The corridors outside the strange underground office dormitory were still only dimly lit. In fact, it was impossible to tell night from day down here. But according to Cindy’s watch, it was just after ten on Saturday morning—much later than she’d initially thought.
They walked in silence for what seemed like a long time. When they finally reached the underground garage, Cindy wasn’t sure it was the same one where they’d left their car last night. There were several vehicles parked here, but the big heavy machinery was gone… or had never been there to begin with. Cindy hated feeling so disoriented.
“We’ll take this,” Digger said, pointing to a medium-sized light blue car. “I’ll drive.” So it wasn’t the same car as the one that had brought them here—that car didn’t have driver controls.
Digger drove fast—too fast for the narrow twisty corridors of this underground roadway, Cindy thought. She was starting to think of this tunnel system as a city. Several times, they passed what looked like some large chemical processing plant, with large vats and a gentle hum that could be heard well before they drove by the cavernous spaces housing them. Cindy thought of asking about the vats, but Digger’s driving was making her feel nauseated. She didn’t want Digger or Jacob to know she was feeling sick, so she just held tight and hoped they would arrive soon at wherever it was they were going.
It was a shock when they finally shot out of the tunnel—there were no doors or gates this time, at least none that Cindy had noticed. They just drove out of the entry hall of an abandoned apartment building and onto the street. Above ground, the sun was shining and it was a warm weekend day.
Cindy had lived all her life in relatively upscale neighborhoods: gated suburb communities, private and technical schools, and finally a government-controlled bureaucratic city center. Even the dorm housing complexes in which she and Jacob lived were very well maintained, meticulously clean, and without a hint of street art. The scene that opened up before her now was nothing like that. The street was littered with the burned-out husks of cars and some unidentifiable chunks of machinery that looked more like modern art sculptures than the metal junk they were. Garbage was everywhere.
Digger continued to drive aggressively, weaving around obstacles without slowing down. He drove around the back of a large factory and a workers’ community center, then abruptly pulled over and parked the car—more like abandoned it—next to a dirty wall with metal barbs on the top.
“We’re here,” Jacob announced.
“Oh, stop saying that,” Cindy barked at him.
Digger just laughed and opened the door to let her out. “Feeling okay?” he asked.
“After the way you drove? Peachy,” Cindy replied. She tried to shake off the sick feeling.
“Just follow me. I hope you didn’t lose your appetite.” Digger was still smiling as he walked ahead of Jacob and Cindy and moved a piece of sheet of metal aside to reveal a small opening in the wall. “After you.”
He stepped aside to let Cindy through.
Cindy was game. She was certain there wasn’t anything Digger or Jacob could do that she couldn’t do with more grace or poise. But the hole in the wall looked really narrow. Cindy hesitated; she wasn’t sure she was going to fit. She was simply too fat.
Jacob saw the problem right away. His eyes widened, and he looked at Digger. Digger finally noticed the problem too.
“Well, there’s more than one way to skin a cat,” he said. Cindy gave him a dirty look. “We’ll split up. I’ll go in, and you two will meet me at the front entrance. Here.” Digger pulled something out of his back pocket. “Put these badges on when you get to the door.”
Cindy and Jacob accepted small plastic ID cards strung on dark blue lanyards.
“Don’t put them on just yet,” Digger instructed. “Wait till you get to the gate.” He slipped his own lanyard over his head and ducked into the hole. Then Jacob pulled the metal plate back in place, covering up the secret entrance.
“Come on,” he told Cindy. “We should move fast. This isn’t a neighborhood for a leisurely stroll.”
Cindy believed him.
They walked along the wall to the corner. To their right was a large parking lot with a security station and an official factory entrance gate. A few workers were walking into the factory complex. Cindy had read a bit about factory management practices; the shifts were usually staggered to allow for a few fresh workers on the factory floor at all times of the day and night. She’d also read that such schedules were brutal on the workers and their families.
Jacob and Cindy were stopped at the gate. “Where are you going?” the guard asked.
