On Monday, I helped an 88-year-old man move a Coca-Cola vending machine from the floor of an industrial warehouse to the back of his pick-up truck. He was buying it for the employees at his scrap metal business in Houston. The owner of the vending machine was out of town, and I had agreed to meet the old man and help.
Alas, I wasn’t much use. I soon discovered that even if I pushed the vending machine very, very hard with my shoulder, it wouldn’t move. Fortunately there was a man across the street with a forklift truck. If he hadn’t been there, the Coke machine would still be standing in the original spot, or perhaps the 88-year-old man and I would be lying under it, two bloody smears on the warehouse floor.
And so the week began with a new discovery: VENDING MACHINES ARE INCREDIBLY HEAVY. Reflecting upon this, I wondered what other things I had learned from Coca-Cola which, like the air we breathe, is a ubiquitous part of modern life.
So: what else has Coke taught me?
Well, the first thing that leaps to mind is that too much Coke will decalcify your teeth and bones, which is a bigger health threat than tooth decay. I can’t remember the exact science, but it’s something to do with phosphene or phosphate or phos-something in the Coke, which displaces the calcium in your bones, which in turn makes them brittle. Or something. My dentist told me about it years ago, when he noticed creeping decalcification in my front teeth. Terrified, I immediately cut back on my Coca-Cola consumption which had reached epic proportions in my early 20s as I overcompensated for a mostly Coke free childhood (I come from a large family, and fizzy drinks were regarded as a rare and expensive luxury).
Another thing I have learned from Coca-Cola is that people will attack it in order to protect a national identity which they feel is under attack. I discovered this in my early years in Moscow, when many Russians swore to me that they never drank Coca-Cola. “Disgusting American drink” they’d say, “So sickly sweet!” I knew this was a lie however as Coca-Cola was everywhere, in all the kiosks and shops, and every time I visited a Russian party there was usually a bottle on offer, along with all the vodka and cucumbers. And if Russians truly hated sugary drinks, then why were the indigenous alternatives, such as Tarkhun, or Buratino, no less sickly?
Well, because Coke is a symbol of American cultural dominance, and by openly abusing it, the people I spoke to were taking a stand against the flood of American culture that had swept away so much that was familiar and reassuring in their old pre-1991 life. Secretly however they were all quaffing it and with very good reason, too. Coke tastes a lot better than Buratino, which is the color of a bad urine sample.
Nor was this the only time I found Coke playing a role in a defensive, nationalist psychodrama. When I visited Turkmenistan in 2006, I found no Pepsi on sale, only Coke. This was because for many years Pepsi and not Coke had been available in the USSR, and so to further symbolize his rejection of the soviet past, the dictator Turkmenbashi had banned Coke from his kingdom.
However when I think about it, perhaps the greatest lesson I ever learned from Coca-Cola came early, when I was about six or seven. Our teacher took a tooth (I cannot remember whose it was; presumably one of my classmates volunteered one that had fallen out) and left it in a jar filled with Coke for a week. By the end of this period the tooth had mostly rotted away. I can still see it in my mind’s eyes, as the teacher held it up to show us: a foul, yellowy, half-dissolved lump of vileness.
She did this every year, to teach the children under her tutelage that fizzy drinks are wicked and destroy teeth. Even at that tender age however I knew that this was a fraudulent example: nobody bathes his teeth in Coca-Cola for seven days straight. And so I extracted another lesson, different from the one intended. Sometimes authority figures will use distorted evidence and mendacious arguments to manipulate you into agreeing with them.
I’m sure there are other things Coke has taught me, but of them all I suspect that’s the most valuable lesson. I’ve seen its truth demonstrated countless times since by other teachers, politicians, journalists, academics, businessmen, whoever. I think I would have discovered it anyway, but not necessarily so early. And so for that, I thank you Coca-Cola.
First published 21/1/2011