And then it broke.
“You have a broken robot cocktail car?” exclaimed one baffled shop owner on Canal Street during a cold call, echoing a series of discouraging responses from watch and electronics repair shops. To fix the hand, it seemed, we’d need a specialist—something that, luckily, is always available in New York, provided you know where to look.
After some digging, we turned to professional hobbyist, Allan Spitz, who owns a subterranean toy shop on 45th Street that specializes in antiques. Located steps away from Times Square, the Red Caboose is just as disorienting—haphazardly packed from floor to ceiling with thousands of miniature trains, helicopters, model cars and figurines. When I walked in, I waited briefly behind a customer who appeared to be haggling over a $1,600 tab.
When my turn came, I set the hand on the counter; Spitz pulled out a pair of magnifying goggles. “Yes, yes, all right,” he said to no one in particular, running a thumb across the plastic “ruby” cufflink. “Fine. Very fine. Very cute.”
He began by turning the Butler on its side, removing the batteries and affixing two clamps—a pair of tiny, toy-sized jumper cables—to the metal plates within. After a minute, he turned the hand upright, presumably satisfied with his work. When he placed a coffee cup in its palm, the Butler began lumbering towards the edge of the countertop.
“How did you do that?” I asked Spitz, who was busy clearing a path through which the robot hand could run.
“Instinctive and superior knowledge,” he replied, as though jump-starting a battery-operated cocktail delivery robot was a daily occurrence. “That’ll be eleven dollars.”