by Michael Parham
The world is not populated exclusively by maniacs. I am certain of this.
Sometimes, though, this premise is challenged quite vigorously. I say to the world, “World, I know you are not populated exclusively by maniacs,” and the world responds, “Wanna bet?”
I had this conversation with the world every weekday morning for three years. I was working in a factory that made labels for paint cans. It was as exciting as it sounds.
This factory was a nexus of absurdities with a vortex at its center that claimed anyone unfortunate enough to get too close. Most days I found myself swimming against its churning waters, struggling to make it back to the shores of sanity. I have never been a very good swimmer, though, and more often than not I went spiraling downward into the maelstrom.
Such was the case when the factory’s management decided to install an instant coffee vending machine in our break room. My co-workers did not react well to this change. They were comfortable with the simplicity of the coffee pot, but that comfort was ripped away when their beloved coffee maker was replaced. They did not understand the vending machine and viewed it as an intruder.
The vending machine began a reign of tyranny that lasted months. Some people learned how to communicate with it and were rewarded with coffee. Many of my co-workers were unable to decipher the machine’s alien language, however, and for this crime they were banished to an existence where coffee was nothing but the whisper of a memory.
In that moment, one man chose to fight back. He found the vending machine’s weakness and learned how to exploit it. He trained an army capable of toppling this dictator’s regime. He was a man of courage, wisdom, and unrelenting stubbornness. His name was Roger.
I didn’t realize it then, but by the time that vending machine was installed, I was already knee-deep in swirling water.
Break time is sacred. Quitting time is, of course, the holiest and most venerated of sacraments in the workplace, but break time is a daily rite that rekindles the worker’s hope of surviving the workday. It was especially important to me, because break time was reading time.
Our break room was an obvious afterthought when the factory was designed and constructed. It contained a refrigerator, a sink, a microwave, and a coffee maker. There was enough space in the room for three tables, but just barely. The tables were the kind that wrestlers like to body slam each other through.
I was allotted two breaks and a lunch every day, which together totaled fifty minutes. I always had a book, and for fifty glorious minutes a day, I frolicked in a realm devoid of killer forklifts and heavy metal machinery. Unfortunately, I discovered that my books had magnetic qualities. They were homing beacons whose pulses would rattle around in the brain of the most irritating person in the building, causing them to teleport into the break room from wherever they had been. This person, who could clearly see that I was trying to read, would buzz around asking questions like a wasp who was politely stinging me.
Many times I considered how one might go about body slamming someone else through a table.
Sadly, body slams were not practical due to a persistent lumbar strain in my lower back. Instead, I folded a piece of cardboard in half. I used a black magic marker and wrote upon it the words: Reading! Do NOT disturb! I placed it on the table in front of me like a name placard every time I sat down to read. It worked. My sign was a force field that people ricocheted off of whenever they approached me. Some of my co-workers became resentful. I had deprived them of the chance to be maddeningly rude. Those people did not matter. They weren’t in my books.
The coffee maker was a drug lord whose monopoly stretched from the front office to the factory floor and deep into shipping and receiving. Tobacco was not allowed on the premises, and in the absence of any kind of mind-altering substances, coffee was the only recourse of our weary workforce. The break room was seldom empty—people would tiptoe away from their work stations to visit the factory’s sole drug peddler, conducting their shameful business with the furtiveness of traitorous spies. If two people managed to stealth their way into the break room at the same time, there was an unspoken agreement between them that went something like this: We both know that we are not supposed to be in here, but we also know that we have no choice. Therefore, if you play lookout for me, I will play lookout for you, and we can both evade the watchful eye of management as we finalize our transactions with the dealer.
The factory’s employees were serious about their coffee. We once had a meeting involving the entire workforce because someone was emptying the coffee pot without starting up a fresh one. Thus it was a major event when upper management decided to replace the coffee maker with an instant coffee vending machine.
After I had clocked in for work that morning, I was assailed by worried co-workers. They were in quite a state because of the new vending machine, and I was escorted to the break room so that I could see this monstrosity for myself.
Gone was our trusted coffee maker, whom we had all respected for its dependability and discretion. In its place stood a brown monolith with white buttons and a picture of two steaming coffee cups with the phrase Refreshing and Delicious! splattered across the top. More than a dozen people were crammed into our little break room ogling the machine as if it were a captured Bigfoot.
