The line for the Jelly Belly Factory tour indeed was packed with families. Several dozen parents stood waiting, their kids running under and through the black rope that formed the line maze. Several would laugh as they bumped into our legs or clothesline each other by running head-on into the rope; picking themselves up, they would look to see who was watching and return to the chase. Adults chatted with one another, relishing the general chaos which allowed their kids to create noise without admonishing them for it.
On all our heads sat white confectionary hats adorned with the Jelly Belly logo. All groups were required to wear one, and as such embodied the sole price of admission: public humiliation. Later we would stand before an amorphous red blob with eyes and smile foolishly as someone with a camera captures this moment for future wedding day slideshows. It was like cult initiation time in Willie Wonka Land. I offered the peace-sign during the photo-shoot and thus successfully managed to debase myself further, even lower than the 40-year-old just ahead of us in the “Fig Neutrons” t-shirt.
“Well if anyone looks like a pedophile, it’s you,” Dasad said, dodging a few racing ten-year-olds, who played at smacking each other with their hats. “Chubby, pale, giddy stupid look on your face.”
“So I waved to a few toddlers, big deal. I can’t help it. I like kids.”
“And that’s why you’re the one the cops’ll stun-gun first.”
“Okay,” I sighed. “Well, maybe it’ll be better if we pretend Jay is like your little brother. Real little. Like thirteen or so. I mean, he is short enough . . .”
“Huh?” Jay muttered absently, pulling his face from a jelly-bean portrait of Ronald Reagan hanging on the way. “What happened?”
“Perfect,” I said offering Jay a thumbs-up. “Oblivious and zombie-faced. Add some clay zits and we’ll be all set.”
Jay shrugged and turned his attention back to the atrium, littered with bright splotches of paint and multi-colored bean carpet as if someone had let loose several paint-bombs the night before. Other portraits hung on the walls all made from jelly beans: Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, the bald eagle, and several additional portraits of Ronald Reagan, who we understand never began a meeting without several jars of the stuff.
As the tour began, we walked along an enclosed gangplank which circled the entire factory. Plastic windows prevented any children from falling into the machinery below as well as the addition of hats, watches, or trash. Dasad seemed rather disappointed by this – “My sweat is a delicacy in itself” – but seemed amused by the video presentation. Our live tour guide said little more than ‘This way’ and ‘Please, watch this.’ She also seemed like she wanted to kill herself, but that may have been just me.
The videos delved deep into the bean-making process, explaining with saccharine condescension typically reserved for smelting rainbow-coated wishes and unicorn tears how jelly beans are packaged, cooked, and tested for ‘that one of a kind Jelly Belly taste.’
Now when Dasad suggested we visit, I never seriously considered it might resemble Willie Wonka’s factory, but perhaps the watered down, realistic inspiration for the book and movies, some half-way point between a Ford assembly line and Disney World. Needless to say, the factory workers looked less like Oompah-Loompahs and more like schoolchildren the morning after Labor Day. Though frankly, if I had their job, my shining morning face would only reappear after dusk.
Mostly, the packaging workers we saw helped to funnel boxes and bags of candy from the automated machinery into bigger boxes and larger bags. Others worked on assembly lines, stacking and packing candied corn and gummi worms into shipping crates. Engineers monitored and repaired the automated robots, which seemed to require constant supervision.
One such device equipped with three suction funnels lifted bags of jelly beans from the conveyer belts and placed them neatly into small boxes. After a moment, the sucking function seemed to falter, and the bags drifted past the machine, colliding into overfilled bins and on the floor. Another, which I failed to understand entirely, ferried plastic tubes of beans into storage containers, but only proved to knock the tubes over again onto the concrete floor.
As an employee, part of your job seemed to assure that robot #17830 puts tubes #319-610 into box #Z8. Straightforward work, I’m sure, but watching them fiddle with the controls it felt like they were adjusting a Rube Goldberg device: 1.) tip domino, 2.) which hits the fan, 3.) which sails boat, 4.) which hits the level, 5.) which drops the ball, 6.) which scares the cat, 7.) which releases weight, 8.) which – finally – turns on light switch.
