THE WHOLE ugly incident began when I put 55 cents in the machine, pressed the button for Diet Pepsi and was met by a lingering silence.
Silence is a wonderful concept, except when dealing with vending machines. So I pressed the Diet Pepsi button again. Nothing. Then I jiggled the coin return button. Nothing.
Then I delivered a graceful, looping kick to the machine, which damn near broke three toes and still did not help with the return of my money.
This particular soda machine has a bad reputation and has given me trouble before. It is located in the third floor lunchroom of my newspaper building, squatting there like some evil troll, daring you to pass without pumping coins into its fat little coin-slot mouth.
In fact, when the machine gobbled my money and I flipped out and kicked it, three or four wild-eyed people at a nearby table leaped to their feet and screamed: "YES! KILL IT, BROTHER! KILL IT!"
Hopefully, these were not people from our payroll department about to figure out my FICA withholdings. Nevertheless, it's funny how differently people react to getting ripped off by a vending machine.
Some folks (although not these lunatics in the lunchroom, I suspect) are very cool about the whole thing.
They will lose 55 cents to a soda machine and simply shrug their shoulders and walk away whistling (for example) ''Turkey in the Straw.''
Now maybe they go home and take it out on their families, I don't know. Maybe you visit them a half-hour later and find the dog hanging from the weather vane by its hind legs. But outwardly, at any rate, these people seem blissfully unperturbed.
On the other hand, some people become so unhinged from losing money that they will actually talk to the offending machine.
Pumping the coin return furiously, the veins on their neck bulging and sweat streaming down their faces, they will unloose a pitiful stream of babble along the lines of: "AW, NOOOOO! C'MON, MY LAST TWO QUARTERS! YOU CAN'T DO THIS! WHY YOU SON OF A . . . AW, NOOOO!"
Then there are those of us who lose 55 cents to a vending machine and whose first thought is: crowbar.
In the instant that we lose our money, an icy calm descends upon us. Our course of action is clear: The machine must be punished. It must be taught a lesson.
It must be made to see that you (the collective you, men and machines -- we're all in this together) can't rip off decent, law-abiding citizens without retribution.
So we kick the machine. We beat the machine with our fists. Some of us will actually drop into a karate stance and deliver looping, graceful Chuck Norris-like kicks to the mid-section of the machine, which is what I was trying to do when I damn near broke three toes.
You talk about losing it completely, a friend of mine once threatened to shoot a Coke machine in a gas station that ripped him off for 50 cents.
Now maybe that sounds a little extreme. But he was suffering from a vicious hangover at the time and his nerves were severely frayed. The day before, he had dropped $800 on the Super Bowl by betting on the Denver Broncos, a dog of a team if ever there was one. And when it became clear the Broncos couldn't beat the St. Cecilia's junior varsity, my friend began drinking heavily in the hope that the whole depressing business would go away.
Now the anxiety was gnawing a hole through him, as he was afraid his wife would discover what had happened to $800 of their savings and slit his throat while he slept. (Knowing the woman as I did, his fears were not entirely groundless. "Touchy" does not begin to describe her.)
"I'm a dead man anyway," he muttered, when the Coke machine gobbled his money. "Might as well take something with me."
With this he began to walk slowly back to his car, where we knew a hunting rifle nestled in the trunk next to the spare tire.
We managed to talk him out of gunning down this Coke machine in cold blood, but still. It shows you the emotional trauma these machines can inflict.
Over in the Persian Gulf, we have these so-called ''smart bombs'' that will practically open the door of a building, zoom around looking for one individual (say his name is Khalif), blow that individual up, and close the door behind them when they leave.
Over here, we can't get a soda machine to drop a Diet Pepsi.
When someone says the world is going to hell in a handbasket, you won't find me arguing