The vending machine looked straightforward to use. There were seven buttons with their corresponding functions labeled in capital letters. There was a button marked CAFFEINATED, and another for DECAFFEINATED. CREAM or SUGAR could be added. HOT CHOCOLATE or MOCHA could be selected instead of coffee. Once all choices had been made, pressing DISPENSE would produce a cup that the machine filled with the selected beverage.
Despite the machine’s simplicity, confusion seemed to permeate the room. Two of the printing press operators were standing in front of the machine discussing it as though they were trying to defuse a bomb.
I didn’t fully understand why upper management had decided to replace the coffee maker, but I guessed that some front office mathemagician had hocus-pocused a savings of thirty-five cents a month for the company. Knowing my employer, that person probably received a dollar per hour raise.
While it was true that I had forged a bond of trust with the coffee maker, there was a new dealer in town who had delicious new drugs to offer. I would miss the coffee maker, that much was certain. Loyalty is not a virtue of the addicted, however, so I was more than willing to accept this stranger’s candy.
My co-workers were not so eager to yield their trust. Many of them had spent years doing business with the coffee maker, and that sort of familiarity is not so easily discarded.
It didn’t help matters that a sizable portion of the workforce did not understand how to operate the vending machine. I learned this fact over the next few days, as my breaks were filled with the beeping of repeatedly pressed buttons and the mutterings of frustrated factory workers.
Roger was perhaps the most frustrated among them. The man drank so much coffee that his blood was probably black. His visits to the break room usually ended with him flipping the machine off and saying some horrible things about its mother. I didn’t know it then, but a blood feud was just beginning to blossom between the two of them.
I did my best to help my co-workers understand how to use the machine, explaining the finer points of reading words and pressing buttons. Some people got it. A lot of them didn’t.
One of the people who didn’t get it was a lady named Linda. She was tall—taller than me by a few inches—with a shrubbery of yellow hair on her head that was fading to white. She wore glasses, and she wobbled a bit when she walked. She reminded me of Big Bird from Sesame Street.
The vending machine whipped that poor woman’s ass on a daily basis. I tried to teach her how to use the machine, but it simply would not surrender its secrets to her. For over a week, I would set my book aside (argh!) to help Linda with her coffee every time she came into the break room. My patience wore thin, and my need to know what Granny Weatherwax would do next began to outweigh my empathy for Big Bird. I stopped offering to help, and she stopped asking.
Linda came into the break room one day during lunch in search of caffeine. As usual, the vending machine proved to be too much of a challenge for her. She looked around the room, desperate for someone to come to her aid. No one stirred. After another minute or two of mashing buttons with ballistic fervor, she burst into tears and ran from the room. A couple of people chuckled, but most of them didn’t. I suspect that a few of them struggled with the vending machine themselves.
After that incident, things seemed to settle down with regard to the coffee machine. The people who could negotiate with it had coffee, and those who could not resorted to purchasing sodas. Then Roger discovered a new and interesting way to interact with the vending machine. He began to punch it.
Roger was a skinny guy with dense gray hair that he parted on one side. He wore glasses with thick, squared lenses. His skin was wrinkled and splotched, and he always wore khaki pants with navy blue t-shirts. He walked with a bit of a limp and had problems with hemorrhoids. Some might say he looked grandfatherly. To me, he had the look of a grumpy old sailor who liked to drink and grope young women.
All in all, he was a pretty good guy.
Technically, he worked with me in shipping and receiving, but in truth Roger had stopped working a long time ago. Even though he was beyond retirement age, Roger would not retire. It was a well-established part of the factory canon that he and the general manager had a real slobberknocker of an argument at some point in the distant past. Upper management wanted him to retire because the factory had ten consecutive years without an on-the-job injury, and they saw Roger as a significant threat to end that streak. He was a union worker though, so they couldn’t force him out. Knowing this, Roger refused to retire just to spite them.
He was generally well-liked otherwise. Roger spent a lot of time gossiping with just about everyone in the factory. Laughter came easy to him, and he was almost always jovial. He was also a notorious ass-kisser. When Roger was at work, there wasn’t a dry ass in the place.
Conversely, he possessed the most volatile temper I have ever seen. His rages were legendary in the factory’s lore. They were like massive earthquakes—when they were over, structural damage had been done and there were people trapped beneath rubble.
