Part Two: The Horatio Story

   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 world.
  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, Horatio.
   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 chance.
   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 toes.
  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.

 

 

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