Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Vending Machine Love

I am afraid that with the title that I have chosen for this entry I may end up disappointing those looking for information about making love to mechanical devices . This is about my non romantic interest in vending machines so if that isn't of interest to you I apologize as I won't be detailing anything kinky, sick bastards.

My love for vending machines started at an early age. My family used to go on trips from Whittier, CA to Laughlin, NV about twice a year. The trip is only about 5 hours or long by car but when you are young that amount of time seems like an eternity. At about the halfway point we would stop to get gas and to use the restrooms in Barstow. Back then we always stopped at Terrible Herst's.

Just outside the restrooms at Terrible Herst's was a run of the mill vending machine that sold chips, candy and gum. Every trip I would be sure to have some change with me so I could use that machine. I usually ended up getting stale Juicy fruit gum. I'm not exactly sure why but I usually got Juicy Fruit for one reason or another but apparently it wasn't a big mover in the area as it was always stale. Even at that young age there was something just something that I enjoyed about putting in the coins and watching things fall down into the catch area that I enjoyed even if I didn't quite understand why I liked it so much.

Maybe part of me wanted to play the slot machines like my parents but I wasn't old enough so I'd have to make do with the vending machine. Of course a vending machine has several advantages over slot machines. Firstly, you more or less know that you are going to get something for your money provided your snack didn't get stuck between the row and the glass; this is always sad situation. Secondly, food comes out of them (though I think that originally you could win gum out of slot machines). Thirdly you have some control which is always nice when you are hungry.

Another thing that I find appealing about vending machines is that everyone is equal in front of them so long as you have the right coins. Age, race, social stature; the machine doesn’t care. It doesn’t judge, it just does its job.

Another early interaction with vending machines was at a super market in Whittier called Alpha-Beta, the store is no longer there and has long since been torn down. At any rate when you went into the store, immediately to the right of the entrance was an instant coffee machine that also served hot chocolate. I remember the cups all had poker hands on them with a hole card symbol on the bottom. About 6 months ago I found one of these machines at an airport so I had to give it a go. The hot chocolate was absolutely terrible but the cups still had card symbols just like I remembered. The cups have a hand of cards on the outside cup part and the bottom is your hole card.

Just recently I found a Maxwell House coffee machine in the S Terminal of the Seattle Airport. I've found that coffee vending machines tend to be amongst the most complicated machines out there as you need to pick the drink type, size, sweetness level and whitener level. When I was as Seattle I had a large sized hot chocolate, it was quite delicious, only a dollar and much to my pleasure it came in a poker hand cup. My card hand was as follows 6 A 53 8with a hole card of 6. A lousy pair of 6’s. The cup clearly warned that it was for entertainment purposes only. It would have to be a pretty slow day to have to be betting real money on card hands that you got from a coffee vending machine. Although I could easily see being stuck in an airport drinking 75 cent cups of coffee, betting on who will buy the next round of coffee based on what coffee cup you get.

Within the United States there is pretty good variety in some snacks though you'll always find Coke or Pepsi, Snickers bars and Dorritos in them. Local potato chips are a good bet for variety domestically. Internationally I see snickers bars most of the time, such as the pictured machine in Norway (you can click on that picture to see a larger version if you like).

I did find a machine at an airport once that offered hot french fries, I should have tried it but I wasn't feeling like eating at the time. If I ever run into another one of those machines I’ll be sure to give it a go.

When working at a NASA site in Ohio the vending machine at the guard station had ridiculously low prices. I figure it must have been a government subsidized machine but I didn't question my luck. I saw Hostess cupcake 2 packs for 65 cents. These are normally at least $1.25 in machines. Of course as soon as those became available they went fast. I saw them behind other things but I never got the cupcakes. They were in an accessible slot once during my visit but I passed them up. I regret it to this day. I did end up getting some Chocolate Zingers though and they were pretty darn good.

There are of course the vending machines that do not sell food or drink. Most notably are the machines that sell iPods and related accessories. I don’t know who’s using these machines though as I’ve never seen one in use. I’ve also seen vending machines in Las Vegas that sold vases full of flowers, kind of romantic but kind of creepy that there is a market for these machines.

When traveling abroad one of the great things is that even if you don't speak the language you can still pop in a few coins and get a snack, a drink or even coffee (in a can or freshly brewed, hot or cold). Vending machines are fairly language independent which is very comforting. Pick what you want, put some money in, push some buttons and hopefully what you think is coffee is actually coffee.

I’ve also seen adult vending machines. I find these mostly in men’s rooms as I don’t make a habit of wandering into women’s restrooms. Most memorable was in a pub in England, I think it was in Nottingham. Several machines adorned the wall, tempting those that had too many Vodka and Red Bull drinks (served by the pitcher up stairs). One vending machine sold condoms in several varieties and then there was another that sold personal pleasure devices and “fun inflatable sheep”. There was a graphic of a man with a goofy grin on his face along with a sheep that looked quite concerned. For the record I did not buy a “fun inflatable sheep”. I believe they were 4£.

I always look forward to finding new and interesting vending machines in my travels and view them as familiar friends who will sell me a snack even though I don’t speak the local language. When you travel I would highly recommend giving these ever vigilant guardians of snack foods a
second look.

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Coming Soon: The Way Traveling Used To Be


  1. "We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold."

  2. When I was at the Alhambra in Spain, I found a vending machine that allowed you to customize what sort of expresso beverage you wanted, how much sugar was in it, and what sort of milk. It then whipped up your beverage and dropped a little spoon into it so that you could stir. Genius.

  3. Right, coffee machines in Spain. On all of my travels I have to say that the most well maintained coffee vending machines are in Spain. I'm found similar machines in France and Finland with the little spoon (small thin plastic cups though) and they just don't measure up. Coffee tends to come in bigger portions in the states, you've been warned.