“I’m taking this woman on a prospective employee tour,” Jacob said.
Cindy noticed that Jacob’s badge was green with the word “Agent” written in a large white type across the top. Hers, she saw, was red and had a “Visitor” label.
The guard checked something off on his notepad and waved them through.
Cindy and Jacob walked into the building identified as the “Employee Community Center.” Digger met them right at the door.
“I was starting to worry,” he said. “Traffic was bad?” He smiled at them. Cindy just frowned. She wasn’t amused by any of the events this morning so far. Well, the apple had been good.
Jacob noticed Cindy’s foul mood. “Just show her around, Digger. Okay?”
Digger assumed a more business-like demeanor. “Right this way.”
Past the sliding glass doors was the biggest employee cafeteria and food commissary Cindy had ever seen, with lots of people coming and going. The smell of food was simply overwhelming; Cindy felt her stomach contract in hunger spasms.
“Impressive, isn’t it?” Jacob asked.
“Very,” Cindy agreed.
“I know you feel a strong need to eat,” Digger said. “Here.” He handed little yellow pills to Cindy and Jacob. “Chew on these—it’ll help.” He popped one into his mouth too.
“What’s this?” Cindy asked.
“An appetite suppressant. In this food-rich environment, human bodies go into craving overdrive,” Digger explained.
“You mean all this is designed to make me want to eat?”
“Yes. Chew,” he told her, demonstrating vigorous jaw action himself. “It takes a few moments to work, and you need to move your teeth and generate saliva.”
“Oh, I got saliva,” Cindy said. Her mouth was already watering.
“Good. Chew,” Digger ordered again.
Cindy chewed. And after a few minutes she started to feel better. The lights didn’t seem so intense. The food displays were no longer radiating auras of light and smell. The free samples didn’t pull at her quite as insistently.
“That’s amazing,” Cindy said, still chewing.
“Yeah, when you first step inside, it just hits you like a ton of bricks,” Jacob said. He was chewing furiously himself. “I had to walk out my first time. I couldn’t take it.”
“Even with the pill?” Cindy asked.
“Even with the pill,” he confessed. “It’s a bit better now. But I still feel like running around and stuffing myself with everything in sight.”
Cindy felt better—although she still had to force herself not to walk over to the smiling woman giving out sausage bits on toothpicks and just take the whole platter away from her. And now that she was able to gather her wits about her again, Cindy saw that the place was packed. Lunchtimes were staggered, just like the shifts, and factory workers were everywhere, helping themselves to very generous portions even at eleven o’clock on Saturday morning. Each worker pushed a little tray on four wheels, making it easy to balance and carry heavy food containers.
“Don’t be shy. Tell me if you feel things are getting too much, okay?” Digger told Cindy. “We can leave at any time.”
“But why are we here?” Cindy asked.
“Think of this as a social experiment lab,” Digger said. “I want to show you just how carefully this place was planned out to increase the desire to eat.”
“Oh, I can see,” Cindy said, watching the people around them rolling by with trays laden with food.
“Good. Then I’ll just point out a few details, if you don’t mind.” Digger took her by the elbow and led into the lair of the beast. Jacob followed right behind.
“We’ll turn right here, because that’s the direction of the flow.” Digger began his tour of the factory employee community center. “The first thing to notice is that wall of food smell. That’s not an accident. It’s been carefully engineered. The small kitchen and bakery are situated right in front, and both are vented into the hall by the main entrance.”
“Smell is an important component of generating the desire to eat. Notice what you’re smelling. Inhale deeply,” Digger told her.
Cindy tried to take in the food aromas. There was the smell of slightly burnt sugar; Cindy figured that was a bakery. She also thought she could identify the sweet bread-baking smell. Or was it cookies? She couldn’t really tell.
“The bakery is putting out a lot of delicious scents,” Cindy said. “And there’s something like fried onions and some other aromatics. That must be coming from the kitchen. And I can definitely smell the fried sausage and bacon.”
