I woke up far too late in the day after having had far too many beers late into the night. The spring sky was grey, threatening rain as I sat getting myself caffeinated, and had it not been for my voracious appetite for tobacco, I most likely would have stayed hidden away safely in the boredom of my little blue house for the day. But, knowing the half of a pack that I had on hand wasn’t going to be nearly enough to get me through the night that I could already feel barreling my way, there was no choice but to head out into the world.
The local neighborhood market was its usual version of awfulness. It was more crowded than normal, filled with pinballing people oblivious to their surroundings, constantly pushing their carts in random fashion and, more times than not, against the socially expected flow. There were the hesitant, confused shoppers who simply… stop wherever they are, either to dick around on their phones, or to look around baffled by the seemingly overwhelming complexities presented by shopping in a modern market.
I dodged the collisions and idiocy as best I could, grabbing random things off the shelf that could only technically be considered actual food. But, given the pounding in my head and the turmoil in my gut, convenience sounded more appealing than effort.
With a half-cart, complete with cliché wonky wheel, filled with enough unnecessary crap to keep me satisfied for a few days more, I joined the line queuing up for the self-checkouts. The regular lines, staffed by visibly disjointed cashiers, were all overflowing so I figured that I would just treat myself to an electronic dose of self-loathing as penance for having overindulged the night before. Sometimes, the best choice is to simply lean right into the suck.
I finished my shopping with surprisingly few complications, other than having to wait for my bottle of suspect-tier Irish whiskey to be freed from its ankle monitor, and made my way to the exit.
Standing unexpectedly on the periphery of the vestibule was a little boy, maybe around 3 or 4 years old. He had dirty blonde hair, tousled and untended. He wore a brightly colored striped shirt, wrinkled shorts, mismatched socks, and shoes that closed with velcro straps because I’m guessing the tying of actual laces is a skill he had yet to master.
He stood transfixed, looking in wonder at the variety of vending machine choices in front of him. A small finger, despite the dangers presented by a worldwide plague beyond his comprehension, alternated between being pressed thoughtfully against his chin and the inside of his mouth. Obviously, this little man was caught in some serious contemplation.
And I suddenly remembered that feeling in a wave of palpable nostalgia hitting me hard on a random, blindsided Wednesday afternoon. I remembered the seductive pull behind those machines and the significant portions of my youth that were spent either constantly harassing my mom for a bit of change dug from the bottom of her purse, or scanning the ground in hopes of finding random coins with which to feed the dream. Neither one ever paid off consistently, but the memory of those moments certainly lingered.
Because there was always the promise of change-fed possibility. And on the rare occasion I was fortunate enough to put a coin into one of those slots, before twisting the clicking knob of random selection, it was a sensation of pure magic. Before that little plastic bubble tumbled awkwardly down the dispensing tube, it really did feel like anything was possible and that I was somehow winning at life.
Sometimes, it was naked candy of unknown, and slightly suspect, origin. Those awful gumballs that had undeniably petrified within their glass sarcophagus, turning nearly impenetrable with time to the point I’m sure that they still hurt my teeth. Occasionally, little grubby fistfuls of weird, brightly colored candies that tasted both sweet and stale, were my reward. Not that it really mattered. Nothing quite compares to a four year old sugar junkie fiending another boost. So I ate that questionable shit anyway.
As I grew a bit older, my choices started reflecting a budding maturity. I would pass up the more easily afforded candies and moved on instead to the kitschy little toys. Even then I yearned for something a little more durable.
Sometimes, it was the parachute guys, wrapped up neatly with a tiny rubber band. Or the plastic football helmets that just happened to fit the heads of my GI Joes. A temporary tattoo, frustrating in its licked application in the backseat of the car on the drive home, instilled a temporary feeling of being a badass, and not the scrawny, sickly little kid I was through most of my formative years.
For a brief while, sticky little stretchy hands and wall walkers were the hot ticket items and while fun, often ended in a lint and cat-fur covered disaster that no amount of cleaning could ever rectify. But then, no one ever said that I shouldn’t throw them at the cats. Some lessons you just have to learn by experience.
But regardless of the final prize, it was still ultimately a result of *my* choice. And in those moments, I felt both empowered and maybe even just a little grown up. Even when I was deeply disappointed with the outcome. Even on the occasions when the machine ate my money, scamming me out of my treat. Because that was all in the game and in the words of one of my favorite characters, life is just too fucking boring not to try.
Despite the heavy expectations of both social distancing and the aversion of talking to strangers, I still gave that kid the two quarters I happened to have in my pocket. But I advised him to ask his mom before buying any candy. I didn’t want him to get into any trouble for “spoiling” his dinner while I was on my way home to drink mine.
I just wanted him to feel that magic, even if the memory of it never really sticks. Because sometimes, it is just the simple moments that matter the most and I wanted him to hold on to that innocence.
Even if the candy ends up tasting like shit.