Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Ode to the Candy Machine at the University of Nebraska Press Building

For Chrissy Osmulski (1981-2015)

In the lobby of the office where I work there used to be a small candy machine perched on a pole by the elevators, the kind where if you put in a quarter and turned a crank, a mass of candies would drop down a chute, clatter through a hinged doorway, and fall neatly into your hand.  This machine, though, was different: while most candy machines have only three or four slots in a neat line, this one was a cube with slots on all sides, two on each horizontal face, with a total of eight candies to choose from.  It had M&Ms, Skittles, Reese’s Pieces, Mike and Ikes, Hot Tamales, trail mix, novelty gummy candies, and even some brown nuts of a kind I’d never seen in a vending machine.

The candy machine was the one iconic feature of the building lobby, where I spend no more than a few seconds waiting for the elevator each time I go into work.  It’s a long, rectangular lobby with entrances on either side, both of which are covered by square, flat awnings.  Oversized American flags and a potted plant attempt to instill a friendly atmosphere in the corridor, and perpendicular to the entrances large glass doors open into large offices, though both of these offices have moved and printed notices remind visitors to come to their new locations.

I noticed the candy machine on my first day because it was the one object in the lobby that actually stood out, and I swiveled around it to see the types of candy on its four faces, two of which were tilted inconveniently close to the wall.  It occurred to me that if I had a quarter (which I usually don’t—I rarely carry change anymore unless I’m doing laundry or happen to have purchased something with cash that day) I could turn the crank and get a handful of Reese’s Pieces to eat on my way home, a reward for making it through the workday.  I could also have tried the brown nuts I’d never seen in a vending machine before, or bought some Skittles to eat one at a time (since Skittles are best savored individually, rather than in a mixed handful).  I wondered how much candy one got for a quarter—had the manufacturers considered inflation by working an adjustable valve into each slot’s measuring mechanism, or did twenty-five cents buy the same number of M&Ms today as it did in 1980?  If it did, then buying candy from the machine might be a better deal than buying it in single-serving bags from the gas station, a bargain the building owners may or may not have foreseen.

Then, one day, the machine disappeared.  When I came into work and found it not in its usual spot, I looked first to the other end of the lobby to check whether a thorough janitor or furniture mover had placed it there temporarily, but it wasn’t at the other end of the lobby either.  Nor was it there the next time I came, or the time after that, and even though the American flags and potted plant were always in their same places, the candy machine wasn’t.

I often remember how the candy machine’s compartments were always full, and though I’d initially considered this an illusion maintained by slanted surfaces inside the case, it occurred to me that fewer people passing through the lobby meant fewer candy purchases, and fewer of those people carrying change meant fewer purchases still.  I wonder how much money the building owners made from the machine, or whether some rental agreement had actually caused them to lose money by keeping it there.  I also wonder whether I could have halted them from removing it if I myself had started carrying change and actually used the machine.  I wonder what those brown nuts tasted like and what they’re called; I can’t describe them exactly, but would know them if I saw them again.  But most of all, I wonder about the men who’d come while I was away and pulled the machine down the outside ramp on to a truck, and whether they’d taken that truck to a warehouse somewhere with all the other candy machines no one wanted.  If I’d happened to be walking in the day they were bringing the machine out, I could have done nothing more than watch them from the back stairs. 

I miss the machine now that it’s gone, since there’s nothing else in the lobby to look at, and without it I find my thoughts at the beginning and end of the day much emptier than they used to be, with fewer things left about which to wonder.