A Game of Quarters


Several years ago some friends of mine thought it might be profitable to own and maintain a bunch of vending machines placed at local businesses. These were not the big, refrigerator-sized machines with dozens of candy options, but the small, single-item ones, the kind where you put a quarter in the slot, crank the knob, and get a handful of Skittles or whatever. It must only be children who use those machines, right? Adults usually don’t ingest food products that came out of a germ-ridden plastic drum and were delivered without any packaging directly into their sweaty hands.

My friends soon discovered that selling candy a handful at a time for a quarter was not profitable and moved on to other business ventures. I think about them whenever I see one of those little machines in the corner of a Kinko’s or a Jiffy Lube waiting room. The poor things always look so forlorn, full of candy that hasn’t been restocked in a year, wishing they were real vending machines with candy bars and rolls of Life Savers, and not just unsanitary buckets of loose Mike & Ikes.

Sadder still are these machines’ tawdry cousins, the ones attached to the walls of public restrooms that dispense novelty condoms and other unseemly products. As depressing as it must be to drive around to all the H&R Blocks and Alamo Rent-a-Cars to restock the lame handful-of-candy machines, it must be absolutely soul-crushing for your route to include nothing but the filthy toilet facilities of gas stations and dive bars. Really, if you ever find yourself holding a job that requires you to enter a lot of public bathrooms, you should probably reevaluate your career choices. Most people are reluctant to go into those places even when they have a biological need to do so. How could anyone endure a job that is basically an endless tour of them?

I have to imagine the job is made even more dreary by the fact that there’s never any money to collect because no one has ever actually purchased anything from one of those machines. Condoms that glow in the dark or have other amusing properties are a bad idea anyway, and I think people know instinctively that they shouldn’t trust their reproductive health to something they bought in a public bathroom. In fact, you really shouldn’t be buying anything in a bathroom. I don’t know why society even allows this. There shouldn’t be any financial transactions taking place within ten feet of where strangers are pooping.

Another reason those bathroom machines don’t do a lot of business is that the items cost 75 cents, quarters only, and what are the chances you’re walking around with three quarters in your pocket? You’re certainly not going to leave the bathroom, go to the bartender or gas station attendant, get change for a dollar, and then return to the bathroom to buy the off-brand erotic scented oil or the prophylactic with a cartoon drawing of a wolf on the wrapper.

bathroom cologne

The most baffling restroom vending machine I’ve ever seen was at a Love’s Travel Stop in Idaho. “Travel stop” is what the Love’s corporation calls it; the rest of us would call it a “truck stop.” They sell gasoline and convenience-store items, as well as driving paraphernalia like hands-free cellphone devices and books on CD and methamphetamine-strength caffeine pills. It’s a place for truckers, and for people who live in Oregon who must pass through Idaho on their way to Utah. In the bathroom was a device that, for a quarter, would spray you with a dash of cologne. Seriously. You deposit the quarter, turn the dial to one of the five cologne options, put your hand over the corresponding nozzle, and push the plunger. Then you are spritzed with cologne — not actual designer cologne, of course, not for 25 cents, but cheap cologne designed to imitate Polo, Drakkar, Obsession, Eternity, or Polo Sport.

This seemed like an idea whose time had come, because if there’s one thing I know about truckers, it’s that they always want to smell their best. The same goes for anyone who’s driving a long distance. How many times have you young dudes been on a road trip with your buddies and wished that instead of smelling like Doritos and farts, the car could smell like fake bathroom Drakkar? How many family vacations have been ruined because Mom and the kids were stuck in a small, confined space with a Dad who had inconsiderately failed to douse himself in cologne before leaving the house?

I momentarily considered buying a spritz of truck-stop cologne for the purposes of science but decided against it. For one thing, I did not have a quarter. I never have a quarter. I’m not even sure how I would get a quarter. If the machine took debit cards, then we’d be getting somewhere.

But I also realized that if you shouldn’t conduct financial transactions in public restrooms, you definitely should not, under any circumstances, conduct a financial transaction in a public restroom that ends with you being sprayed with liquid from a mysterious box. That’s not something you should let happen to you even for free, let alone for money. Save your quarters for better things, like unhygienic fistfuls of Reese’s Pieces, and travel-size bottles of Purell.


A Year of Snide Remarks was funded by a Kickstarter campaign. This week’s column was sponsored by University of Idaho’s Two Cent Tips. Sponsor had no editorial control over the column, and the author alone is responsible for its content.