As any child knows, vending machines aren't strictly for soda. Kids forced to endure supermarket or department store trips with their parents are often paid off for their cooperation with quarters - we didn't take them for our savings accounts, rather because they're circular keys that grant us access to the wondrous world of vending machine toys.
You know what I'm talking about - sour gumballs, glow-in-the-dark bugs, slime hands, all the essentials. No toy to ever come out of a vending machine has ever been worth a full quarter, but that wasn't the point. We liked 'em for different reasons. The engaging cling-clang sound the machine makes as you turn the handle, the 1,001 uses for plastic egg cases - there was a lot more to it than a simple dimestore novelty item. Of course, this didn't stop us from spending twenty minutes or so in front the machines, trying to make the right choice with our quarter. We didn't want to get some Chicklets and then remember later how much we craved Hot Tamales. The decision was important, and today, I hope to give you a better look at the current world of vending madness.
Armed with two handfuls of quarters, I trekked for miles across my town seeing what was available. My, how times have changed! Gone are the days of a simple twenty-five cent buys - you can still get gum for a quarter, but anything reasonably cool was 50 or even 75 cents. If you think inflation doesn't affect you, it's time to put away the rose-colored glasses. Even removable tattoo sheets in vending machines have skyrocketed in price.
Before we start, I want to set things up by telling youabout my personal favorite vending toys of all time. These are the items by which all the others I found were compared. You've all probably seen or bought these stupid things at some point, and they're still popular in the machines to this day. One look at the first item clearly illustrates why:
The bloody rubber finger is an unparalleled bastion of tomfoolery so realistic that you'll swear there's real mutilated fingers in the machine. Okay, not really. They look nothing like real fingers. Unless we're talking about albinos with elephantiasis of the hands, nobody's fingers look like this. But when you're five-years-old, you're a little more optimistic. The idea that you could fool someone into thinking you've sliced your finger open was worth at least a dollar, so children adequate at math could construe the bloody finger as a 75% off sale.
I'm a little disturbed that a fake finger that's supposed to look deranged actually has more eye-appealing fingernails than I do.
Fortune Teller Fish - they're how my first crush was exposed. When I was really young, I had this sick obsession with Bailey from WKRP. I've got no idea where it came from, most people would've picked Loni Anderson. But she was Herb's girl and I wasn't a playa. I denied the truth to my sisters over and over again, and was pretty convincing until they gave me the Fortune Teller Fish Test.
See, the gimmick here is that the fish will curl up a certain way if you're in love. So they handed me one of the little red devils, and said that a non-curl was the only way to prove I wasn't Bailey-obsessed. I reluctantly agreed, and sure enough, the fish damn near pulled off a complete vertical headstand in the palm of my hand. (in actuality, they were heat-activated, so the fish would curl up in any living person's hand) I was laughed at and mortified, and didn't watch WKRP again for years. When I finally did, I was already over Bailey. Apparently it was just a fling.
Ah, the end-all, be-all of vending machine toys - the case full of slime. Nontoxic, but certainly not the kind of stuff you'd want to handle or smell while eating. The key factor here wasn't the slime itself - it was the color of the slime. If you were gathered around the machine with your friends, there was always this huge contest to see who could get the fabled red or blue variety. The other colors were looked down upon - especially yellow, which if you received, your friends would start making fun of you for holding a big wad of snot. It was Russian Roulette at the supermarket in those days, but if you managed to nail the blue slime, you became a freezer section hero for a good ten minutes.
While those were my favorites, I couldn't find any of 'em during my research trip yesterday. I did find a lot of other stuff that people locked in the sewer or the Amish might find interesting. I went to four different spots - a department store, a supermarket, a corner deli, and a coffee shop. Each offered a different array of goods. Each made me look foolish to anyone who saw me taking pictures of vending machines. Here's what was found...
The department store was my first stop. They had around 15 different machines or so, most of them filled with candy. The candy looked to be forty years of age, so antique enthusiasts may wanna look into vending machines as a cheap supplier. They did have some other stuff though, nothing too spectacular - but since I spent my night as a grown adult dropping quarters into gumball machines, the least you could do is read about it and maybe buy me a new phone.
Spider-Man started with comics, moved onto movies, and now he's taking over the vending circuit with his special brand of glossy holofoil stickers. The sticker machines are a dangerous entity, because you never know which one you're gonna get. In this case, I was worried I'd end up with a Vulture sticker. Vulture was one of Spidey's enemies; an old bald guy wearing a feathery body suit. You can understand my concern. Fortunately, I got the ol' web-slinger himself. I didn't stick it on anything yet, but there's a certain cat who's skull I have my eye on.
9/11 mania continues with our next item, America's Heroes figures. Cheap plastic cop and fireman toys that were obviously repackaged to fit our current political climate. It's the only way I can explain some of the heroic fireman figures holding cats, and why several of the cop figures eating donuts.
I'm sure this is more of a NY thing than anywhere else, obviously. You've got no idea what they're doing to us here. There's a fine line between being respectful and being exploitive. The city is littered with the usual video bootleggers now adding '9/11 Memorial' magazines to their tables, complete with several 'exclusive' photos of people dead or in amazing pain. I'm not sure where the 'tribute' part figures into that, but I'll let it slide because these guys gave me a VHS copy of Episode II for just five bucks.
The 'surprise' vending machines are a lot of fun - you've got absolutely no idea what you're getting. It can be a plastic slide puzzle, a slime ball, a keychain, whatever. This is where crappy toys go to die, but who can resist? One quarter later, and I've got my very own Angry Punk Rock Commando with Flesh-Tone Bandolier action figure.
I was surprised, I'll give 'em that much. He looks great on the floor of my kitchen. I missed the garbage pail.
Our next exhibit - the poster promised to deliver a 'soccer radio.' Not sure what they meant by that. Either the soccer ball toy is really a small FM radio, or 'radio' just happens to be the word for 'ball' in their manufacturing home country of Honduras. It doesn't make much of a difference because a yellow thing with a face on it popped out instead. I guess he's the rogue soccer ball.
By the way, if you look up wholesale toy vendors for these types of items, you're gonna kick yourself for all those times you wasted a quarter. You can get most of these toys for three or four bucks a gross. I'm not sure what you could do with 144 blue erasers with the word 'puppy' written on them, but at least the option's there for all who seek it.
The machine advertises 'Mind Bogglers', a name that cleverly lets the company avoid paying royalties to Rubik and his amazing Cube. Instead you get more plastic balls.
Jewelry is another hot item in the machines. Necklaces, fake earrings, bracelets, you name it. My favorite are the rings only large enough to be worn by two-year-olds. They're not just fashionable, they're the cheapest way to augment the your skin pigment. Your ring finger will turn green for weeks. Not that it's without it's merits.
You've also gotta admire the religious-themed jewelry machines. Perfect for parents who need a little help in getting their kids to find God. There's nothing more Christian than a rubber cross tied to a yard of black ribbon. Except maybe Turkey Florentine, but you can't wear dinner with pride.
And that's part one - just the beginning. Following the link below will take you to the second installment in this vending machine spectacular. That's where all the good stuff is. You know, like rubber buck teeth, Homies, and toy springs. Yeah.
CONTINUE TO PART TWO!
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