Hungry. Again. Sitting in the vending room at a flimsy metal table on a wobbly chair. The vending machines hum and whisper. Don’t ask me what they’re saying. I don’t speak vending machine.
I scan the options for desirable snack choices. One machine holds normal vending noshes: candy bars, potato chips, cheese puffs. The other machine boasts “Healthy Options” but apparently it’s the loosest possible definition of “healthy.” I can choose from potato chips—baked, not fried; tiny bags of nuts, granola bars, Twizzler bites, and—healthiest of all—Cheez-Its.
I am nothing if not health-conscious. I choose the Cheez-Its. One dollar for a one-point-five ounce air-puffed cellophane bag of golden, crispy, melt-in-your-mouth squares. I would literally sell my soul for a Cheez-It on any given day.
As an aside the other day a man and a woman were browsing the cracker aisle in Target, and I heard him say, “All of a sudden you’re against Cheez-Its?” and she said, “I haven’t had a Cheez-It in like six years.” Under her breath, but loud enough for the Cheez-It-despising sociopath to hear, a woman who ate a whole box of Cheez-Its yesterday (me) said, “Communist.”
I poke the edge of my George Washington face-up into the cash slot. The machine sucks it out of my grasp, like a pre-schooler snatching a candy-bar from a stranger in a white van, or like Toni Taxwinkle (props John Kass) siphoning tax dollars directly out of my bank account.
I double-check the item code and press G-5. The silver coil turns, slowly advancing the red bag of yummage to the edge of the shelf. The bag starts to fall, and I hold my breath, anticipating the first crunchy bite of cheesy goodness.
But the bag catches and holds on, braced between the side of the vending machine and the ledge. It mocks me.
I pound fecklessly on the glass, but the crackers don’t budge. I try shaking the machine, but it weighs as much as a Hummer.
I refuse to be daunted, and I know exactly what to do. I’m going to double down. I pull out another dollar from my wallet and square off against the thieving apparatus. The working theory is that the second bag of Cheez-Its will knock the first bag down as it falls.
Everything goes great: the dollar slides in, I press the buttons, the silver coil turns. The red bag slides forward. As it reaches the edge, I hold my breath. The package starts to fall, encounters its brother—and the first batch gives in to the gentle push from behind, dropping into the bin.
The second package continues to move forward. For a brief moment, my heart floods with hope, which quickly turns to bitter disappointment. The bag hangs up in exactly the same location as the first, and I almost give up on life.
But I like to think I’m a problem solver. I stare at the window of row after row of delicious “healthy” snacks. I ponder how to get the stubborn package of cheese crackers down from its perch where it clings like a squirrel on a telephone wire: it looks like it should fall, but it stays put, defying the alleged law of gravity. I lean down and try to reach my hand up past the swinging plastic theft guard. (I’m only guessing that it’s called a theft guard, because there’s no way to reach past it to the first row of snack items, let alone three rows up where my crackers levitate.)
I look surreptitiously over my shoulder like a person getting ready to tell a racist joke, then try another shake, another feckless glass pounding. Nothing.
Crazy idea pops into my head. Maybe if I select the item above the crackers, it’ll knock the bag down as it falls. I check the stash to make sure the snack option one row up is worth the investment. I’m not going to waste a whole dollar on sugar-free vanilla wafers for crap’s sake. Bleah. But I’m in luck. It’s delicious, chewy Twizzler bites.
Dollar in. Buttons pressed. Coil turns. The chewy twists fall, and I swear Time has slowed down. It’s like watching an outfield play in slow motion, the ball heading toward the wall, the outfielder leaping, arm outstretched—and the ball ekes past the open glove by a millimeter. The Twizzlers bounce against the Cheez-Its, knocking them slightly out of position, but falling uselessly to the bottom of the tray. Well, not completely uselessly. I still get to enjoy some tasty Twizzler bites.
But now I’m mad. So far I’ve spent three dollars just to get a tiny bag of cheese crackers, and I’ll be damned if I will let the Machines win. This is probably what a steam-punk hero feels like. Courageous, facing unbeatable odds in a harsh, futuristic mechanized world. “Leave no snack behind” becomes my rallying cry.
I know it doesn’t make sense to keep trying the same thing over and over again, but I’ve pretty much decided to spend every dollar in my wallet if I have to—one dollar at a time. What’s the worst thing that could happen if I give it another try? I could end up one dollar poorer still, with only two bags of Cheez-Its and a pack of Twizzler bites to ease the sorrow of this journey we call life.
I go for one more bag of Cheez-Its. For a terrifying moment I think they’re both caught in vending machine limbo.
Both of them.
I feel like Jack Bauer right after he disarms a nuclear bomb and saves Los Angeles, only this is real life, man. This is some real shit.
I tell this story to M. Peevie.
“Well, where are the snacks?” she asks, always a pragmatic child.
“I ate them,” I say.
“All of them?” She can’t believe it, which is weird because she’s met me.
“Well, I did give one bag of Cheez-Its to Robert the homeless guy,” I admit, blushing to admit such an act of overwhelming generosity.
“I can’t believe you didn’t save me any Twizzlers,” she says.