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Toy machine gift ideas for the broke and insane.

By Jessica English

DECEMBER 22, 1997:  When I was eight, I had no Christmas present for my mother. I felt horrible; so, on Christmas Eve, I emptied every penny out of my plastic Mickey Mouse bank and counted them out. There were hundreds, but I had no rolls to wrap them and no way to get to the store. Instead, I used Elmer's glue to fasten them, in perfect rows, to every square inch of her jumbo wooden cutting board. I was very proud of the result: a beautiful wall hanging for my mother, which I wrapped and placed with pride beneath our tree. And that's my sweet little Christmas story (leaving out the part when mom opened it and realized it was her big ol' cutting board under the pennies).

The point of that touching tale is that I am still that way. So maybe you think you'd never give gumball machine toys as gifts. I do, because I'm broke, and I'm a firm believer in the "thought that counts" credo. I had a bang-up time Christmas shopping in gumball machines, too, except (and I hate to be a "when I was a kid ..." oldster) every time I put my 50 cents in out came a goddamn rubber lizard! Still, I kept trying for that one really cool toy that caught my eye, excited as I turned the knob and heard the grinding sound of plastic bubbles shifting until my prize dropped down the chute and I lifted the swinging metal door to let it fall into my hand.

After a small effort in creative packaging and quick, clumsy craftiness, these gifts are the kind of sweet, simple homemade stuff you gave to your parents when you were six; remember the jewelry chest made of a shoebox with all the gold-painted pasta shells glued to it?

With just a tiny bit of work, toy machine bubbles make pretty cool ornament-style packages. Here's how: You can spraypaint the lids gold or paint designs on them for an added effect. The trickiest part is attaching the hanger. I simply used thin craft wire to fasten a silky red ribbon hanger to the lid. Voila! Here's a cute little ornament package with a gumball machine toy inside. There are tons and tons of different toys in the machines; the best are the bendable creature bracelets and itty bitty little teeny weeny pool tables complete with balls, two cues and racker. Peter Piper's Pizza, Toys-R-Us and any place where kids run amuck are the best places to find the cream of the toy machine crop; Hastings and Powdrell's Barbecue have a bunch of cool ones, too.

Of course, the world of vending goes way beyond these little plastic bubbles. Alibi's resident bon vivant, Devin D. O'Leary, reported seeing machines from which you could purchase art prints like so many Baby Ruths and Butterfingers in--where else?--Santa Fe. The most marvelous machine in the whole wide world--which I stumbled upon at the Peter Piper's on San Mateo--is a photo-sticker booth. Apparently, sticker booths are all the rage in Tokyo. Known as puri-kura in Japan, these machines take your picture and spit out a sheet of 20 stickers with your face on them. There are oodles and oodles of frames to choose from--like dollar bills, sports and astrological borders or, my personal favorites, ones that say Phat! or Da Bomb! You can also choose color, black and white or sepia stickers. For just three bucks, I pasted stickers with my mug on 'em all over the office. Stick your pic on presents instead of gift tags.

Onto the craziest thing I made from a vendy machine: my own campy retablo. I know I could make a million bucks off this idea, but I'll tell you anyway. I bought one of those shiny religious stickers for 50 cents--the kind that everybody sticks to their lo-rider (I just can't tell if she's the Virgin Mary or Joan of Arc). Here's what you do:

Cut out a 4-inch by 6-inch piece of cardboard. I used a hard shoebox top and roughed the edges with scissors. (The box was already a pretty faded evergreen color, so I left it; but you can, of course, spraypaint it gold.) Then I stuck the sticker in the middle and hammered flat 12 bottle caps (one even hit to the top side, using a towel underneath to protect the floor; then flip and carefully hammer flat). I super glued these many-colored bottle caps around the sticker, creating a starburst look. Variation on the retablo border could include buttons or gold spraypainted pasta. I fashioned a hanger-ma-bobber out of folded black, silky ribbon by--what else--super gluing it to the back of the retablo.

Don't you laugh either! I'm not skilled at crafts, but I definitely have potential as a first-grade teacher. And I owe it all to super glue, second only to lamination as the greatest invention in the world.

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