One error or problem along the conveyor belt inevitably halted production further down the line, causing spills. The toppled jars and bags would then return to the conveyor belt, a long pointless journey into a cardboard box.
It is a strange fate that we should suffer so much fear and doubt over so small a thing. Such a little thing.
Regardless of the technology, it seemed loathsome repetitive work. No catchy songs. No choreographed dancing. No frickin’ chocolate river. Dasad had promised me a chocolate waterfall at least, which showered the lucky tourists in milk and chocolate. Maybe cookies and trained squirrels too, but I dared not hope. In Candyland, it seems that dreams form the nougat center for despair.
The tour continued, and throughout it seems as if we were inhaling sugar. At times, I had trouble breathing. The walkway, high above the factory, overlooked a series of round bowls, like cement mixers. Steam or rather dust rose from the whirling barrels, attended by chefs in white masks. We were told that they were used to mix flavors, and engrossing the jelly bean, a process that the video explained swells the bean to nearly thirty-percent of its original size.
“That little jelly bean becomes quite chubby,” the voice joyfully announced, “in three to four hours.”
Immediately, I glanced over at Dasad. He caught my eye, and without a word, we began laughing feverishly, nearly rolling on the floor before the full audience of children and their mothers. Some of the fathers must have guessed the innuendo as well, because we got a few dirty looks as we stood there tittering and coughing. Meanwhile, the video monitors displayed the animated jelly bean swelling in size.
“Three to four hours, huh? Don’t you have that problem, dude?”
“Sorry baby, just one more hour. I’m engrossing . . .”
Jay and the tour group walked off, leaving the two mature thirty-year-olds giggling at their dirty jokes. To this day, I maintain that the aerosol sugar did something to our brains.
Jelly beans of all color and flavor decorated the whole of the gift shop, watermelon and popcorn to pencil shavings and shampoo. I learned later that the Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans, marketed just before the first Harry Potter movie, were made here, incorporating the exotic essences of bagels, ink, acid, and squid. Near the registers, a tasting station offered customers samples of their new flavors, the delicious as well as the odd. All in all, it was pretty wild, and while Dasad and Jay went off to gather their own makeshift bean bags, I bought a few packaged assortments: Sunkist citrus mix, smoothie blend, and Superfruit mix. The latter promised real fruit juice and anti-oxidants, while other bags packed beans with electrolytes, vitamins, and energy boosts for athletes.
I found Dasad after checking out. Toting a large bag of beans, he appeared a bit anxious.
“I had run into a girl while grabbing some of the Sunkist beans,” he confessed. “I said hello and she screamed and ran behind her sister.”
“Well, you are a grown man filling a bag full of candy . . . What exactly did you say?”
“Nothing creepy. Seriously! I just asked her what beans she liked. ‘What is your favorite flavor?’ And she freaked.”
I imagined the scene from her point of view, a thirty-something Asian, dressed in black, licking his lips and stuffing pint-sized candy into a large bag: “Hello little girrrl, do you like caaandy? What . . . heh heh heh do you think, heh . . . taste best, little girrrl? Ice cream? Or sour apple? Little girls, do like their candy, don’t they?” Remembering her parents’ warnings about strange men and candy, she must have retreated to the safety of her older sister.
“Yeah man, no clue. She must be crazy or something.”
“Right! The kid probably eats paste . . .” Dasad said. “Hey did you know they have a glue-flavored jelly bean in the corner there? I tried some. Really authentic.”
After that we decided to leave and visit someplace a little more adult, lest any cops arrive with their court-orders and stun guns. Frankly, I would find it difficult to explain why we tried to dress up Jay as a thirteen-year-old. Most county judges, I find, have difficulty to extricate their minds from the gutter. It’s sad really.
Next time: San Francisco and the Japantown.