Sunday, January 15, 2012

Miraculous Contraptions (Vending Machines I Have Known)

   This past Wednesday, as Alabama defeated LSU, Brad and I walked down to the Mellow Mushroom for a pizza. It was absolutely crazy in there, filled to the brim with boisterous fans of both teams who were putting away tons of beer, singing fight songs, and engaging in tense, but good-natured camaraderie. I'm not exactly a sports-oriented person. The only time my family watched football or baseball was when Uncle Mike and Aunt Lynda came to visit from Ohio. We just weren't very "rah-rah-rah-sis-boom-bah." Unnerved by the degree of testosterone-fueled fervor regarding this particular game, and in dire need of some sort of distraction, I began focusing on the decor of the restaurant. Although we eat here at least once a week, I'd never noticed the exposed brick or the four laser-cut vending machines that were mounted on the wall above me. These were old vending machines, the kind I remember from childhood. As a kid, my family would drive from Kansas or Georgia to Arizona each summer to visit my grandparents, Nannie and Popo, and every gas station we visited meant a new opportunity to explore the treasures awaiting us inside the snack machines. Nowadays, I have little use for them. The only time I've needed a vending machine lately is when Brad and I make the trip down to Fair Hope, Alabama to visit his folks, Bob and Gwen. There's a rest area on a deserted stretch of I-65 about two hours outside of Mobile where we always stop to grab some bottled water and Red Bull from the drink dispenser. It's become sort of a tradition for us. Gwen died in August, and yesterday, we drove down to visit Bob for the first time since her funeral. As usual, we stopped at the I-65 rest stop to get our cold drinks, but this time, our moods became quiet and somber the closer we got to Fair Hope. I think both of us were anticipating the deep sense of loss we'd relive as we walked through the front door, knowing we wouldn't be hearing Gwen's voice greeting us from the kitchen. The simple act of using that vending machine had suddenly turned bittersweet.
     Sometime around 1968, my younger sister, Emi, got her hand caught inside a Pepsi machine at a movie theater in Cincinnati. She was probably about four years old, and I think we'd just gotten done watching Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Although Mom doesn't remember this, which makes me wonder if we'd been accompanied to the movie by our older brother and sister instead of our parents, I vaguely recall walking by the machine in the lobby as we were exiting the theater. Emi and I were thirsty and we wanted a drink from that machine, right now. Since Emi was smaller and had skinnier hands, we surmised she'd have better luck retrieving a Pepsi from the dispenser. In a scene reminiscent of the terrible things which happen to naughty children depicted in that graphically illustrated German children's book, Der Struwwelpeter, Emi managed to get her hand stuck inside the dispenser's chute. We struggled to get it unstuck, and that's when I think our family members noticed we were missing.  Every effort Emi made to loosen her hand from the machine only made matters worse, and before long, she had half her arm lodged in the orifice. What if her hand never came out of there? Being only six years old myself, the possibility of having a sister who was permanently attached to a Pepsi machine seemed rather delightful. I'm guessing now that someone from management probably came to Emi's rescue, lubricating her arm and hand with a few drops of dish soap in order to release it.
     In 1976, my family took a trip to Washington, DC for the Bicentennial. We stayed at the President Hotel on New York Avenue, just blocks away from the Capitol and all of the monuments. Downtown Washington swelled with throngs of jubilant merry-makers, and Elton John's "Philadelphia Freedom" played on radios and loudspeakers everywhere. I was thirteen years old. Although this was an exciting time for our country, I was tragically entrenched in adolescent girl sulkiness. I really couldn't care less about this trip. I literally was annoyed by everyone: my parents, my sister, my little brothers, the hotel cleaning lady, the President, people in restaurants, people in cars, people on television...the list was endless. I was convinced that the only person in the world who could possibly ever understand me was Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of Queen, with whom I maintained an ongoing internal dialogue. Indeed, the dialogue was unilateral, but I was relatively confident that Freddie was equally as annoyed with everyone as I was. Every kid who has ever stayed in a hotel knows that the first order of business after you get to your room is to check out the candy bar situation in vending area. Emi and I had gotten lucky on this trip; we had a room to ourselves. After we unpacked our stuff, we wandered down the hallway to survey the dispensers. These particular machines were the kind where you pulled a knob to get your candy bar or bag of chips, and we couldn't resist