Out of the 35,000 IJ
subscribers, there might have been 34,999 or so who happened to miss last
week’s column. As a service to those select few, here’s a recap.
My friend, whom I’m calling Horatio to
avoid embarrassment to his family, is exploiting our friendship by forcing
me to put his brand-new vending machine in one of my retail stores.
This machine takes 50 cents from the
customer and then takes the customer’s penny and crushes it into a
likeness of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Some may call this the definition of
tackiness. Horatio, who is a classic entrepreneur, calls it his path to
fame and riches. He’s spent $20,000 on design and construction of the
penny-crushing machine and, if the prototype is successful, fully expects
to soon start crushing francs, yen and shillings in far corners of the
But first it has to work in one of my stores.
We chose the store with the strongest tourist presence, hoping not to
offend too many people. The test was last Wednesday and Horatio, greasy
little palms sweating, was every bit as nervous as he should be. This was
capitalism in a nutshell.
Horatio arrived at 9 a.m., his spanking new
machine standing gloriously upright in the back of a pickup. Bright blue,
with gold signage and clear Plexiglas to view the miraculous crushing of
the penny, the machine looked as radiant as the smile on Horatio’s face.
Unfortunately, and I kid you not,
as Horatio turned into the driveway behind the store, the rope securing
the machine inexplicably gave way and the machine came crashing down onto
the bed of the pickup.
Horatio, who was driving, heard the
resounding crash and immediately decided his life was over.
"I didn’t even want to look," he
said later. "I could feel pieces of the machine coming right into the
cab and cutting through me. It was a terrible, horrible experience."
Welcome to the world of small business,
It turned out the penny crushing
machine could take a little crushing itself. A sign had shattered, but
when Horatio, his face still ashen, nervously plugged it in for a trial
crushing, the penny came through with just the right amount of squishing.
"Takes a licking, keeps on
ticking," announced Horatio, standing tall again. "It just goes
to show you the quality of workmanship that went into this."
"You need another sign," I said, my
confidence lagging far behind Horatio’s recovery. "And while you’re
making signs, how about one saying ‘Out of Order?’"
"If I have to get anther sign,"
replied Horatio, "it’s going to say "The Line Forms Here.’"
Next on the agenda was finding a
location within the store for the machine. Horatio suggested the dead
center of the main entrance, I suggested the employees’ bathroom. We
compromised and put it in a location where it would have a fighting
We made plans to meet at 4 that same
afternoon to take a count of the day’s take. Horatio, his enthusiasm
rekindled after the traumatic morning, said he’d try to find a coin
counter so we could tabulate the day’s receipts a little quicker. I told
him his fingers should be sufficient, but with luck, he could use his
When he returned, and the day’s traffic was
in high gear, we went into the store and observed. We weren’t there more
than 30 seconds before a Japanese tourist walked up, placed two quarters
and a penny in the slot, and then SKWATSHISH, the sound of the quarters
shoved into the machine filled the air.
I looked at Horatio and saw the reason
capitalism, for all its faults, is the most wonderful system in the world.
His smile stretched across the store.
"You didn’t even do
anything!" I cried. ‘no cost of goods sold, no labor, no nothing.
Just 50 cents in your pocket."
Before I could finish, I heard it
again. SKWATSHISH. Same tourist, another 50 cents. Horatio wouldn’t have
stopped grinning if I had shot him right on the spot.
After another SKWASHISH, I’d heard
enough. Horatio opened the back of the machine and counted the quarters.
It would take thousands more SKWASHISHES to pay off his investment, but he
was on his way.
He’d seen an opportunity and grasped
it. Good for Horatio. Good for capitalism. SKWATSHISH.