The KitKat manI have never trusted vending machines. My memories of dealings with them are laced with multiple disappointments and frustrations – tugging at the unyielding drawer of a KitKat dispenser at Monument underground station, banging my fist on the oak veneer of a cigarette machine in the Red Lion one Saturday night, then to find my vend pack of 20 Silk Cut is in fact 16. True, once or twice (well, once, actually) the opposite has happened, and a chocolate machine has suffered a HAL-like nervous breakdown, dispensing more Kitkat than I could fit in my pockets. But for the most part, it seems to be disappointment – the stuck coin, the Mars Bar that didn’t fall, the change that never came. I sometimes feel little sympathy, therefore, with the people who regularly pester me about money they have lost in my machines.
I, along with one other person, am in charge of nearly all the vending machines at Manchester university, suppliers of automated confectionery, crisps and hot drinks to some of the finest intellects in the country, as well as many academic staff. Yet even professors of theoretical physics are reduced to the level of mere ignorant fools when faced with a machine that has taken their money and given nothing in return. If they are foolhardy enough to entrust their small change to the whimsy of modern electronics, not to mention the complex sequence of mechanical events, that nightmare of levers, latches, springs, hinges and Archimedes screws, that actually delivers chocolate and change, then they can hardly complain. But, of course, they are right.
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It’s just that some of them seem to treat it as a matter of principle. As though the machines, which these days with their digital display greetings (“enjoy your snack”) are friendly, though not conscious, were actually thieves. I tell them machines have no principles. They either work, or they don’t. If anyone actually believes the urb a myth that vending machines are specifically designed to keep the change of every 10 th customer, I can assure them that they are wrong. People who are cheated by a vending machine are unlikely to use that machine again.
A vending machine that keeps your money loses it in the long run. It is true, however, that our machines do not suffer fools gladly. If a customer accidentally selects an item that is not available, they will not get their money back. They will have to select something else.
How many cheese and onion addicts have sloped away from our machines bearing a reluctantly purchased packet of salt and vinegar But checking availability beforehand is not always simple. On our hot drinks machines, a green light means that a particular drink is available, though many take this to mean the opposite. Still, this is all part of the exciting lottery that is the automated vending experience. One can see the tension in customers’ faces as they punch in their numbers – will the cup fall, will the spiral turn, will the Yorkie drop Very similar to the faces watching those dancing balls every Wednesday and Saturday night.
When so much depends on chance, I find that I have become a sort of walking embodiment of luck. When I arrive at a machine to find a customer weeping with frustration, and then open the machine to retrieve his or her lost money, or to obtain the jammed Rolo tube, this is seen by the customer as an incredibly fortuitous coincidence, on a par, almost, with divine intervention. One can see it from their point of view – the prospect of lost money and an unsatisfied cocoa-lust is dissolved by the miraculous appearance of The Man With The Keys. I will normally spend less than an hour at a particular machine each week, so the chances of this happening are quite slim. Though, from my point of view, it happens all the time, but this is only because there are hundreds of them, but only one of me. My job has given me an unusual perspective on the different academic departments.
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Why do chemistry students drink at least twice as much coffee with sugar as any other department, for instance Why do computer scientists drink so much soup Overall, I find that scientists generally have sweeter teeth than humanities students. Eavesdropping on countless common-room conversations as I fill machines I have also learnt that the minds of scientists are as immature as their taste buds. Scientists tell bawdy jokes and talk about football, drinking and sex. Their counterparts in arts departments will discuss politics, personal relationships and almost anything else. Some have suggested that the mental stunted ness of science students is related simply to the fact that they work harder than anyone else and hence need the release of banal conversation. Though I tend to see it simply as a reinforcement of CP Snow’s depressing observation on the nature of the “two cultures.” From the age of 13, these people have read nothing but science, resulting in two-dimensional personalities and an inability to form relationships, hence the need for sugar.
They are the people who show most distress when our machines break down. They suffer a catastrophic implosion of unreleased endorphins, and compel their academic secretaries to phone us. They also suffer distress each summer when the chocolate melts. This happens with an annoying seasonal frequency.
The briefest spell of hot weather usually proves too much for the machines’ cooling systems, and without refrigeration a chocolate machine is little more than an enormous microwave oven, liquefying the chocolates in their flow-wrap packets. When this first happened, we thought we’d leave the chocolates in once the machine had been repaired, thinking everything would be fine once the chocolate had hardened again, a little misshapen, perhaps, but quite eatable. This was not the case, however. Chocolate that has melted and then re hardened has the consistency of chalk. Somehow the mixture curdles, fat separating from cocoa-solids in the pupating mess within the wrapper-cocoon, to produce an ugly, crumbling, pale parody of chocolate.
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Yorkies were particularly tragic, having collapsed within themselves, the lettering Y-O-R-K-I-E, spelt out on each bar, concertinaed to half its original length. Smarties, meanwhile, had lost their colour entirely, their multi-hued gaiety reduced to a uniform, shocked white. My colleague tried flogging the curdled chocolate to staff at 15 p a bar, but he couldn’t give it away. Still, at least our machines have never harmed anyone, not unless you count the people who stub their toes and bruise their knuckles punching and kicking them with frustration, or the schoolboy who nearly broke his leg trying to tip one forward and dislodge its contents. Although there are some with enough imagination to see them as potential killers.
I’m talking about Special Branch. Before a recent royal visit, I was asked by detectives to open for inspection all the machines on the royal route. “What are you looking for” I asked. “Don’t know,” said a machine-gun wielding royal protector, “you tell us if there’s anything out of the ordinary.” Together we looked at the ranks of crisps and confectionery. There was nothing suspicious. Although since then I have been haunted by this idea – of some innocent party going up to one of our machines and buying a Toffee Crisp that is in fact a bar of high explosive, unwrapping it, his lips drooling, and taking a bite…
Now that really would shake your trust in vending machines… August, by Gerard Woodward, is published by Chat to & Wind us, price 12. 99.