How we've slunk: Kneeling before a machine, pleading for a nickel

By Jayson Jacoby July 16, 2010 11:12 am

The war is over.

And the machines have won.

This dismal outcome could hardly have been otherwise, what with the human race’s curious obsession with automation.

Curious or not, I can go along with this predilection for quite a distance.

I don’t much like the prospect of scrubbing my undershorts on a washboard, for instance.

Or anybody else’s.

And having tussled with a few grudging garage doors in my time — usually during a rainstorm — I appreciate the brilliance of the electric, chain-driven opener which hoists the door at the push of a button.

(I have averted this particular hassle for the past 15 years through the clever device of owning a home which has no garage. If I had a garage, though, it would be equipped with an opener.)

Alas, as is the danger with all temptations, our affinity for what we blithely describe as “progress” has lured us over many a precipice, and the expression on our face as we plummet is the same puzzled look that Wile E. Coyote had when he was foiled yet again by the Roadrunner.

Ponder, for just a moment, the depths to which we have slunk to complete one common and simple task.

These days we stand, in blizzard and blistering sunshine, and feed our empty beverage containers into the maw of a vaguely malevolent machine, risking the tips of our fingers for each nickel.

In the dark distant past, when twitter was only a sound uttered by certain small birds, we took our sacks of empties to the grocery store, handed them to a gangly teenage boy, and then waited in climate-controlled comfort while he spilled drops of our stale beer on his shirt.

This was about as close as most of us ever came to having an indentured servant who would get his fingers all sticky on our behalf.

And we’ve squandered it.

And for the most specious of reasons.

In theory the refund machines do have certain advantages.

(The same sort of theory, I suspect, that titillated a bunch of executives in Atlanta when the chemists finally perfected that New Coke recipe.)

The machines, unlike many stores, are supposed to be available at any time.

Which they are, except when they break.

Or are full.

Or there’s a guy who has six Hefty bags crammed with Old Milwaukee pounders, and he’s plugging the cans in with the mindless robotic motion most often displayed by gamblers at the quarter slots in Vegas.

At least when you had to wait inside the store you could amble over to the magazine rack and check out Soldier of Fortune.

I speak with some slight authority on this matter, having worked for much of my high school years at a grocery store.

When I wasn’t trying to wedge food into bags without crushing the eggs or compressing loaves of Wonder bread into packages the size of a Pop Tart, I was expected to count the returnables that customers brought in.

And I can assure you that it takes a very few soggy cigarette butts slipping from a slimy Heidelberg can and onto your palm to persuade you that it’s better to let someone else handle your containers after you’ve consumed the contents.

It takes one soggy cigarette butt, actually.

And although I’ll spare you the details, a discarded smoke is not the most unpleasant object that ever slithered onto my hand.

It’s not even the most unpleasant inanimate object, come to that.

These newfangled recycling machines, by contrast, don’t seem to care much whether the containers they ingest are foul.

But just the same they can be awfully stubborn about which ones they accept.

If the bar code reader balks at your offering and spits the container back out (a process that reminds me of the scene in “Willy Wonka” (the 1971 film version) when the egg machine dumps Veruca Salt into the garbage chute), well, you’re pretty much out of luck.

(And with frigid fingers besides, if it’s January, which it seems to be for about half the year in Baker County.)

Before long you’re practically begging the machine — any machine — to accept your burden of aluminum, plastic and glass.

Which is where we stand, or rather, stoop.

Kneeling at the foot of a device as thought it were an idol, the penitent hoping only to appease a higher power.

Except we’re not pleading for something important, like the coming of the rain in time of drought, or the protection of warriors before they go into battle.

We just want our five cents.

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The inspiration for this column was not my own experiences — although those helped flesh out the idea — but rather a suggestion from Ashly Pearce.

Ashly and I both worked for the Forest Service in Baker in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

We happened to visit a local bank of bottle refund machines on a recent evening, and Ashly urged me to write about this peculiar practice which, as a society, we’ve foisted on ourselves.

And so I did.

So thanks, Ashly.

But next time I hope I get to the machines before you do.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.