Food for thought but no change

Kevin Cowherd

November 10, 1993|By Kevin Cowherd

The day began unraveling when I put 60 cents in the vending machine at work and pressed the button for Diet Coke and nothing happened.

As a writer of sorts, I recognized that there was much symbolism here. The emptiness of life, the wretchedness of the human condition, it was all staring me in the face.

So I hit the buttons for Coke, Sprite, Sunkist orange and iced tea and nothing happened. Then I hit the coin-return lever and nothing happened. The nothingness was overwhelming. The nothingness was a metaphor for something.

So now I moved on to the candy machine because I am not a quitter, and because now the symbolism was coming hot and heavy. I put in 55 cents and pushed the button for Peanut M&M's and nothing happened.

Nothing happened when I pushed the buttons for a Mr. Goodbar, Snickers or Reese's peanut butter cups, either.

Then I noticed a large white piece of paper taped to the side of the machine, on which was scrawled: "Out of Order."

The paper symbolized hope, anyone could see that. The shaky cursive writing represented the defiling of all that is pure.

I wasn't sure what the tape represented. Ambiguity, perhaps. Although that's just off the top of my head.

As to the words "Out of Order" . . . yes, heavy symbolism there. Isn't the whole system out of order?

Once upon a time you could count on certain things: a hearty, cholesterol-laden breakfast, the Yankees in first place, a thriving war-based economy, the love of a good woman (or man, if you leaned toward that sex.)

Now what do we have? Chaos. Bran flakes, a team from Canada winning the World Series, no nukes and no jobs, and people who whine about how romance will impact on their careers.

People have become so annoying, haven't they? Little things, like the bank teller in the mousy brown cardigan who chirps "All righty!" when you say you'd like to cash a check.

ALL RIGHTY?! What kind of talk is that? Or the person who ends every sentence with the word " 'kay?"

I know a woman, Fran F. (not her real initial), who does that: "We were at the movies, 'kay? And Gary went to get some popcorn, 'kay? So I'm just sitting there, 'kay? And this man comes in and . . ."

I'll tell you this: I am not a violent man. But if you listen to Fran for more than a minute or two, the lyrics to "Helter Skelter" start screaming in your head and you find yourself edging toward the silverware drawer.

So now I moved on to the coffee machine, my spirits deflating like a tire with a slow leak, if you can appreciate the imagery there.

The coffee machine is one of those sleek, ultramodern deals that looks like the instrument panel on the Nautilus submarine. It allows you to order coffee in any imaginable configuration: with cream, with sugar, with cream and sugar, with LoCal substitute, decaf, etc.

This surfeit of choices represented . . . what? Futility? The institutionalized blandness predicted in Orwell's "1984"? I don't know. To be honest, I was getting tired of all the symbolism.

I put my 35 cents in, punched the buttons for cream and LoCal substitute. This time the machine whirred into action. A steaming cup of java appeared behind the little plastic door.

It tasted . . . awful. Oh, the cream was there, but no LoCal substitute. As I am addicted to the sickeningly sweet taste of saccharin, the stuff that makes laboratory rats keel over on their little treadmills, I threw the cup in the trash.

The trash represented . . . I don't know. The plight of the dispossessed? The linkage between the Joad family in Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" and today's . . . never mind. I'm sorry I brought the whole thing up.

There was nothing left to do except begin the long, lonely walk back to my desk. The desk at least represented stability. If anybody even cares at this point.

Back upstairs, someone offered me a stick of chewing gum.

I said: "Is this the stick that sat on the --board of your car for two months, baking in the hot sun and oozing into the defroster vent until one day you casually threw it in the change carrier near the stick shift, where it gathered hair, fuzz, cigarette ashes and God knows what else before your husband finally cleaned the car and tossed it in the glove compartment with the ice scraper, travel packet of Kleenex and map of Pennsylvania?

"And now you expect me to put it in my mouth?!"

"I . . . I bought the gum this morning," she stammered.

So I took it and chewed it. It was just . . . OK. Like so much of life these days.

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