Walter Mencken 2:37 p.m., March 1
I miss the vending machines that existed when I was a kid. My two favorites were at the San Diego Zoo. After passing the Reptile House on the walkway toward the Children’s Zoo was a small pavilion that featured a variety of vending machines. After making a purchase from the machines there were pleasant tawny benches shaped like peanuts, with umbrellas in their middles, to sit on so you could people-watch and envy the lucky few that rode by on the pale green tour buses. Each bus’s roof was painted in an eye-catching striped scheme: white and a singular striking color. The bus roofs always looked delicious to me like Fruit Stripe gum, and I identified each bus by its flavor. There was a cherry bus, an orange bus, a lemon bus, a lime bus, and I think there might have even been a butterscotch bus and a grape bus too, but I can’t remember for sure.
When the buses stopped in front of the bear enclosure, the bears, after years of Pavlovian brainwashing, would stop whatever it was they were doing, stand on their hind legs, crane their necks, and then wave at the buses from the basin of their grotto. Then the bus driver, after his humorous bruin-depreciating spiel usually involving honey, picnic baskets, or some other bear stereotype, would sail slices of white bread down to the bears who would catch them in their mouths and then greedily eat them. This stunt was a real crowd pleaser; we pedestrians on the sidewalk and the passengers beneath the Fruit Stripe gum roofs always collectively oohed, aahed, and chuckled amiably at the bears’ performance. Sadly, the bus drivers no longer carry loaves of Wonder Bread or Town Talk near their seats. Someone in charge probably recognized that white bread wasn’t good for bears—or anyone else for that matter
The zoo pavilion vending machine that dispensed fountain drinks simply fascinated me. There was a small bay in the middle of the machine with a clear plastic door in front of it. After inserting your coins into the slot and making your selection, a white paper cup decorated with arbitrarily sized and placed pink and brown polka dots would drop down into the bay. Next, ice cubes would rattle into the cup followed by a stream of bubbling soda. The effervescent stream always stopped before the crowning foam of soda could flow over the cup’s rim. I could watch the process over and over again. Orange soda, clear citrus, auburn root beer, and hazel cola, each filling the paper cups one by one. It was almost magical.
My favorite vending machine at the zoo, however, was the ice cream machine that featured three little doors. Each door had an illustration on it representing the treat that lay behind it: Eskimo Pie, Sidewalk Sundae, or Drumstick. My coins made cheerful plinking noises as they traveled down secret gravity-operated channels to join other coins inside a small dark vault. The plinking noises made me anticipate the frozen sweetness that would soon be in my hands. Having accepted my payment, the vending machine then permitted me to open the door of my choice. I always opened the Sidewalk Sundae door. Each door had a silver handle that was used to open it, which, after doing so, would sometimes allow a small cloud of mist to be released into the air. Behind the door was a small refrigerated compartment that held my Sidewalk Sundae. I was always exhilarated as I reached into the compartment and felt the rigid coolness of the ice cream through its paper wrapper. I presumed that after I removed my ice cream and shut the door, the vending machine’s internal mechanisms forced another ice cream treat into the empty compartment to take the place of the missing one. Every time we went to the zoo, I always hoped we would visit the pavilion where the ice cream machine waited.
There was something mysterious and wonderful about the whole thing, and now, perhaps, all these years later, there remains a subconscious desire for bygone innocence.