Johnny America


The Claw Machine


There is a stuffed an­i­mal case out­side of the restau­rant where I work. Some call it a ma­chine, but not me. A ma­chine is some­thing that helps some­one com­plete a task. To me, what sits out­side Fenochie’s is just a glass case with a claw in­side, which peo­ple pay to con­tin­u­ous­ly dis­ap­point them. Fenochie’s is the sort of place you find gourmet piz­za and a full bar. It has a few video games in a cov­ered awning out by the park­ing lot so that adults can for­get about their chil­dren for a while. In­stead of pay­ing a babysit­ter, they pay the glass case, be­cause the glass case is­n’t go­ing to have sex on their couch.

The kids fid­dle with the “throt­tle” and steer the claw to­ward the toy they want. The claw grabs the toy and then opens on the way back up, drop­ping the toy back in the pile. This hap­pens every time. The point of the case is to teach peo­ple ear­ly that you rarely get ex­act­ly what you want from life. Life, in fact, is not a well-kept vend­ing ma­chine. You don’t put in four quar­ters and get out the Snick­ers bar you want every time. You put in six quar­ters be­cause the first two get lost in the slot, and usu­al­ly the win­dow gets stuck and you can’t do a damn thing about it.

To make mat­ters worse, you start shak­ing the thing just as some­one en­ters the door­way, and that per­son walks away think­ing you were try­ing to steal food. That, or you end up get­ting 3 more can­dy bars than you paid for be­cause the thing that weighs the coins mal­func­tions in your fa­vor. It’s not an in­put equals out­put sit­u­a­tion. And no one has both­ered to ex­plain that to these damn kids.

This eatery sits with its legs crossed smack in the mid­dle of the sea of high-rent prop­er­ty and capri-pant­ed soc­cer moms of Moun­tain­view, Al­aba­ma. Moun­tain­view is a sub­urb of Birm­ing­ham, which is a sub­urb of every­where else, obliv­i­ous to every­thing. Women come in cov­ered in high-dol­lar work­out ap­par­el that’s nev­er seen a drop of sweat or a pub­lic gym. They saunter in leop­ard heels or rhine­stone cow­boy boots, with David Yur­man jew­el­ry and Marc Ja­cobs purs­es. They fol­low their hus­bands, and well-dressed kids trail be­hind cash­mere pash­mi­nas and white linen slacks.

In the door­way, the small ones run straight out­side to the cov­ered pa­tio for the games. They’ve al­ready got a twen­ty in their palm that they got to shut up in the car on the way over. Over the course of cock­tails, they’ll resur­face a few times, hands cupped, de­mand­ing more quar­ters, more ones, more fives. They don’t need at­ten­tion, just more mon­ey. The adults sip their Long Is­lands and Gin & T’s, hold­ing out a ten each time a kid walks by.

By the end of each night, there are one or two par­ents fran­ti­cal­ly search­ing for a man­ag­er, in­sist­ing that we un­lock the ma­chine at once be­cause one par­tic­u­lar Eva or Christo­pher needs a yel­low bun­ny from the case, and ab­solute­ly will not leave with­out it. We pa­tient­ly ex­plain that we don’t have the key to the ma­chine, and that on­ly the main­te­nance man who re­fills it month­ly can un­lock the thing. This fran­tic fa­ther then ne­go­ti­ates a new agree­ment, in­sist­ing that he’s al­ready put forty-eight dol­lars in­to the ma­chine try­ing to get the yel­low bun­ny, and is will­ing to fork out an­oth­er twen­ty-five dol­lars if we can just get that bun­ny. At this point, I typ­i­cal­ly look down at the sev­en-year-old who was blue in the face from cry­ing and hold­ing her breath, and try to con­sid­er ex­act­ly what my own folks might have done to me had I act­ed even re­mote­ly sim­i­lar in a pub­lic place. Then I re­al­ize that these sorts of vi­su­al thoughts are per­haps too vi­o­lent for a sto­ry like this one. Af­ter all, Moun­tain­view is a quaint town that rarely bats an eye. It’s a place where chil­dren are raised. And that has al­ways been the case.

Filed under Fiction on September 9th, 2007

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