by Greg Kuchmek

There are colorful boxes everywhere we turn, filled with possibilities and treasures to be had right now and for pocket change, yet most of us walk past them every day without giving them any notice. Why hoard our coins merely to leave change lying around the apartment, or obsessively roll it into bank wrappers, when vending machines offer such an eclectic host of pleasures? Stickers, bubblegum, superballs, trading cards, photographs and cameras, chintzy wristwatches, tattoos, icky slime, and cheapo magic tricks are ours to be had!

There is something about having a pocket full of change and seeing a fun-looking vending machine in front of you. For just a dime you can obtain a bright super ball, which allows for hours of fun stress relief. Pump the Japanese vending machines full of quarters and get brightly colored Totoro, Godzilla, and Dragonball Z trading cards and stickers. Snacks abound, from peanuts and gum to chocolate and gummi-like candies—all of questionable age and ingredients! It's instant gratification. The toys are cheap and simple, unlike the expensive gadgets found in most toy stores. Who needs a fifty dollar "Independence Day" alien when you can get 200 tiny, misshapen, rubber Mutant Ninja Turtles for the same price?

Where do these machines come from and who decides what goes in them? They were developed around the turn of the century as "Silent Salesmen" for products that would otherwise be overlooked. Today, one of those mysterious vendors is Marty Glucksman of Steiner Manufacturing in Brooklyn. Founded in 1943, Steiner is an international vending company operating machines from coast to coast Stateside, and all over Asia and Europe. Marty not only is co-owner of Steiners, but designs a lot of their own stickers, decals, and tattoos; which are inspired by current pop-culture iconography. Asked why he got into this business back in 1988, Mr. Glucksman simply answered, "the creativity."

Knowing that there are people like Marty around, I still wonder just what people working in vending machine factories in Taiwan or China think of us Americans, as miniature approximations of pop icons pass before them on the conveyer belt. Do they think us insane or just silly? While most of these toys are known for their lack of resemblance to the original and hasty craftsmanship, there are occasionally exceptions. Marty's decals and tattoos all are quite impressive looking, and sometimes you happen upon something worth more than the quarter you paid. All said, however, there is a certain charm to the typical deformed vending items, the sort of pleasure found in all pop-culture mutations.

Talk!In the world of vending, California is where it all begins. Fads typically begin there and work their way East. Not surprisingly, Grateful Dead and Loony Tunes temporary tattoos are cited as the current craze. Some vendors, though, prefer a more nostalgic route. They opt to collect the older machines and stock them with more traditional fare.

Sometimes the machines themselves have mild entertainment value. The giant gumball machine, larger than most people, is always an eye-catcher, the "Photo Me" booths perfect for instant photo sessions, and some of the machines are robot shaped to make you feel like you are getting something from the "future". There are the vending machines that make a game out of the process involved, like the crane game; you have to maneuver a metal claw around and try to grab the animal or toy you want. These have a special allure, for the trinkets are worth more than you paid if you can get them. If you miss, you lose your money and have to try again!

There is a zen-like quality to these machines. Stop and drop a few coins in these mechanical dispensers of simplicity, and you just might get more than what you put in.   </end>

Photos by Greg