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.

More like this:


Tallsharon May 25, 2012 @ 6:03 p.m.

Loved this. Just realized the soda machines are gone...so familiar to me- now I'm wondering how long ago. That was after bottled soft drinks right- with the bottle opener on the door and the wooden crate for empties on the ground next to the machine? I loved jaw breakers and m and m machines- and penny abba zabbas. Nice little trip down memory lane- loved the feeding the bears tram driver. I remember buying food all over the place from machines to feed ducks, goats, and the swallows up at San Juan cap. Too bad kids aren't allowed to interact this way anymore. Risk management most likely. Thanks for this!


quillpena May 25, 2012 @ 11:51 p.m.

Thanks rz and TS. Kids just have no idea what they're missing--and they never will.


kstaff May 26, 2012 @ 11:12 a.m.

Fantastic memory for detail you've got! I remember the peanut-shaped benches now that you mention them. Can't remember if the red and white striped bags of peanuts I'd feed to the monkeys and munch on myself came from a vending machine or over the counter.

I got into trouble in elementary school once for claiming during a Career Week activity that my ambition in life was to own a bunch of vending machines, live off the change, and hang out at the beach every day. The old bottle dispensing machines at the Mission Bay Yacht Club were my inspiration for that.


quillpena May 26, 2012 @ 1:31 p.m.

Nice picture, Mindy, for some reason it made me think of the Bugs Bunny cartoon that had the gang of Brooklyn dogs beating up Bugs: "Hey what is it?" Another dog grabs Bugs and stretches his neck, "Maybe it's a gy-raff, a gy-raff!" Thanks, kstaff. I don't remember either, although I do remember feeding the elephants peanuts. They were always very polite when receiving the peanuts from me.


nan shartel May 26, 2012 @ 5:02 p.m.

this makes me want to go to the Zoo Quill...and take peanuts...i remember those vending machines

i loved the little train and carousal

i used to go to the Zoo when there was still a streetcar gong there Quill.....would u believe!!

what happy thoughts



nan shartel May 27, 2012 @ 1:15 a.m.

Mindy...how did u know i love Florence and the Machine???


quillpena May 27, 2012 @ 3:08 a.m.

My daughter and I still ride the train and carousal whenever we visit Balboa Park. A streetcar you say? It must have been awesome. My mom told me that, in the fifties, when she was just 11 years old, she often rode the bus, and maybe the streetcars too, from Point Loma to Downtown San Diego by herself to watch movies at the Downtown theater. Then she'd ride the bus home, alone, sometimes at night, and she told me she never felt uncomfortable or afraid. I suppose it really was a different time then, a safer time. I wish it were like that now. Florence and the Machine? Good music, Mindy.


nan shartel May 27, 2012 @ 2:29 p.m.

i went into boarding school at 10/11 Quill and i rode the streetcars before that (say 1948/49)...it was clickety-clack terrific

it went down Park Ave to Broadway


Ruth Newell May 27, 2012 @ 10:13 a.m.

"Bygone innocence," says it all! Lovely read, QP. Thank you.


quillpena May 27, 2012 @ 4:31 p.m.

Sounds cool, nan, and thanks, Roody.


Sign in to comment

Win a $25 Gift Card to
The Broken Yolk Cafe

Join our newsletter list

Each newsletter subscription means another chance to win!