It’s a moment that a lot of Southerners have had: when folks from somewhere else single out a characteristic of our speech or behavior that is evidently outlandish to the rest of the world, but that, until that moment, we hadn’t realized was at all weird. “You carried your grandmother to the store? Like, in your arms? On your back?” “What do you mean the collards aren’t done? They’ve been boiling for three hours.” “Coke for breakfast? Eew!
For me a lot of those moments have centered around my dependence on Coke. (And by Coke I actually do mean Coca-Cola—not Coke in the generic sense, which can encompass all other soft drinks, ice tea, and potentially even water—but actual Coke® ™ products.) Among the most memorable was a night about twenty years ago when my mother and I were watching Saturday Night Live. There was a skit of the “redneck” variety, rife with the standard condescending gags about firearms, hairdos, and trailer décor. The script reached what was apparently its pinnacle of hilarity at the moment when the character of the mother, trying to soothe a wailing baby, fills up a baby bottle with Coke and hands it to the infant. As the studio audience howled with scandalized laughter, my mother and I, in our living room, looked at each other in confusion. What’s wrong with that?
My parents were very attentive to my health when I was a little kid: I went to the doctor regularly, got all my vaccines on schedule, was coaxed into eating fruits and vegetables, and took Flintstones vitamins to compensate for the foods I refused. I also drank Coke as soon as I was weaned; maybe even before then, I wouldn’t be surprised. It was the same for my brother, born years later when we were living in Virginia. I even prepared some of his bottles.
Coke figures in some of my earliest memories, dating back to infancy. I remember vividly the squeaky feeling of the rubber nipple of a baby bottle between my teeth and cold Coke coming out of the X-shaped opening. I remember too the sounds of the hemmed-in carbonation, and the dull clacking of ice against the inside walls of a plastic Gerber bottle. (It sounds nearly the same in a sippy cup.) To this day I prefer to drink Coke with ice in a plastic cup, and I’m sure it’s a throwback to that early experience. Naturally I had a mouth full of fillings even while I still had my baby teeth; but feeding a baby Coke was hardly a mark of depraved parenting in 1970s South Carolina. We were simply Coke-drinking people. Pepsi was invented in New Bern, North Carolina, so by geography we should be Pepsi drinkers. But for us, Coke has always been it.
It goes back a long time. As teenagers my grandmother and her sisters enjoyed hoisting themselves onto the bar stools at the soda fountains in the towns where their Baptist minister father preached, and ordering Coca-Colas by slapping their hands onto the counter with a flourish and telling the soda jerk, “Dope me!” (“Dope” was the slang for Coke in those days, when the recipe still featured a trace amount of cocaine.)
My dad claimed to have overheard a conversation between three of his aunts, all hard of hearing, as they were riding along in the car one day. It’s apocryphal, a well-worn joke about Carolina accents, but allegedly it went like this:
Geraldine: It certainly is windy today.
Susie-Dean: No it’s not. Today is Thursday.
Elneda: I’m thirsty too. Let’s stop and get us a Co-Cola.
Daddy had a long-running bedtime story that he would tell me in installments when I was really young. It was a scary story: our next-door neighbor’s birdbath, it seemed, was a secret entrance to a sinister underground world. Daddy was always the hero of the stories, his childhood self, and each night the story began with his tipping over the Parkers’ birdbath to reveal a dank staircase leading below. Descending, he would bravely brush past the sleeping vampire bats and oozing tendrils of slime that dangled over the stairs. At the bottom was a torture chamber, in which the young Daddy would be subjected by unseen captors to the auto-da-fé described in Poe’s “Pit and the Pendulum” (which I hadn’t yet read). Sometimes the story ended with his death—leaving me to worry later, as I tried to fall asleep, how it was that I had been born—and whether, in fact, I actually existed. Other times the heroic young Daddy was able to escape from the torture chamber, rush back up the staircase, and pour a new concrete footing under the birdbath to keep his tormenters underground. During one such exploit, he encountered the shadowy inhabitants of the subterranean dungeon, the captors who were trying to kill him. As he neared the staircase on this occasion, he heard a deep, terrifying drone of chanting voices, as low as the rumble of an earthquake. They were ghostly monks—terrifying cowled figures, swaying in unison as they blocked Daddy’s route of escape, and intoning a blood-chilling Gregorian chant of, “Things go better with Coca-Cola. Things go better with Coca-Cola. Things go better with Coca-Cola…”
Throughout my childhood and teens I drank full-sugar regular Coke, usually at least three a day. When I started drinking coffee, it was in addition to rather than instead of my morning Coke. By the time I was 25 and living on my own, I was up to five to eight Cokes a day. The recycling bin was a sight to behold, a glorious tectonic eminence that looked like a collaboration between Warhol, Christo, and God.