“Very good. You have a finely tuned sense of smell,” Digger said approvingly. “But now look around. Do you see anyone actually carrying sausages and bacon on their plates?”
Cindy examined the lunch trays people were pushing past them. They were loaded up with packaged food items. In fact, there were no sausages or bacon strips visible on any of the plates. “Perhaps everything is wrapped up?” she said.
“Look closer. All this is in original factory packaging. And nothing is opened.”
It was true—everything on the trays around them was sealed in tamper-resistant plastic, foam, and aluminum containers.
“These weren’t cooked here,” Cindy said.
“Bingo.” Digger sounded pleased by Cindy’s quick deduction.
“But the smell?” she asked.
“Yes, the smell,” Digger smiled. “As I mentioned, the kitchen and bakery here are rather small. Their sole purpose is to generate the smell.”
“Really?” Cindy couldn’t believe it. “But why bother?”
“Because your mouth watered and you felt compelled to stuff yourself with food the moment you stepped through the door of this place. Smell is a very important part of conditioning,” Digger explained.
“Conditioning to what?”
“Food consumption. This is all about food consumption,” he said. “Now let’s keep on moving. There’s more to see.”
Cindy was still trying to process the fake kitchen. “All that food is simply wasted?”
“There’s not much waste, really. How much bacon do you think needs to be cooked to generate the smell? Bacon and onions are expensive. The artificial stuff in those food packages is cheap. But the smell is a huge component of taste. Spread the smell around, and people will just transfer the goodness they perceive with their noses to the stuff they put in their mouths. It’s called the halo effect.”
“Really? There’s a name for it?”
“Sure,” Digger smiled, clearly pleased with himself. “Please understand that it takes very little of real quality ingredients to make this place stink like the finest restaurant in the world. The kitchen back there is more of a chemistry lab. Small bits of real bacon are literally vaporized to extract every single volatile molecule possible, and then they’re all pumped into this room at a steady pace.”
“Do these people know?” Cindy waved her hand around the room.
“Some might. But it doesn’t matter. The smell gets them as soon as they step through the door, and then all higher-level reasoning goes out the window. All anyone thinks about here is food.”
Cindy looked around, trying to understand the people gathering food on their trays, their eyes glassy, movements mechanical. None of them were really talking. Food zombies, Cindy thought. But as Digger led her deeper into this carefully engineered food trap, Cindy started to feel her own stomach cramp up with the need for food. The intensity of it took her breath away.
Jacob pulled on Digger to make him stop. Seeing Cindy’s distress, Digger pulled out another little yellow pill. “Here. Take it. But I can’t give you another one, okay? If it starts up again, we’ll just leave. And tell me—don’t wait until you start to feel so funky.”
Cindy just nodded. She took the pill and started to chew dramatically. The desperation started to recede, and her breathing became more regular.
“Did your heart rate go up?” Digger asked. Cindy just nodded; she was still struggling to regain a feeling of semi-normalcy.
“Let’s give her the quick version of the tour, Digger,” Jacob said. “It took me three trips to see everything. You can’t expect her to do it all in one go.”
“You’re right. I’m just worried about timing and Pheebs,” Digger answered, keeping an eye on Cindy’s progress.
“It’s okay, I’m better,” Cindy said. “Let’s just go. I want to see as much as I can today.”
“All right.” Digger took her by the arm once again, ushering them farther into the building. “The next thing I want you to notice is the quality of the light.”
Cindy looked, but she wasn’t seeing what Digger meant.
“Don’t worry, Cindy. I couldn’t see it either,” Jacob reassured her.
“First consider the color,” Digger said, walking as he lectured. “Notice how the color of everything is warm. This isn’t a regular daylight spectrum or an office lights setting. You see, our eyes are developed to notice ripeness. We react more favorably to reds and oranges, because cool, blue things tend not to be edible or ready to eat. That’s why the lights here cast everything in an orange-red glow. But that’s not all. Look for differences in the light intensity.”
