For about a year in my early twenties, every Sunday night I ate a cheese pizza, watched two hours of television, and drank two cans of Coca-Cola—always cans, never bottles, because canned Coke is Coke’s ideal form: properly chilled, no exposure to light, no problems with syrup ratios. It’s the Coca-Cola experience as the manufacturer intended, I often thought.
Coca-Cola is a remarkably coherent thing, in its Coke-ness. How it manages to taste and feel (in the mouth) and smell like Coke, only like Coke, every time. Coke is not Pepsi. If it is a cola, it’s the ur-cola. Personally, I switched to Diet Coke years ago, but I still get a lot of pleasure thinking about Coke, about how the world is full of Coca-Cola machines. Every continent I’ve visited, they’re there. During college I studied for a semester in Cape Town, South Africa, and I used to buy a Coke and a Kit-Kat after class, waiting for the train, and guess which one never tasted any different? There’s something remarkable about global supply chains, for all their ruin of lives and the planet, that a can of Coke obtained almost anywhere is likely to be its ideal expression.
Coke borders on perfection. It is liquid computer. It is one of the most inhuman things.
I once spent two weeks traveling the United States for a story, passing through nearly a dozen cities. Ten days in, early morning, I landed in Dallas, bought a double espresso at a Starbucks, then a can of Diet Coke from a machine by the car rental desk, having forgotten I was carrying a cup of coffee. So I poured the Coke into the coffee. It wasn’t awful; it definitely got me to Oklahoma. In tribute to a poem by Jay Hopler, from his collection Green Squall, I called it “The Bomb of Heaven Singing.” Then, about a year later, visiting family, I was waiting in line at a coffee bar in Palo Alto, near Stanford University. A young woman in front of me asked the barista if they sold Diet Coke, and if so, could she get a Diet Coke with espresso, over ice? I was flabbergasted. I thought I was the only one. I asked if she ordered that drink a lot. She said, “What?” I said, Oh, sorry, this is weird, I’ve just never heard anyone else ever order that drink, I thought I made it up, I call it a “Bomb of Heaven Singing”—it’s from a poem—do you have a name for it, too? She said, “What?” and edged away.
You’ll hear how Southerners, in Georgia, will order a Coke, then specify they mean a Sprite, or orange soda, or an actual Coke. I’ve lived in the South and traveled a lot and never heard this done, but I believe it. I mean, look at me: creeping out undergraduates with pick-up lines straight out of Homeland. Coke is powerful stuff.