Wit and some wisdom from the automated age

We grow up whining for penny gum balls at the grocery store, and end up in a dark theater pleading with a faceless popcorn popper for more butter. Coin machines are bringing us to our knees.

I used to look forward to my morning trips to the deli for homemade muffins and freshly squeezed juice. Now I line up glumly at the Donut Delite in the office, insert a quarter, and watch last week's cinnamon buns crumble down the chute. The hot drink carousel is even more depressing, with its tepid gray water and soggy cups. No wonder people kick it.

On my weekly visits to the laundromat, it's not the variety of machines that staggers the senses. It's the demands they make. Every washer is programmed for a different color and fabric load, but no matter how many dials I turn, I still get cold water. And when I'm not checking wash cycles, I'm running back and forth between the parking meter outside and the steely-eyed alchemist inside -- the one that shreds dollard bills and spits out unpredictable quantities of quarters, dimes, and nickels.

I know I should be impressed with a soap powder vendor that promises dazzling white and good clean living. But I'm not. Too much efficiency and cheery helpfulness makes me nervous. Why are coin machines suddenly so eager to please?

It's difficult yet to detect a master plan, but the advance columns surely are upon us, spreading confusion. Just try to get directions from an automatic ticket taker in the subway. Or try to figure out how many gallons of gas you want from a pay-in-advance pump that computes one-half the total price per liter.

In some areas the assault is being waged by sophisticated commandos. Pull into any rest stop on the nation's Interstate highways and what do you find just inside the front door? A gantlet of dispensers selling folding scissors, nail files, and tiny bottles of Mace-like cologne.

If they're not inciting to riot, machines are tranquilizing us into oblivion. On your last layover at an airport, did you spend time telephoning loved ones at home? Or did you sit transfixed in front of a pulsating electronic gameboard, chasing an elusive will-o-the-wisp to the ends of a dim green screen?

Ever so cunningly, coin machines are taking us by the hand and leading us into a land where the only familiar sound will be the hollow descent of dimes down coin-return slots.

But we needn't follow. We can shout "Enough!" and launch our own well-armed offense.

For every coin-op paper rack that goes up on a downtown corner we can demand equal space for a shrieking newsboy. For each new snack machine in the office lunchroom we can insist on a singing peanut vendor, with or without monkey.

Let's give jukeboxes some competition, too. Pack ice cream shops and pizza parlors with strolling troubadours ready to dash off romantic ballads at the touch of an elbow.

Enough of penny scales and fortune cards. Let's have sidewalk storytellers who can sell us on the kinds of treasures coin machines will never stock -- golden giggles and loud guffaws.

So what if the gas pump can't laugh. We can. At it.

As one grinning veteran of the coin-return wars puts it, "Some days I lose a quarter and my patience. Other days I win two candy bars and feel sublime. I wouldn't miss it for anything."

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