When my husband and I first lived together, I gradually transitioned to Diet Coke, which was his preferred drink. Ten pounds fell off me almost immediately, just from the reduction in my daily sugar consumption; but without the thought of all those calories to give me pause, my Coke intake skyrocketed. In the last few years it’s been not unusual for the two of us to polish off a whole 24-can “fridge pack” in one day. We spend more on Diet Coke than any other household necessity, with the possible (aggregate) exception of our cats’ and dog’s food.
Recently, at the urging of our doctor and our wallets, we’ve decided to try to give up Coke. My husband is doing great, and as someone who kicked a heavy smoking habit he will no doubt succeed in overcoming Coke; he has a lot of will power. For my part, honestly, it’s difficult—infinitely harder than going vegetarian, for example, which I did many years ago. I find myself fantasizing that I’m Mean Joe Greene, and that a random child will approach me and offer me his coke. “Really. You can have it.”
We live in the Walltown neighborhood of Durham, on a block that dates back to the early 20th century. Our house was built in 1929, and I often think about the people who lived here before us. I don’t know a great deal about them, but feel that they were kindred spirits. After all, they loved and were sheltered by this same house, and saw many of the same Durham landmarks every day that we do in 2013. Mrs. Elsie, the mother of the family who lived here for many years, loved gardening, and I’ve inherited the care of some of the flowers that she planted. We’re different in some ways, but in more ways than not, I figure we’re pretty much alike.
Last summer, when we had all those days of heavy rain, we lost a lot of trees in Walltown. A big oak on our block fell, taking with it the power lines. An even bigger oak from our neighbor’s yard fell across our back yard a week later. The third tree that fell on the block was just inside our property line. It had been dead for many years, since long before we moved here—just an upright, hollow section of trunk, about twenty feet high with no branches. In the winter, when the wisteria died back, I could peer into a notch in the side of the trunk. There were a couple of bottles visible in the hollow—glass bottles, the thick soft drink bottles that were being phased out around the time I was born. They were surrounded with decayed wood, wedged in tight. Because our yard is full of black widows, snakes, and other unfriendly neighbors who might defend a home in a hollow tree, I elected not to disturb the bottles, but from time to time did wonder about them.
When that tree fell, it broke right at the notch. The next morning when I went out to inspect, I felt like Howard Carter surveying the contents of Tutankhamen’s tomb: wonderful things. Hidden inside the hollow tree had been not just a couple of old bottles, but many, all shining with that swirled gleam of old glass. Surprisingly, most had not broken, and I was able to salvage and clean more than two dozen in all, from roughly the late 1960s to the early ‘80s. Among the treasure cache were a few Pepsi bottles, one SunDrop, and one Mountain Dew from the era when a cartoon mountaineer proclaimed, “It’ll tickle yore innards!” The rest were Coke bottles—Coke-proper—with the heavy base and the moonstone-blue glass. The people who lived here before us were Coke people. At one time, no doubt, they pulled the bottles cold from an icebox in what’s now our house.
Right now at our house there are no bottles of Coke in the icebox, nor cans in the refrigerator. It’s not natural. Yesterday, after about two months of slow weaning, I was facing the first Cokeless day that I could remember in my 37 years. By 11 o’clock at night I wanted one so badly that I gave up and drove to the BP station a few blocks away, muttering like Jake Twist in Brokeback Mountain, “I wish I knew how to quit you.” I bought one can of Diet Coke and brought it home. It was pure heaven.
In the spring I’ll make a bottle tree out of the Coke bottles that were in the hollow trunk. With any luck they’ll protect me from backsliding by filtering out the temptations that waft along on the breeze along with all the other ill winds that a bottle tree is meant to capture. In the meantime, I’ll have to contend on my own with this demon on my shoulder. It holds out a Coke and whispers in my ear, “Really. You can have it.”
Folklorist Sarah Bryan is editor of the Old-Time Herald, a magazine highlighting string band music.