pulling on the knobs before putting our money in, just to see if anything would come out. We started pulling knobs, and to our surprise, every knob we pulled on resulted in a shower of candy bars, snack cakes, and gum. This was better than Willy Wonka! Glancing at each other in disbelief, one of us ran back to the room to grab a suitcase, while the other stood sentry duty. We quickly shoveled the mountain of candy into our suitcase and returned to our room. Later that afternoon, we told our seven year old brother, Adam, about the magical machine, and he and Peter, who was five, wasted no time filling up a suitcase for themselves. Adam made the mistake of telling Dad about his candy jackpot, prompting a stern lecture about the seven deadly sins, one of which was stealing. Dad accompanied Adam and Peter and their candy-laden suitcase to inform the hotel manager about the malfunctioning machine and return the stolen goods. I still wonder why Adam didn't rat Emi and me out; our suitcase full of candy kept us all in sugar heaven for the remainder of our trip.
     The summer of 1982 is another Mazur sister legend, the stories from which continue to surface almost thirty years later. I was living in Auburn, about 45 minutes away from Columbus, and Emi had just graduated from high school. Mom and Dad were out of town a lot that summer. I think they took a trip to Arizona to see my grandparents, and Adam and Peter went with them. We had the entire house to ourselves for almost two straight weeks, and word rapidly spread to our friends and acquaintances that Belgrave Court had transformed into Party Central. One of our neighbors actually reported to the Georgia Division of Family & Child Services that we'd been abandoned by our parents. Emi was able to convince the DFCS representative who showed up at the house that I was the adult in charge, and everything was just fine. One of the craziest parties we hosted took place in our parents' laundromat, The Wash Co. It was a huge, immaculately clean facility, outfitted with row after row of orange and yellow front-loading washers and dryers. Emi was working there that summer, and she held the keys to the place. After closing for business one Saturday night, Emi and her friends filled all of the vending machines with Bud Light, in preparation for a night of partying. I'm not sure if my friends and I made it to that party or not. From what I hear, the evening was spent popping beer out of the drink machines, tooling around on the brilliantly waxed floors inside the rolling laundry carts, and singing and dancing on top of the washers. The next morning, The Wash Co was open for business. Amazingly, there were no visible traces of the raucous party which had taken place just a few hours before. In an aggressive effort to avoid being caught, Emi and her accomplices had carefully recovered and discarded every empty beer can and remnant of trash before locking up for the night, thinking they'd left the store intact. Several days later, when a customer received a Bud Light, instead of a Coke, from the vending machine, we were busted.
     As we were driving yesterday, I recounted to Brad about how the first lie I remember telling to my mother involved a snack machine down in Florida. I was probably about five or six, and we were in Sarasota vacationing with another family. Mom was busy getting dinner ready, and I begged her for a nickel to buy a Hershey bar. She relented and gave me the nickel, instructing me that I must not eat any of the chocolate until after we'd had our dinner. Happily, I bounced down to the machines to purchase the candy bar. Once I held it in my hands, I was overcome by the desire for just one little nibble. If I could open the wrapper without crinkling it, take a bite, and refold the paper over the missing piece of chocolate, Mom would never know. This innovation was like having the best of both worlds: I could enjoy the candy and please my mother at the same time. When I returned to our motel room from the vending area, Mom was waiting at the door; she must have suspected that I wouldn't be able to restrain myself from eating that Hershey bar. I handed it to her, hoping she wouldn't notice. To my chagrin, she immediately discovered my vain attempt to camouflage the missing candy, and scolded me for being dishonest. I don't remember whether I was permitted to have the rest of the candy after dinner.
     It's funny how something as inane and unobtrusive as a vending machine can evoke such an array of distant memories. As a grown up, I have little interest in what's inside snack dispensers. I know it's all over-priced, high calorie, low fiber junk food that's bad for me. Even so, the kid in me still loves the idea of a magic candy machine, and as Emi and I learned in Washington, miraculous contraptions like that really do exist! All it took was a little bit of curiosity on our part to get the candy flowing. The next time you walk by one of those old-timey machines, make sure you stop and pull on all the knobs. Who knows? You might just get lucky.

Der Struwwelpeter 

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