by Natalie McMullen
If you’ve ever wondered about the inanimate creatures that stand guard outside bodegas, the company responsible is The Vending Company Inc., New York’s Official Sentry of Coin Operated Kiddie Rides.
“We’re very much dependent on nice weather, and so every time it’s a rainy day, you don’t see a smile on my face,” Mark Goldberg, the manager, said. “Obviously when it’s rainy and it’s extremely cold and snowy, we don’t do any business. We sit around and play cards.”
Operating half the year isn’t the only struggle for the 30-year-old business. “People don’t even understand. It’s extremely difficult. Moving and picking up, and stores closing and opening, and problems with kids sticking stuff inside the coin slot trying to get a free ride. I can’t tell you the amount of problems you can have.”
“The industry has changed dramatically,” said Goldberg. “Those manufacturers can no longer support the challenges of the economy. In order to make rides, you gotta be selling them.” Goldberg declined to say how many rides he maintains around the city: “I can’t give you that information. I don’t really know who you are. We’re getting into some sticky areas. They’re around the boroughs.”
The modest Brooklyn shop, which provides rides to locations in every borough free of charge in return for a share of the profits, services and maintains the machines on site. “I haven’t bought a new ride in a long, long time. We can make the rides here practically look brand new. We know how to refurbish the stuff here better than the manufacturer.”
Javier Agredo has been the Vending Company’s resident artist for the past 12 years. Agredo said he used to paint more elaborate designs, but with the rides requiring touch-ups every year or two, these days he prefers to keep things simple.
Making sure the rides run tickety-boo is Alex Shneyyer, an employee of 17 years — no inconsequential role, considering Goldberg occasionally receives calls from distraught mothers whose kids want answers. “What happened to the Donald Duck? My daughter’s looking for it. She’s like flipping out. She doesn’t see it here anymore. She sees some other character there. She’s having a withdrawal.”
Goldberg’s phone also rang off the hook when the price increased from 25 to 50 cents. “We got a lot of screams. Frankly, 50 cents is not enough, but we’re dealing with it at this particular point. When somebody calls me up and says, ‘How come you raised the rides to 50 cents?’ I say, ‘Well it’s been a quarter for 25 years.’ Gas in 1974 was 53 cents a gallon. Now it’s $3.50 a gallon.”
While the rides may look like they’re from a bygone era — some might even call them “good old-fashioned nightmare fuel” — Goldberg says they’re classics. “The thing about rides is they never go out of style. There’s always children being born, thanks be to God. So when they see some ride in the street, they naturally want to get on it. So they tell their parent or guardian — sometimes they don’t even say it, they just cry it — and of course any mother or father or guardian will have it fit in their heart to just give the child a ride.”
Natalie McMullen is a street photographer, culture critic and food writer. She is an archivist of the resonant, a nerdy polisher of words, and a lifelong scholar on love and relationships. She is currently resident photographer at The Awl.