Friday, September 3, 2010

The Moral Ambiguity of Vending Machines

My goodness, I meant to post this last night.  However, the Ohio State football season opener was last night, so I was a little busy.  Not watching the game, unfortunately, because apparently we don't get the Big Ten Network (which is going to change as soon as I figure out how to work the magic buttons on the FiOS).  Instead I stared at the game tracker on, which was roughly as unsatisfying as playing paper football with a goldfish.

Well, the final score was 45-7 Buckeyes, so it all worked out fine.  Anyway, I meant to write about vending machines.  So let's try that.  I was in the Cathedral of Learning the other night, around 8:30pm, on my way to an a cappella rehearsal (which ended up being in an entirely different building), and suddenly my stomach reminded me that I hadn't tossed anything into it in about EIGHT HOURS or so, and that maybe I should consider improving that situation.  I sped across the ground floor of the cathedral towards the bank of vending machines.  It was then that the trouble started.

Vending machines are curious mechanical beasts.  You might consider them magical, if you enjoy shoving paper/metal into slots and receiving something delightful in return.  You might also consider them EVIL (as I do), if they routinely eat your money and proceed to mock your gullibility (as they do to me).  However, the other night I had no choice.  It was either send my dollar bill into the Great Unknown, hoping that it would bring me sustenance, or wait until 10pm to eat.

I stood in front of the vending machine and attempted to assess my options.  What had I had for lunch?  Chipotle.  Crap.  That meant that I had already consumed approximately a thousand calories, plus the big cinnamon roll that I had for breakfast... I eyed the bags of fat-free, taste-free wheat crisps and low-sodium pretzels, but then my eyes wandered to the salty, sugary, fatty goodness that lurked all around them.  CHOCOLATE-COVERED COOKIE DOUGH BITES!  I almost went for them, but they were 95 cents apiece.  Why on Earth would I shell out that much money for a handful of miniature chocolate-covered salmonella farms?  Then, I spotted something which immediately seemed like a great idea:

Someone had recently had my usual brand of bad luck with vending machines, it seemed, as a package of Swedish Fish dangled precariously at the end of the metal coil.  THERE I could employ my hard-earned 95 cents and possibly get TWO packages of Swedish Fish!  I was about to slip my dollar in, when I thought to myself,


"Someone ELSE worked hard for their 95 cents and got cheated out of their Swedish Fish.  You know how that feels.  Are you really going to profit off of someone else's misfortune by greedily hoovering up the gummy, artificially flavored goodness that is not rightfully yours?  Are you REALLY that kind of person?  Why don't you just skip on down to New Orleans and LOOT something, you selfish monster?!"

In case you couldn't tell, I have a little bit of a guilt complex.  Finders-Keepers doesn't really work for me.  The last time I found a five-dollar bill, I turned it in at the lost and found.  I have to turn off the TV whenever the Sarah McLachlan Humane Society commercial comes on, because I will otherwise hate myself for not immediately calling the number and adopting a dozen cats and dogs, or at least donating my entire bank account to the SPCA.  I accidentally squished a tiny lizard while I was walking in Florida (in college), and I cried for several hours and wore black for a few days.  Maybe they should sell Valium in vending machines, and then I could at least mellow out before making the weighty decision to steal or not steal someone else's Swedish Fish.

A teeny little voice -- probably my inner selfish monster -- tried briefly to rebut the guilt complex:

"Well, if they left them behind, then they must not want the Swedish Fish all that badly... those poor Swedish Fish have been abandoned because they couldn't move fast enough!  You should let those fish know that they are wanted and valued! ... besides, the machine might only give you the loose package and leave the rightfully-yours fish for the next person.  And why should they get YOUR Swedish Fish?"

Well, I thought more about it, and I decided that
1. I didn't want to eat someone else's Swedish Fish,
2. I didn't want someone else to eat MY Swedish Fish, and
3. If only one package came out, then I would have just paid 95 cents for Swedish Fish and might as well have been savoring my overpriced, chocolate-covered salmonella-balls instead. 

So, I sidestepped the moral dilemma entirely and got a Rice Krispie Treat.  I think I made the right call.  Then I went to a cappella rehearsal, came home, and thought about vending machines -- what ingenious and morally ambiguous devices they truly are. 

I did a little research on the interwebs, for your information and amusement, and here are some interesting tidbits that Wikipedia has about vending machines:

"The machines in ladies' restrooms typically sell some form of absorbent device for menstruation such as a pad or tampon. The machines in men's rooms, when they are present, are most commonly used for the sale of condoms, though in some locations they may be found dispensing cologne, medicine, small candies, or even pornography."

SAY WHAT?! What kind of sexist nonsense is this?!?! 
Not that I would LIKE to have rubbers or a Hustler on hand, particularly in a public restroom, but COLOGNE?!  MEDICINE?!?! CANDY?!?!?! 
I've never seen candy in a ladies' room, but if you ask me, it would be a welcome addition to the tampon dispenser.  ESPECIALLY if it was dark chocolate laced with Midol.  That might even result in making the men happier, too.  Everyone wins!

"In the past, vending machines were used at American airports from the 1950s until well into the 1970s to sell life insurance policies covering death in the event that the buyer's flight crashed."

... So it was kind of like buying a lottery ticket.  Only you didn't want to win.

"In Australia, where gemstones are commonly mined, vending machines selling gemstones have appeared. The machines, usually converted candy machines, sell gemstones for approximately A$2."

Okay, this is just not FAIR.  Why does AUSTRALIA get all of the cool stuff?  They have kangaroos and koalas and dingoes and two-dollar gemstones and Nemo and -

WAIT.  They get THIS too?!?!?!

Son of a billabong.

"While the majority of machines in Japan are stocked with drinks, snacks, and cigarettes, one occasionally finds vending machines selling items such as bottles of liquor, cans of beer, fried food, underwear, iPods, porn magazines, sexual lubricants, live lobsters, fresh meat, eggs and potted plants."

I never thought I would see a claw game used in this manner.  Did some overly competitive person in Japan mistakenly think that Swedish Fish were actually real fish, and decide that they had to be outdone? 

I don't see any sort of carrying device or container in this picture.  Are you just supposed to walk around with live lobsters in your Vera Bradley knockoff?  Or stuff a live crustacean into your back pocket and hop onto the subway to take it home for dinner?  Come to think of it, that might be a fine way to prevent THIS.  But how the heck do you get it out of the machine in the first place, after you hook it? I'm guessing lobsters would be kind of ticked off after being dropped down a chute.

Still, though...

Better lobsters than crabs!

Anyhow, I suppose the takeaway lesson from this discussion is that you should never trust a vending machine.  If it doesn't fall on you and crush your gall bladder, corrupt you into a life of Swedish-Fish-Thievery, or promote general skankery, there's still always the chance that it will leave you with a lighter wallet and nothing else.  Unless you're in Australia, where apparently everything is awesome.  You have been warned.


  1. I liken vending machines to slot machines. It is such a gamble. Is it really that bad if the one person wins and the next loses? This is just the nature of gambling.HHhhhhmmmmm. Something to think about...
    BTW, your link to the Japan Subway Gropers is CLASSIC!

  2. I am VERY upset that I can't get a live lobster out of a vending machine here in the states!!! Someone needs to start a chain of those :)

  3. I run into this all the time! It happens so often my friend and I check for these Vending Machine Misfits, Vmms if you will. For a dollar apiece, you need to to trick yourself into believing your money was well spent.