The line stretched down the block at a little past 9 p.m. on a Monday night. The rest of the boutiques on Santa Monica Boulevard had lowered their gilded shutters hours ago. The occasional car passed by with its driver peering curiously at this peculiar line of pilgrims laughing, smiling, and waiting. Some of the more observant drivers may have been baffled as they realized that these people were lined up outside a Sprinkles cupcake shop. Others who had glanced at the news over their morning coffee would have understood the particularly vapid cause of this line. They were lined at a vending machine. A cupcake vending machine.
I found myself waiting near the front of this line with my wife and two friends, Jennie and Ben, shortly after the vending machine’s debut. It had run out of stock moments before we had arrived, and the staff was furiously shoving 600 individually boxed cupcakes into it as quickly as they could. We were told that the restocking would take a half hour. The line was full of the types of people you might expect to be die-hard cupcake enthusiasts. Small groups of yuppie folk (my group included), tweens (sometimes with parental supervision), and couples on dates were all killing time as they eyed the machine.
The machine itself was the size of a storefront and sported the Candy-Land aesthetic with its series of pastel mesh stripes half-obscuring the sucrose treasure trove within. The pink stripe housed a pink console that looked roughly like an ATM that Barbie might visit. I had seen photos of it before, but they hadn’t prepared me for the ludicrousness of this machine.
As I stood in this line, I couldn’t help but wonder, “What am I doing here?” After all, I would never stand in a half-hour line for a cupcake. Perhaps more important, I started to wonder, “What is everyone doing here?” As I looked down the line of eager cupcake-consumers-to-be, it was difficult not to wonder what it was about this simple device that made it such a hit. After all, the only thing it allowed you to do was select a cupcake and have it delivered down a chute without any human interaction. Replace the word cupcake with Coca-Cola and you have a machine that everyone ignores on a daily basis.
Certainly it wasn’t a technological marvel of world-changing significance. It wasn’t magic like the first light bulb or recorded sound. The basic technology to build and run the machine had been around for decades. It wasn’t that it was a more convenient experience than shopping in a store, as the half-hour line can attest. So why were all these people standing in line on a chilly LA Monday night?
As the staff finally finished loading up the machine, a small cheer went up. Disco lights shined beams of Technicolor light in front of the machine and speakers started pumping out a song whose primary lyrics were “I love Sprinkles.” I felt embarrassed for the human race. Had it really come to this? Here we were, all standing together, excited for a machine that automatically dispensed confectionary treats in the most inadvertently inefficient way fathomable. We were all novelty-starved, looking for something shiny and exciting, however insignificant, that might lift us, if just for a moment, above the blur of our everyday lives. How Los Angeles of us all. A century ago this city spawned an industry devoted to ephemeral escape from the everyday. Now a cupcake machine has repeated the feat, repeated millions of times since, on a smaller scale and, oddly enough, it was stunning.
As I stood feeling sorry for myself, I started to realize that I was actually having a lot of fun. When it was our group’s turn to order, Jennie walked up to the machine and started swiping her finger across the touchscreen which displayed an array of cupcakes. Even though we were each carrying a touchscreen in our pocket, we marvelled as the chai-latte cupcake glided across the screen to be replaced by the ginger lemon one. My wife, Victoria, giggled as she saw the mini cupcake for dogs. When Jennie eventually selected a cupcake, the screen switched to a video of the robotic arm that was grabbing the selected flavour. Ben smooshed his face against one of the colourful panels trying to get a first-hand look at the action. If the look on his face wasn’t one of pure joy, I don’t know what is. Undoubtedly I had a similar look on my face as a cupcake popped out of the dispenser in its neat little box. For those moments, I had forgotten everything except for the cupcake machine and the friends I was with.
This was not a cupcake machine; not really anyway. No, this sparkly polychromatic thing is a dispenser of memories. In a day or two, the people standing in that line will have forgotten the wonderful vegan red velvet cupcake they ate that night. Days, months, and even years from now, though, they will go back and remember that machine. As we walked away with our cupcakes on that crisp Los Angeles night, we laughed about the ridiculousness of it all. The sweet frosting has already escaped my memory, but I am left with the indelible memory of standing with my wife and two friends in a line waiting for cupcakes dispensed from a ridiculous rainbow colored machine on Santa Monica Boulevard.