I witnessed one of his famous eruptions one afternoon while working in the warehouse. Roger was over on another aisle, and while I couldn’t see him, I could hear him. He was having problems with his scan gun. I knew this because of all the cursing and beeping. The scan guns were three thousand dollar pieces of equipment that we used for inventory purposes, but Roger usually treated his like a hammer. I heard a couple of metallic bangs, a few more beeps, and then silence that lingered until Roger yelled, “Well, MOTHER!” I could hear something skittering across the concrete floor of the warehouse, and for the briefest of moments I saw Roger’s scan gun go rocketing down the aisle. This was followed by a loud CRACK as the gun introduced itself quite violently to the factory wall. There was another moment of silence, and then I heard Roger say, “Piece of junk.”
Roger’s relationship with the coffee vending machine was similar to his relationship with the scan gun. The two of them never agreed, and their interactions usually ended in violence. Over time, though, Roger developed a strategic pattern to his punches that he believed to be instrumental in making the vending machine function properly. He came to believe that it was necessary to punch the picture on the machine three times, right between the coffee cups.
The first time I saw Roger do this, I was quite confused. Up until that point, the thrashings he had given the vending machine were chaotic and full of rage. This time, though, he was very calm as he approached the machine. Instead of the wild, flailing assault that I had come to expect, he punched the vending machine hard three times. WAP. WAP. WAP. And then coffee happened.
In reality, he had stumbled upon the correct sequence of button presses required to produce his desired beverage. I explained this to him, but he insisted that the punches “loosened things up” in the machine, and nothing I said was going to convince him otherwise. I decided to leave him to it, since it was a slight annoyance that I could ignore with relative ease.
This turned out to be a big mistake.
Roger began teaching others the Secret of the Three Punches. He was Mr. Miyagi with an ever-expanding roster of Karate Kids. Within a matter of days, the martial art of coff-fu had been adopted by at least a quarter of the workforce. Its adherents were happy to pummel the vending machine into submission after weeks of uncaffeinated frustration.
Every time I was on break, one of Roger’s disciples would bumble into the break room to engage in fisticuffs with the vending machine. I would try to focus on my book while ignoring the beating that was taking place only a few yards away, but the noise made it impossible. BEEP. BEEP. BEEP. THUD. THUD. PAUSE. THUD. BEEP. The battered machine would then surrender a cup of coffee like a kid who had been beaten up for lunch money. Reading at break time became more and more difficult as Roger’s army of machine punchers continued to grow in numbers.
I began to consider how I might go about body slamming myself through a table.
Lines started to form in front of the vending machine as people waited for their turn to wallop it. The continuous string of BEEPS and THUDS morphed the break room into a Morse code transmission station. I would have to read the same sentence multiple times to have any hope of understanding the words I was looking at.
It got to the point where I had trouble even remembering what book I was trying to read.
People from the front office began to participate. These were people with college degrees who were queuing up to punch a vending machine for coffee. Maniacs.
The vortex had swallowed us all.
When reading became nearly impossible, I decided that it was time to end this madness. I went on the offensive, intercepting people before they could start whaling away on the vending machine. I showed them that there was no need to abuse the machine. If they did everything they normally did and left out the punches, they would still get their coffee the way they wanted it. Most of them gave up Roger’s method readily enough, although there were a few people who did so with reluctance. Roger was the only one of my co-workers who continued to punch the vending machine. He simply wouldn’t stop.
I quit getting coffee from the vending machine when I discovered that my cup of coffee had about a dozen dead fruit flies in it. I told anyone who would listen about the fruit flies. I even showed the coffee cup to several people in management positions. They all looked at me as if I was being silly, or perhaps they simply didn’t comprehend what I was telling them. I posted a sign on the vending machine that said: Contains dead flies! I even drew a little picture of a dead fly lying on its back with its legs up in the air and x’s in its eyes. Usage of the vending machine did not slow down one bit. People kept chugging their coffee, dead flies and all.
About two weeks later, management decided to get rid of the vending machine. It turned out that people were discovering dead fruit flies in their coffee.
The coffee maker made a triumphant return from exile with much fanfare from the factory’s employees. My co-workers resumed their dealings with the old drug peddler. Big Bird had her first cup of coffee in months. I fell back into my old habit of taking the last of the coffee without starting a fresh pot. The break room no longer transmitted Morse code. Nothing was being punched. I could read again in peace. It was splendid. Just splendid.
I think Roger was a little upset that his punching bag was gone. I saw him pouring coffee from the pot one day, and I asked him if he was going to start punching the coffee maker.
He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Should I?”