America’s decline in a Coke bottle
God, this Coca-Cola is good. This bottle is an artifact, an icon of the American Dream, as timeless as an Ionic column, as final as an arch. It cannot be improved. Cool green and fleshy, the shape both phallic and feminine. Designed to be instantly recognizable even when it’s broken in the street, its lines recall the curve of a woman’s hip in full recline, the classic pose of prostitutes in Renaissance paintings and movie stars in pinups of the forties. It has been called the perfect container, second only to the egg, but what it holds is far more volatile.
In the first days of nursing, lactating mothers secrete an opiumlike fluid along with their milk. This allows the baby to imprint on the mother, to fix upon the breast. At what age did we substitute that cool wet nipple of glass? The original formula contained trace amounts of extracts from the coca leaf, but even before these were quietly removed, Coca-Cola knew what it was selling. “Nothing is so suggestive of Coca-Cola’s own pure deliciousness as the picture of a beautiful, sweet, wholesome, womanly woman,” said a turn-of-the-century ad. From its earliest days, Coca-Cola’s ads portrayed beautiful women—painted by some of America’s highest-paid and best-known illustrators and artists—sucking down, or about to suck down, the contents of that seductive bottle. In one from the mid-1920s, a rosy-cheeked flapper, her lips rounded into a perfect red O, lovingly regards with low-lidded eyes the Coca-Cola bottle in her hand. “Delicious and Refreshing”? Oh yes.
The generation that grew up immediately after World War II was nursed on Coca-Cola, nursed and never weaned. Norman Rockwell painted Coca-Cola ads. The Nelson family—Ozzie, Harriet, and the kids—endorsed the drink. Roger Staubach, football star and naval hero, rolled his flat feet hollow on Coca-Cola bottles so that he could go to war. Children who grew up wearing Coke-bottle glasses went on to refine the bottle’s shape into America’s most identifiably American car. The voluptuous body of the Chevrolet Corvette reproduces the lines of the Coca-Cola bottle, and its strange sexual ambivalence as well. A Corvette is shiny, long, hard on the outside, yet the cockpit is small and intimate and wraps around your trunk and legs—a man to show to the world, and a woman just for you.
A bottle of Coca-Cola provides the promise of infinity. No surprise that Andy Warhol chose Coca-Cola bottles as the most potent examples of repetition. He only had to paint one, however; a single bottle is an endless recursion in itself, a metabottle, calling to mind all other bottles in creation. The transformation of Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” video, with its rows of identical-looking sex kitten models into a Coca-Cola advertisement was a perfect mating of process and product. Robert Palmer did not sell Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola sold Robert Palmer. Coca-Cola speaks for itself. You’re buying the power of a prick with the promise of the breast, the constancy of the female form with the explosive force of the male’s. The power of machinery with the soft, fertile yield of the plains. Potent men and corn-fed girls. America, abundant and overflowing.
With Coca-Cola you want to believe. You want things to go better, you want to add life, you want the pause that refreshes. The silken white curve beckons. You approach the machine once again.
The machine is huge, bigger than you are. You scan its face for the button that says “Coca-Cola.” It’s always the biggest one. You feed your coins into the slot, one after the other, and press that big red button. There is a moment of hesitation—will the little orange light come on?—then the machine gives a satisfying ka-chunk, and out drops your drink, red, silver, and white. The can is cool and wet. Condensation runs down that ribbon on the label like sweat on a woman’s thigh. For one moment everything is possible. It’s so close you can taste it.
Until you open the can.
The drink—“Classic Coke”—is fizzless, oversweet, all syrup and no sting. The sugar has been replaced by corn syrup, the silicone tit of sweeteners. The pause does not refresh. Classic Coke’s promise is as empty as the pages in a porno rag. Those hips never move. Those lips never kiss back.
This country’s energy is spent. We have lost our drive. But there is hope. While we pour our flat petroleum goo from moon-shaped two-liter jugs into glasses full of ice and sip this tired syrup, the rest of the world is rising. While our factories and liberties rust, the rest of the world still dreams.
If you want the Real Thing, you have to go to Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, Peru. Each country’s product is slightly different, but each has the same bite, the well-remembered clean cane sugar sting. In Mexico, a 16-ounce Coke is 650 to 800 pesos (about 17 cents), but the deposit on the bottle is 1,000 pesos. Children and old men roam tourist resorts, walk along the beach, beg at the back of restaurants, and rifle through garbage cans to collect bottles for deposit. Bring back a found bottle, trade it in for a Coke, drink it, return that one too—bingo, you’ve made ten cents. Ten cents and a Coke. A good profit in a poor country. A little container of capitalism.
In Mexico, they still use those ancient bottles, and recycle them until the labels are so faint they cannot be read anymore, not that it matters. The shape is unmistakable. In dusty villages in Guatemala and Nicaragua, in concrete cities and tarpaper shacks, kids sip Coke and dream. That red and white emblem is the flag of revolution, a Hollywood movie in your hand. I am sure that children all over the world obtain their first glimpse of infinity watching the ringing bottles of Coca-Cola piled two men high on a truck. The Coca-Cola truck goes everywhere. When the last composted dinosaur and Mesozoic swamp have been sucked from this dry earth, small brown men will emerge and convert their Fords to run on stockpiles of carbonated drink.