Cindy was feeling a lot better now, and she started to notice how some areas were spotlighted and some were kept in shadow.
“I see it,” she said.
“Good. That, too, is deliberate. Uniform lighting dulls the senses. So the lighting was designed to produce interest and excitement. As people walk past these different food displays, they notice, and are surprised by, certain images. The showcased products are specifically created with more detail—they look more realistic, almost glistening with freshness. It’s too expensive to make everything equally appealing, so the lighting allows the designers to feature some products and hide others. Plus, this approach triggers the hunting and gathering instinct—our inherent desire to search for and acquire food treasures. Do you know what I mean?” Digger asked.
“Like the feeling of elation upon finding something wonderful?” Cindy was beginning to see madness, or genius, behind the display arrangement and lighting.
“Very good,” Digger said. “Jacob was much slower.”
“Thanks,” Jacob grumped from the back. “I guess we’ll never know how fast you came around, Digger.”
“You’re right—you’ll never know.” Digger’s smile seemed permanently plastered to his face. But he did seem impressed with Cindy. “All right, there’s more.”
“More?” Cindy couldn’t believe there was more. How much trickery could be squeezed into one food hall?
“Let’s talk about the layout of this place. Did you notice how the food and eating areas were arranged in relation to the avenues through here?”
“Well, it was easy to see what people were carrying to their tables right from the entrance,” Cindy said. She was beginning to see what Digger was driving at.
“She’s quick.” Digger turned to Jacob with an approving nod. “The layout is extremely important to the strategy of food pushing. Most people are right-handed, so we naturally try to turn right when we first enter the place. But that’s not all. The little wheeled carts are easy to maneuver with the left hand, leaving the right one free to reach for products displayed on the shelves and tables.”
“Clever,” said Cindy.
“Also, I’m sure you noticed that woman up front with the plate of sausages, giving out free samples.” Digger pointed back toward the entrance. “One little bite and you’re primed to eat. You might not even have been hungry when you stepped through that door. But once you taste that little morsel, it’s all over. You can’t help but stay and eat.”
“I thought it was the smell and the lights?” Cindy asked.
“That too. And the music. Did you notice the music?”
“It sounds happy, but it’s not something I’ve heard before,” she said.
“It’s computer-generated,” Digger said.
“Computers can do that?”
“Sure, it’s not that difficult. They feed the program with a few main themes, and the computer just spits out endless musical variations.”
“It seems like it would be easier to just buy the songs and play them,” Cindy said.
“Ah, but do we really want to distract people with words?”
Cindy frowned. “I’m starting to seriously dislike this place.”
“So they play cheerful music that’s easy to stroll to and easy to eat to…”
“And nothing too taxing,” Cindy finished the thought.
“That’s right. Easy-listening music.”
“Elevator music,” Jacob added.
“And that helps?” Cindy asked.
“Every little bit helps. The goal is to use cheap products but to increase consumption of food per person. This place is designed to maximize profit and—” Digger stopped himself suddenly, as if he had been about to say something that he didn’t want to.
“There’s something more?” Cindy prodded.
“We’ll talk more back in the office, okay? Jacob is starting to lose it.” Digger pointed at the long string of drool dangling from Jacob’s chin. It would have been funny, except that Cindy was now desperately trying to control her own urges—and saliva.
“Perhaps we’d better go,” she agreed and swallowed.
The three of them hurried toward the door. A nice fat woman in a white apron offered them little sweet treats at the exit.
“Here, dears, it’s a great way to finish the midday meal, and it contains all your daily vitamin needs, just in case you’ve missed a few of your A’s and B’s and C’s…”
“No thanks.” Cindy tried to rush past her. She couldn’t even tell what the treats were made of, but she was sure they were sweet and succulent and would leave her craving more if she took one.
Out in the parking lot, Digger forced them to slow down to a casual pace. Then he turned back and left them; presumably he intended to leave by the secret gap in the fence. Cindy admired his self-control.